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(Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

Odds and Ends Around the Track: Richmond Spring

Odds and Ends Around the Track: Richmond Raceway Spring

Usually, I am part of the “Stop Looking at the Empty Seats” group, but last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway should be used as the evidence on how bad things have gotten. Despite closing down the corner grandstands, the empty seats on both the backstretch and frontstretch were too painful not to notice.

There used to be a waiting list at BMS, and now, the fans could have changed seats frequently and never run out of options. What happened to NASCAR’s most popular track?

Old Bristol Fans 

Turn back the clock a few years and Bristol Motor Speedway was running a funny commercial about fighting over the season tickets in a divorce. I actually knew a friend who made this part of her divorce strategy long before the commercial was aired. As a former season ticket holder, I can tell you that at one time the requests for my extra tickets became tough to deal with — every year picking the friends I liked most to buy those tickets.

But several things have led to this now being the easiest ticket to get. First, the track changed configurations. While this has given NASCAR fans much better racing, it is not the type of racing that grew Bristol from 25,000 to over 160,000 seats.

Fans showed up at Bristol not to see great racing but to see a spectacle. “The Last Great Coliseum” promised to give you some temper-flaring excitement to remember almost each and every race. The second reason for the lack of beating and banging are the cars themselves. Turn back the clock to before the “Car of Tomorrow” and teams opened up the wheel wells to allow for the inevitable contact. Now, the least amount of contact on the side of the car can cause a major tire issue and cost a driver several laps at the least.

The last reason is the driver’s racing mentality. Winning at Bristol used to be a big deal. After Daytona International Speedway, this might have been the one place, especially during the night race, that drivers wanted to add to their resume. Now, it’s just another race on the schedule.

There is no doubt the racing is better at the new Bristol than the old Bristol. I could quote all kinds of statistics, but the “eye test” tells you that better than stats. But when you go from having a waiting list to closing down two major grandstands for the spring race, you have to admit you have a problem. Old Bristol fans have voted with their lack of ticket sales that they didn’t want to see better racing — they showed up to see a show.

If NASCAR Put Me in Charge

NASCAR grew from a regional sport to an international, billion-dollar business without my help. But right now, NASCAR seems to have a problem with understanding what the old fans want to see when it comes to racing.

I love all types of racing. I am also a science geek who loves technology in racing. IndyCar, Formula 1 and NHRA Drag Racing used to be low-tech when I followed them for the first time back in the late 1960s. I have marveled at the technology advances in those forms of racing.

But technology is not what attracted me to NASCAR. NASCAR racing stayed old school for many years while IndyCar and F1 were evolving with technology that rivaled that found in NASA Moon Landings. The charm of NASCAR was that technology changed slower than every other form of racing, keeping the concentration on the drivers’ ability to wheel these vehicles that had no business being on a race track.

Bill France Jr. kept the sport old school in many ways but with his passing, the third generation of France’s soared into the new age. Instead of the specially-built vehicles that still resembled the street version of our favorite two-door sedans, we now have “Formula One with fenders.”

While some changes made sense to keep the manufacturers paying the bills happy, many of the other changes took us farther and farther away from the roots of the sport. If NASCAR put me in charge, I would make a few changes, and incidentally, they would save teams money. Get rid of the front splitter and go back to a front valence. Spinning across the grass should not demolish the front end of a stock car.

Get rid of the side skirts to dirty up the aero even more. Finally, allow teams to open up the wheel wells at tracks of one mile in length or less. This would allow drivers to lean on each other more, just like the old days of NASCAR glory, without worrying about taking out a tire. Major changes are needed anyway so why can’t we just test out a dirtier aero package at the All-Star Race again?

