Bristol’s Best Intentions Turned Bizarre: Did The New Track Still Deliver?

We’ve all heard the story. The folks at Bristol Motor Speedway thought that putting in progressive banking when they had to repave the track surface in 2007 would bring a whole new level of racing to the track. When the cars took to the track they were able to run from the top to the bottom and everywhere in-between. Cars ran side-by-side for laps on end with battles throughout the field. As a result, there were fewer caution flags than almost ever before because the need to move people in order to pass them was taken out of the equation. The desired effect was achieved by the operators of the track. The undesired effect was that fans starting staying away in droves.

What used to be the hardest ticket in racing to acquire became the hardest ticket in racing to get rid of. The Spring race in 2012 had grandstands that looked like they were more empty than full for the first time since Bruton Smith expanded the seating to over 160,000 in 2002. As a result, Smith polled the fans to find out what they wanted at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile. The majority of the fans who took the time to respond told the billionaire owner of the track that they wanted to see single file racing that required bump-and-run passing to gain positions. As a result, Smith hired a contractor to come in and shave the banking down in the top groove of the race track to attempt to make it unusable.

When teams went to test the track after the grinding was completed came back with horror stories about the complete lack of grip in the ground section and spoke of imminent peril if a driver were to somehow end up in that newly flattened section of the racing surface. Word got out that Bruton had done the fans bidding and the rumors from testing apparently piqued the interest of fans. While there were open seats to be seen when the green flag waved, by the time the race was 40 laps in, it was difficult to find empty seats in the stands. To the fans credit, they told Smith that they wanted to see single groove racing and he tried to give it to them, so they returned in droves to see the results. We will wait to hear the post mortem on Saturday night’s race, but one thing is undoubtedly true, there were two grooves for racing at Bristol on Saturday night.

The turnout by the fans very well could have stemmed from Wednesday’s action on the concrete oval in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Whelen Modified combined tour race saw very close quarter racing and a melee at the start/finish line early in the event that looked like a scene out of the Blues Brothers from their final chase when they wrecked every police car in Chicago. The race saw eight caution flags including a spin by eventual second place finisher Todd Szegedy on lap 127. Szegedy had to restart at the back of the field and made it all of the way back to second place as the checkered flag flew. The Truck race followed and had six caution flags, all for wrecks. While Timothy Peters led the entire event, the competition was intense and drivers were spun out by other drivers. The two intense, action packed races very well might have inspired some fans to come out and see the Night Race in person.

With the stands loaded with fans the Cup drivers took to the track, uncertain of what the racing surface would offer them. It was quickly discovered that there was some grip at the top where the track had been ground. Drivers quickly moved to the top of the track and, by lap 125, there was rubber on the track all of the way to the top. The drivers had to use a line where they entered the corner in the middle and drifted up to the top, or entered on the bottom and drifted up roughly half of a groove before diving back off of the corner. As a result, the two grooves afforded drivers a chance to make some passes on the bottom but mostly to end up side-by-side for lap after lap.

The fans told Bruton Smith they wanted a single file track, but apparently the drivers didn’t buy into that mindset. As is always the case, once drivers discover something, they won’t let go of it very readily. The best stock car drivers in the business have been running the top lane at Bristol for five years and they don’t seem to be ready to let it go just yet. Interestingly, Jeff Gordon noted in his post-race press conference that the racing line greatly resembled the groove that drivers utilized before the track was switched over to concrete in 1992. The racing was most certainly exciting, with drivers invoking different fuel strategies and some having more success running the bottom line than others, but in the end they still ran two grooves and had very little bumping to pass. The question is: What will the fans say about it with their wallets come the Spring race?

The experience that is the Bristol Night Race was there in full force Saturday night. Military appreciation everywhere, the driver introductions, the national anthem by the MRO kids, the command from a multitude of Irwin tools, fireworks on and off the track. Everything that a fan would want at a Cup race, except the contact. Many of the cars in the race ended up with damage. Quite a few of them made contact with the outside wall while others sustained damage from incidental contact with fellow competitors. As many drivers had Bristol stripes on the side of their cars as they have Darlington stripes when the series heads to the venerable race track.

The interesting thing to see is how the fans will respond. For the ones who wanted to see intense, short track racing, they got to see it. For the fans who go to the track to see cars wrecking every 20-30 laps, they left disappointed. Whether this will lead to Bruton Smith grinding another groove out of the track, water misters in the corners or random oil downs, time will only tell. What it does tell us for sure, there were two grooves of racing and contestants didn’t have to move cars to pass them, which wasn’t what the majority of the fans told Bruton Smith. Only time will tell if the throngs of fans will still show up for old school Bristol racing, just not old school concrete Bristol racing.

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