Author’s Note: Monday marked the 29th Anniversary of Tim Richmond’s death. Thus there is an entire generation of new fans who never got to see Richmond’s artistry at the wheel on the road courses or his epic Southern 500 win on a rain slick track in Darlington in 1986, perhaps the most masterful bit of driving I’ve ever seen in four decades plus of following this sport. For those who missed the magic, follow this link to our annual tribute to Tim, what he was able to accomplish in his far too short time in the sport and what might have been.
I was somewhat startled earlier this month when Watkins Glen announced its annual mid-summer road course race had been voted by the fans as the most popular event on the Cup schedule. Far be it from me to doubt their methodology, I can only say that I was not consulted to vote on the issue. Nor do I know any other race fan who was asked to vote on the topic. It is perhaps worth noting that the nice folks at the Glen also announced for the fourth consecutive year their Cup race was a sell-out, a notable state of affairs in an era of huge blocks of tickets left unsold for nearly every race on the schedule.
Perhaps it’s worth noting that a sellout at the Glen involves 35,000 tickets sold. If they filled 35,000 seats at Charlotte, Texas or Fontana, the grandstands would look like a ghost town. In Texas having 35,000 people show up for a high school football on a Friday night isn’t worth noting. And Bruce Springsteen could announce a concert on the Asbury Park beach at 2:30 a.m. on a Tuesday night and 35,000 tickets would be sold out before sunrise despite the fact the Boss has been plugging away at this rock and roll thing for over 40 years.
Still, any good news is welcome in this era of declining interest in our sport. But newer fans would probably be amazed to learn that there was a time not all that long ago attending a Cup race involved trying to find a ticket, any ticket, involved some serious pre-planning months in advance. Nowadays you can show up at nearly any NASCAR race the morning or afternoon of the event, point to the general area of where you’d like to sit and as long as you’re plastic goes through be assured a seat and perhaps even a grateful hug from track management.
But there was a time when getting a ticket to one NASCAR race, in particular, was said to be the hardest ticket to obtain in all of sports, not just auto racing. I am of course talking about the Bristol night race. The 2018 running of that race takes place this coming weekend and I just checked. As they say, “good seats are still available.” Once upon a time that would have been considered a miracle. If you had tickets to the Bristol night race, you had to renew them annually months in advance of the event. Most people chose to do so. If you didn’t have tickets, you had to leave your name (and method of payment) on a waiting list and hope for the best. Those “season-tickets” were coveted and protected.
In more than one instance, ownership rights to Bristol race tickets had to be decided in a court of law during a divorce settlement. Yep, a couple breaking up could agree on such issues as the future welfare and visitation rights with their children and an equitable distribution of their assets including the family home and automobiles but those race tickets kept them from being able to settle the matter civilly. Tragically, in more than one instance such ongoing arguments led to domestic violence or even gunplay.
How did such a state of affairs come to be? Bristol had been on the NASCAR schedule a long time, running their first Cup (then Grand National) event in July of 1961. Unlike many other southern short tracks NASCAR ran in that era Bristol had been paved since Jump Street.
Prior to the summer race in 1969, the track was reconfigured with the high banks added to what was once a fairly level racing surface. Some drivers, most notably Richard Petty thought the high banking ruining a “perfectly good race track.” I think it would be fair to say Bristol was never among Petty’s favorite tracks. He won just three Bristol events in 60 starts at the track, stellar numbers for most drivers but a pittance for the King who once won 27 races in a single season, including the summer event at the track that year. In his defense, Petty did, in fact, lead 2,212 laps at Bristol.
Originally the banking in the corners was listed at 35 degrees, though it somehow morphed to 25 to 30 degrees. However steeply banked the track was, the new layout certainly affected the racing in Thunder Valley. The pole speed for the last race run before the banking was added was 88.66 mph while the pole for the first race on the newly configured track was 103.43. It was year’s later Kyle Petty would compare racing Cup cars at Bristol to flying fighter jets in a gymnasium. By then pole speeds at Bristol were routinely flirting with 130 mph. Even at 120 mph cars are traveling two miles a minute and thus running 15-second laps which can be dizzying just to watch much less accomplish.
The banking was certainly steep enough that the track developed a reputation of being “self-cleaning,” in that the wreckage of cars tended to slide back down the track, though unfortunately they had to come across the inner lane which was the preferred groove for racing, and cars were often still speeding by in that groove. More than once I saw drivers get out of their wrecked race cars and lose their footing in the fluids their stricken mount had coated the track with. The resultant tumbles often earned that hapless fellow louder applause than the race winner received at the end of the event.
In 1992 Bristol’s track surface was changed from asphalt to concrete thus cementing (pun strictly intended) its nickname of “White Lightning,” a term I’m sure Brian France would prefer be relegated to the scrap heap.