Richmond Raceway: Fantasy Insight

Flashback to Last Week’s Picks

Win: Kevin Harvick-Fought back from a pre-race penalty for 13th place

Place: Kyle Busch– WINNER WINNER CHICKEN DINNER

Show: Kurt Busch-Finished second

Long Shot: Jimmie Johnson-(25-to-1 Odds) Finished 10th

Richmond Raceway is one of the best tracks on the NASCAR circuit because it is part short track and part speedway. It’s also very hard for the leader to get away and stay away with a big lead because the inevitable lapped traffic will slow him down. It should come as no surprise that Kyle Busch has to be considered one of the favorites again this week. He is on an unprecedented roll to start the season. But one other driver beats him out by a few tenths of a point in the ratings at Richmond. Denny Hamlin leads the way with 189.8 points out of a possible 200 at his home track. Kyle Busch is second, with Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski all topping 180 points this week, which indicates we should be in for quite a show.

Win: Joey Logano-His Ford should be tough to beat this weekend.

Place: Denny Hamlin-Tops the rating chart so he has to make this list

Show: Kyle Busch-Nobody has ever been more consistent to start a NASCAR season.

Long Shot: Kurt Busch-(25-to-1 Odds) A huge overlay this weekend

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About Dennis Michelsen

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Dennis a.k.a. DMIC has been covering NASCAR racing since 1998. After spending 23 years as a professional weather forecaster, Dennis still didn't know what he wanted to be when he grew up, so he started covering auto racing full time. He is the moderator of the Race Track Business Conference - an all-day educational seminar covering the business of speed - and is the owner of DMIC Media & Marketing where he spends his time mouthing off about all kinds of sports. He is also the play-by-play voice for the professional Ultimate Disc team the Chicago Wildfire of the American Ultimate Disc League. Dennis can be heard every Saturday on The Final Inspection on 105.7FM The Fan in Milwaukee, Wis. talking NASCAR, and you can listen on the Radio.com app.

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8 comments

  1. Avatar

    Your opinion reflects my own. I think the racing is fantastic, but fans miss wrecks and po’d drivers and Bristol used to bring them both big-time. However, wrecks and mad drivers are hard to find at any track these days. I think the sport is currently a little too much on the gentleman side of things.

  2. Avatar

    I have to disagree about the racing. Maybe by numbers it looks better, but it has lost intensity. You all know as well as I do how much fun it was to marvel at the skill Dale Earnhardt had in using the chrome horn at Bristol – just enough to get them loose so he could slip under them for the position. It was amazing! Equally amazing was watching beat up cars (noses caved in, hoods bent up, panels ripped off) still contending for a win – a little scratch didn’t ruin their whole race.

    Funny you mention tech and Indycar. You been watching Indycar lately? They’re putting on a hell of a show! I see more aggressive moves to pass and more contact there than I’ve seen in NASCAR for quite a while. Granted, passes for the lead are still not that great, but the telecasts seem to be showing more battles in the field than we get in NASCAR telecasts. Plus, it’s odd to think an open wheel car can handle more physical contact without killing their speed than a stock car can take, but that seems to be the case. Did you see Sato go airborne into the dirt, ripping off a piece of his car, and never losing the lead on his way to win the race? As you pointed out, in NASCAR the front shovel would have ripped the nose off and his day would have been done.

    I love racing of all types too, but Bristol was (emphasize WAS) special. I loved that it wasn’t the same style of race as every other venue. I liked the spectacle, as you put it. I liked the raw emotion, the physical beating, banging, pushing, and shoving it had. It was 43 angry hornets in a bowl that 160,000 people were shaking to make them fight – and they DID fight!

    As a final note, regarding “Pay no attention to those empty seats”, I disagree here too. We MUST pay attention, and I certainly hope NASCAR is paying attention to it. Without those seats filled, the tracks suffer. The sponsors suffer, and ultimately, the fans who DO show up will suffer as amenities, sponsor activities, etc. are reduced as it is found to not be profitable/worthwhile to expend the effort involved to make the event better for “crowds” that are only 1/3 to 1/2 (or less) capacity for the venue. Closing our eyes and closing our ears will not make the fans come back.

    • Avatar

      I agree with you Jeremy about Bristol. For the most part I have no interest in demolition derbies, but twice a season it was cool to have a demolition derby “tinted” race. I wouldn’t want to watch 36 weeks of Bristol but those two races gave the season a real jolt and the entertainment value was off the chart. It’s never been the same since the repave but even before that the chase took away a lot of the willingness of the drivers to let it all hang out. As for better racing, however you define or measure it, I want that on the other 34 weeks, but for the 2 weeks they are at Bristol I want the spectacle.

