If only it was the way it used to be.
The more things change in NASCAR, the more often you hear those words. Most recently, we all heard them, in seemingly great numbers, after a dismal attendance showing in Bristol last month. At a racetrack where season tickets were once a rarity someone might wait years for, the stands were maybe half full. Many were quick to point the finger at the changes that were made to the racing surface in 2007, which included adding progressive banking in the turns to create not just two, but three racing grooves. This adjustment created the ability to pass without using a bumper, and for a lot of fans, that just didn’t go over too well. If rubbing is racing, then Bristol was where it was at; now, it was replaced by clean and green (as in, green flag) competition.
So, owner Bruton Smith mulled over his options, including tearing up the track and using old blueprints to recreate the old configuration exactly, and finally did decide to make changes. The progressive banking will be removed from the top third or so of the racetrack, essentially taking away the very outside groove. It won’t exactly be the “old Bristol” than many fans yearned for, but it will be different. It should create tighter quarters while still allowing cars to race side by side without having to resort to the chrome horn to make every pass. Definitely not the way it used to be.
But here’s the thing. There was a bit of a perception among fans that if the track was restored to its pre-2007 configuration, the racing would magically be transformed into exactly the way it was in the good old days (whenever they were). It would be Dale vs. Terry all over again, and simply surviving would be one key to a good finish. Bristol would be alright, awesome once again because it would be the same as it always used to be.
Except, as is often the case, perception and reality are two different things.
Reality is that a lot has changed in five years. The car is different, and only had one race at Bristol before the banking was changed – not exactly enough to judge how it will really race. The bumpers on this car line up differently, making the bump and run (or the bump and wreck, or anything in between) more difficult. What was once a matter of getting a nose under the right rear of the car in front just enough to upset the left rear tire, making that car slide up out of the groove and leaving the guy who bumped him home free, is now more a case of using a side draft to loosen up the outside car. It’s harder to do right and not quite as glamorous as the old way.
And then there are tires to consider. It seems as though the tire compound gets harder every year; in fact, Fred Flintstone’s Goodyears wore out faster than the current racing slicks the company provides. Tire wear played a great role in the old Bristol races. As the rubber wore thin, so did tempers as drivers began to fight their racecars, and tire strategy was a key part of the action. Now, tires are designed to last a fuel run, letting gas mileage determine when teams come in. Sometimes, after an entire fuel run left side Goodyears still don’t get changed, depending on the track and the abrasiveness of its surface.
Back then, the tires wore out first, and the decision of whether to pit a few laps early for fresh rubber or say out a bit longer to see if the caution might fly was one teams really had to wrestle with. A wrong decision could mean the difference between Victory Lane and a long, empty trip home with track position on the line. Now, with tire strategy all but a thing of the past, a big piece of what made the racing at Bristol and other tracks so great is now mostly just another part of history.
It’s a little bit the same as the idea that bringing back some of the older tracks would bring back the heyday of the sport. And while on a purely racing level, that’s almost certainly true, on a logistics level, it’s not so simple. North Wilkesboro is all but a derelict now, to the point where it would take an investor with millions of dollars to spend on revamping the place before it would be usable even for Nationwide or Truck Series races. Rockingham, which fared considerably better in the years it sat dormant, isn’t a Sprint Cup facility right now, and the cost to make it so would be prohibitive. It’s a fantastic venue for Nationwide and Trucks and will hopefully grace both of those series schedules in 2013 and for years to come. But even if Cup _could_ go back to these venues next week, it wouldn’t be the way fans remember because the racing is just not the same as it was.
If it could get and keep the fan support, Darlington could easily host a second race, and returning the Southern 500 to Labor Day weekend would go a long way toward healing some deep wounds among fans. But even the Lady in Black doesn’t race the way she used to with the new car and the rock-hard tires of today. It’s still great racing (as is Bristol, really); it just isn’t quite the same. That has nothing to do with the track, but with other changes that have come to NASCAR over the years.
Those adjustments have happened fairly gradually. The cars had changed well before the COT incarnation, and already didn’t race as well as some of their predecessors; they became to dependent on aerodynamics and the best drivers in the world couldn’t change that, and the can’t make a car do something that it simply can’t do if the air isn’t right. Gear rules have become more and more restrictive over the years, as have spring and shock packages. Tires play a massive role. Teams have nowhere left to work within to find an advantage so that they can make the car good enough to race the way they want it to.
First they couldn’t work with the template areas, and when they tried to work between them, NASCAR made the template look like some kind of futuristic skeleton. When teams still worked to find something they could do, NASCAR has blocked them at every step with a new rule, a new template, a new way to force everyone into the same box. The cars don’t pass very well because they are all the same – nobody can get an edge. It’s parity gone awry. No racetrack in the world can make the racing great if the race teams don’t have any control over how they race it, if all strategy from cars to tires to pit and fuel strategy is rendered obsolete.
So, when Bruton Smith announced that he was changing the track, but not bringing back the “old” Bristol, he did all he could. The teams will show up in August, no matter what the track looks like, and do all they can. It would be so easy, so exciting if just by changing Bristol back, by bringing back the old venues in general, the racing could go back to the way it used to be. But while many seem to have that perception, sadly, it’s no longer reality. The August race at Bristol will probably be a very good race, if taken for what it is. But it’s not the old days anymore. It simply won’t be the same.
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