But what turned an already popular race track to a legend were two runnings of the night race (then the Goody’s 500), in 1995 and 1999, that turned the annual August event from a must see race to “Redneck High Holy Days.” My guess is that term will now be considered politically incorrect, so I offer it only as historic context.
Of those two races, the 1999 running is easily recalled by most NASCAR fans of my generation though if Hollywood was involved it would have been billed as “Dale Does Bristol Part Deux. The race, perhaps best recalled as the “Rattle His Cage” event drew so much attention even Non-fans were left gasping and asking one another “Did that just really happen?” At least one network nightly news anchor could suppress a grin as he watched the video of the cage rattling. He was after all Canadian by birth.
The exact details of the race are somewhat lost on all but the most stalwart fans of the era. It was not, in fact, all that competitive a race for most of the evening. Tony Stewart, then a Cup rookie who had yet to win a race, took only his second pole of his career for the race led a lot of laps early on. He would, in fact, lead 225 laps that night and seemed like a shoe-in to win. But most eyes that night were focused on a particular black car with a large No. 3 on the side. Dale Earnhardt, his very own self, had his weekend start poorly. He had qualified 26th (to be honest Earnhardt was never really a very good qualifier.) In an era of two pit roads at Bristol such a lousy starting spot normally doomed a driver to a mediocre finish.
Earnhardt was legendary for his huge number of stalwart fans. Newer fans might be surprised to learn that Earnhardt also had a huge number of detractors who’d show up in a T-shirt featuring Dale’s trademark No. 3 surrounded by a red circle with a slash across it. On the back, those T-shirts read, “I don’t care who wins as long as it’s not that black 3 car.” Some fans felt that Earnhardt was a dirty driver who used his bumper too quickly if he couldn’t make a clean pass.” Whether in fact Earnhardt was overly aggressive at times is still a matter for some debate. This is after all stock car racing we’re discussing here, not lawn croquet. But that hot August night in Bristol always and forever earned Earnhardt rights to his nickname “the Intimidator.”
One can argue a large part of what’s wrong with NASCAR racing today is that NASCAR can’t even come up with a good bad guy anymore. Sure Kyle Busch is very successful and equally polarizing, but he still comes across as whiney and annoying and not threatening and intimidating like Dale Earnhardt in the prime of his career. At times Jimmie Johnson was despised by a fair amount of fans, but how much fun is it to hate a nice guy? Ditto for Jeff Gordon in his prime though unlike Johnson, Gordon enjoyed his most success when he was still running mano-on-mano with Earnhardt still out there.
But Mr. Peabody, set the Wayback Machine to August, 28th, 1999. Yes, Tony Stewart dominated the first half of the race. Jeff Gordon led 48 laps and I doubt many fans were surprised by that. Unhappy, perhaps. But not surprised. But by lap 300 (of 500) a new pair of protagonists asserted themselves as the favorites. The two would combine to lead the last 200 laps swapping the lead between them eleven times.
On lap 410 with Earnhardt leading but needing a pit stop an old friend stepped in to help out. Dave Marcis, a close friend of Earnhardt and the entire Richard Childress Racing organization, lost power on the track. Marcis said over the radio his car wouldn’t refire. The caution flew and Marcis’s car finally re-fired after all. NASCAR wasn’t having what seemed like an obvious ploy. Marcis was held a lap after he made it to pit road for purposely causing a caution. Racing resumed on lap 417 with Terry Labonte leading. Labonte, a two time Cup champion had a reputation of being cool and calculating at the wheel. Back then your mother, your aunt, perhaps your little sister, probably cheered for Terry Labonte. But Earnhardt was stalking Labonte’s No. 5 car and he saw Labonte’s car only as an obstacle between him and a checkered flag.
But with 10 laps to go it wasn’t Earnhardt who spun Labonte out of the lead. It was Darrell Waltrip, a three-time Cup champion and already a legend in his own mind even if by 1999 he wasn’t really a factor most weekends. Earnhardt was back in the lead but Labonte was able to pit for fresh rubber. The race resumed with five laps left to run. With two to go Labonte passed Earnhardt to retake the lead. On the final lap Earnhardt put a bumper to Labonte and put him into the wall. The move gave Earnhardt the lead and seconds later the win. Lost to many fans memories of the evening is the fact Jimmy Spencer found himself in second place after Labonte wrecked and he took off after Earnhardt WFO. Spencer was forthright in what he was trying to do on that final lap. He was planning to wreck Earnhardt if he could catch him and put Dale windshield deep into the wall after what he’d done to Labonte. Had Spencer in fact caught and wrecked Earnhardt I have no doubt the entire grandstands would have collapsed in on themselves like the Wall of Jericho.
As he pulled into Victory Lane, Earnhardt was loudly and profanely booed by a majority of the fans on hand. And that’s when Dale delivered his famous line, “If they ain’t cheering, they better be booing.” Indifference was worse than ignominy.