    • Avatar

      Thanks for the feedback Jeremy. The actual “RACING” is better was my point but the “SHOW” is not what the fans expect at Bristol. I have to admit that I do miss the SPECTACLE.

      • Avatar

        Thank you for the reply. I did enjoy the article. To address the non-Bristol portion of your article, like you I don’t think NASCAR needs to go too high tech. IMO, NASCAR needs to go “grass roots” so to speak. They need sponsors, so naturally, I have an idea there too (that goes hand in hand with relating to fans on a “grass roots” level). Here it is:

        1) End sponsorships that exclude competitors (Goodyear, Nextel, Monster, etc.) Competition is good, on the racetrack and in the stores (at least for fans/consumers). Plus, it allows for more companies to play – and could bring back innovation to the track. Imagine if NASCAR rules simply said “A racing tire must be this size and fit this size rim”. Done. Teams can pick whichever manufacturer they want to provide their tires (assume these manufacturers might “sponsor” teams using their tires). This would be the same for other things as well, read on…

        2) All cars must match the exact external template/look of the cheapest BASE MODEL sold to the public at dealerships. PLUS, all front end openings must remain UNCOVERED at all events. This gives the manufacturers back their identity for “Race on Sunday, Sell on Monday” as it used to be – and disallows the creation of “special race packages” that would be produced in tiny numbers and sold, basically, to collectors.

        3) OK, I mentioned bringing more sponsors to the sport and being more appealing to fans. Here it is; allow teams to use aftermarket parts that are mass produced, DOT approved road legal, and sold to the public to enhance the performance of the “stock” cars. This means springs, sway bars, CAI kits, tuners, rims, brakes, shocks, control arms, exhaust, etc. No custom parts engineered and built by the teams, only mass produced parts that are produced and sold at prices affordable to the average fan (no special tuned $10,000 “NASCAR” shocks). Granted, this could take some policing, but I think it would open the door to some sponsors that currently do not see a benefit of being here. Plus, it would allow some interesting strategies for the teams to use on raceday. So long as mandated height/weight restrictions are followed, I think this could be great. Again, benefits teams, sponsors, AND fans.

        4) If current speeds/horsepower numbers are too high, I think one way to reduce those is to restructure the NASCAR series hierarchy. Maybe Xfinity runs V-6 models and Cup uses V-8’s. Make the engines be factory spec NA (no turbo/superchargers) as sold in mass production to the fans/customers. Use of aftermarket “performance” parts above allowed (to include crank/piston/cam/intake etc. parts mass produced/marketed/affordable to general public). Make them use factory exhaust (or, again, aftermarket per rules mentioned). Block must come from the factory as sold/installed on the mass produced assembly line. I think a 4cylinder class could be a hit with the tuner crowd. Might have to allow turbos though. Maybe not, but who knows…

        I think it could be interesting. Likely to happen? Probably not, but this is my “pipe dream”. After all, this is supposed to be blue collar STOCK CAR racing. We already have a racing series for high tech ultra performance modifications to factory vehicles (IMSA GT class). We common folk need something we can afford and relate to!

        Finally, I appreciate that frontstretch gives us fans/readers a place to interact with the writers, vent and express our opinions!

  3. Avatar

    I also used to be a season ticket holder at Bristol. It started out very easy to sell the spring race tickets if I couldn’t attend. Then ‘the chase’ happened, and suddenly drivers were too polite to beat and bang because they might eliminate a ‘chaser’. I could no longer sell the spring tickets. Then, in 2007 I found myself fighting to stay awake(!) with 150 laps to go. You are right on. Bristol might not have had the ‘best racing’, but it certainly was a spectacle…and unique. The changes just made it into another track. Prime example of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

    • Avatar

      Thanks SB, I actually had the chance to talk to the man responsible for the track change when I called an ASA Late Model race there many years ago. He said he would be run out of town if the attendance dropped. I prefer the NEW Bristol to the OLD Bristol as far as the racing is concerned but I also miss the SPECTACLE that was the OLD Bristol!