Those in the massive crowd on hand that night weren’t the only ones struggling with the move they’d just seen Earnhardt make. In the ESPN booth the normally genteel Ned Jarrett labeled Earnhardt’s spinning out Labonte as the dirtiest move he’d ever seen made on a race track. Considering the era that Jarrett started his career on racing not only on short dirt tracks but micro-tracks in the rural south that was saying something. Pressed with his thoughts on the move Earnhardt finally walked back his comments a bit saying he hadn’t meant to wreck Labonte. He’d simply met to “rattle his cage a bit.” Told of Earnhardt’s post-race comment Labonte managed a bemused smile and added, “he never means to wreck anyone” the sarcasm dripping off each word.
Of course the duo had previous history at Bristol back in 1995. But if the 1995 Bristol night race was the equivalent of Bob Dylan breaking out an electric guitar at Newport, the 1998 Night Race was Woodstock. It was a race so seminal it could be argued it was the dividing line between the old era of NASCAR racing and a new one during which the sport’s popularity and visibility would simply explode to unprecedented heights.
Of course the outcome that hot August night at Bristol in 1995 was also very different. NASCAR almost didn’t get that race in. Heavy rains from Tropical Storm Jerry (a meteorological event, not a Jimmy Buffett/ Jerry Garcia concert) drenched the high bank track for hours after the green flag was supposed to fly. Once the proceedings got under way Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon dominated the first half of the race. But by lap 200, Dale Earnhardt had asserted himself as a key player in the contest. But on lap 205 Earnhardt tangled with and spin his sometimes friend and near weekly rival Rusty Wallace. To put it mildly Wallace was not at all pleased. Even NASCAR decided that Earnhardt had crossed the line that time and he was peanlized by being sent to the back of the longest line for the restart. On lap 432 Terry Labonte muscled his way around the “Other Dale”, Dale Jarrett. It seemed that Labonte was heading for the checkers until he got caught up in lapped traffic late in the race with a rearview mirror full of a certain black No. 3 car closer than it appeared. On the final lap some say that Earnhardt ran out of patience while others claim Labonte ran out of talent. Earnhardt gave Labonte’s Chevy a hard rap in the rear bumper. Labonte got sideways heading towards the inside of the track but came back up across the track. His car was actually sideways when Earnhardt shoved the No. 5 Chevy across the finish line with Labonte flagged as the winner and Dale Earnhardt taking second. Earnhardt was not known as a gracious runner-up.
While it had been a long race, 3 hours and 15 minutes after being slowed 15 times for cautions, apparently Rusty Wallace hadn’t had time to cool off either. He famously bounced a water bottle off the Intimidator’s noggin in the garage area of after the race and told Dale to call him one day that week so they could talk. Earnhardt responded in a growl saying that they would in fact talk. But not right then because it sounded like if he and Rusty talked right then he was going knock Wallace into a coma. And the die was set. How big a deal was that 1995 kerfuffle at Bristol? After that race Larry Carrier sold the track to Bruton Smith of Speedway Motorsports and they quickly added 15,000 seats at the track increasing capacity to 86,000 seats with not one of them left unsold. Think about that next time someone is bragging on selling out 35.000 seats at a track. By 1997 seating capacity at the track was up to 118,000 seats people were willing to brawl to get into. By the time the track was preparing for the 1998 Bristol night racing seating capacity was increased to 131,000. By 2000 there were 147,000 seats. I’m not sure that 147,000 fans attended the last four Cup races combined. Bristol is listed as the fourth biggest sporting venue (not just race track) in the US. All because a driver from Kannapolis decided to rattle someone’s cage a little for the most part.
The phenomenal crowds attending NASCAR races in that era and resultant popularity of the sport led in turn to the new TV deal with FOX, NBC and Turner broadcasting two years later in 2001, brokered by none other than our illustrious leader Brian France, who was still stopping at stop signs back then. And to placate those TV partners France put the soul of the sport up for sale dramatically revising the Cup schedule and dropping historic venues that had been long time favorites for new tracks with more seating capacity and amenities in bigger TV markets. But to the best of my knowledge no one has ever discussed taking a date from Bristol. Because on one Hot August Night in 1998 the modernized sport of NASCAR auto racing was bought into being kicking and bawling off the front bumper of the black No. 3 car even if its driver only meant to rattle a fellow driver’s cage a little.
Anything can happen but I very much doubt that this year’s Bristol Night race will be decided by carnage on the last lap that winds up on the front page of the major newspapers the next morning. Somewhere along the line some folks got tired of hearing how there was no good racing at Bristol because it was a single groove track and the only way to pass someone was to knock them out of the way. And nobody with a say in the matter had the good sense to respond “Yeah? And? So what? There’s a reason they strap bumpers to the front and rear of Cup cars rather than explosive devices.” The new track configuration at Bristol may allow for more passing but it has yet to produce an unforgettable event people will still be debating a couple decades down the road.