Home / Beside the Rising Tide / Beside the Rising Tide: August and Everything After
(Photo:: John K Harrelson / NKP)

Beside the Rising Tide: August and Everything After

I’ll spare you the sleigh bells, slurred toasts and hymns sung slightly out of tune, but for longtime, hardcore stock car racing fans, the argument can be made this is in fact the most wonderful time of the year. With Michigan out of the way, the magical mystery tour that is the 2019 Cup schedule heads off to the Bristol night race. Once dubbed “Redneck High Holy Days,” there was an era when a ticket to the August night race at Bristol was the hardest ticket in sports to get. Not just the toughest NASCAR ticket to get but the toughest ticket to any sporting event of any sort anywhere around the globe. 

Those lucky enough to have renewable tickets to the event counted them as one of their most cherished possessions. There were many instances where a divorcing couple were able to come to an amicable agreement over such minutia like who was going to raise the kids, who got the house and who got the cars (and who got the shaft), but when it came to those Bristol NASCAR tickets, lawyers racked up considerable fees endlessly debating the issue of ownership. In at least one instance, such a dispute allegedly led to a murder for hire. 

The track officials did the best they could to keep up with demand. When Bristol hosted the 36th race of the 1961 Cup (then Grand National) season, 25,000 fans showed up to see NASCAR’s first event at the track. Jack Smith beat Fireball Roberts by a margin of slightly over two laps. With the track 75 feet wide in the corners (which were then banked at just 22 degrees) and 60 feet wide in the straights, the half-mile paved track was well laid out, but other than the fact most short tracks back when were still dirt, not all that remarkable. It seemed south of the Mason Dixon line back in that era every Southern town of consequence had a local short track that hosted stock cars of various types just as surely as they’d have a memorial to the Confederate war dead in the town square downtown. 

In 1978, the track added lights and a tradition was born. Night racing was still more the exception that the norm back in that era. 26,000 fans are said to have bought tickets to the 1979 spring Bristol race. For the record, that event was won by some character named Dale Earnhardt, the first Cup victory for Earnhardt and the first of his nine Cup victories at the track nobody had thought to call Thunder Alley just yet. The combination of Earnhardt’s style and the Bristol track layout was as perfect as any save perhaps Richard Petty and Daytona. 

In-between the two races in 1979, the track configuration at Bristol underwent a major change. Banking in the corners was increased to a vertigo-inducing 32 degrees. The change was not universally applauded at the time with no less an authority than Richard Petty opining the track management had gone ahead and ruined a perfectly good race track. The Petty family never seemed to care much for Bristol. Kyle Petty once suggested flooding the coliseum and hosting a trout fishing tournament at the track rather than a stock car race. That hasn’t been tried … yet. 

In 1990, Ernie Irvan won the Bristol Night race in front of 58,000 fans. In 1992, Darrell Waltrip won his 12th and final Cup race (the most of any driver) at Bristol on the track’s new concrete surface that earned it the nickname of White Lightning well before Dover. 

Bruton Smith of Speedway Motorsports purchased Bristol in 1996. At the time, the track featured 71,000 seats. Smith and SMS quickly added 18,000 more — and not one of them went unsold. By 1998, the number of seats had risen to a mind-boggling 131,000. By 2000, that number had swollen again to 147,000, and people were all but hanging by their feet like bats under the grandstands trying to catch a glimpse of the racing. With all of the massive aluminum grandstands surrounding the track, Bristol Motor Speedway viewed from the air looks like some sort of alien spacecraft that crash landed in the Tennessee Alps. 

Over the nearly five decades of Bristol’s existence, some drivers have shown themselves particularly adept at the track in its various configurations. The all-time race winners list includes Darrell Waltrip (12), Dale Earnhardt (nine), Rusty Wallace (nine), Cale Yarborough (nine), David Pearson (five) and Jeff Gordon (five). You’ll note with the sole exception of Wallace, all drivers on that list are multi-time Cup champions. 

Over the years, there have been many great races at Bristol and a few occasionally that weren’t so good. But the track and the August Night Race became immortals due to just two races and two memorable finishes featuring epic battles for the checkers between the same two drivers. On the final lap of the 1995 event, second place running Dale Earnhardt sent Terry Labonte spinning heading to the checkered flag but Labonte regained control of his car well enough to cross the finish line first, albeit sideways when he won.

In 1998, Earnhardt and Labonte were once again arguing over the lead. Once again, Labonte held the point when the white flag flew, but once again Earnhardt hit him on the final lap, knocking the No. 5 car out of the way. Earnhardt went on to win his ninth and final Bristol Cup race. The crowd on hand was going insane. They either felt Earnhardt had crossed the line or that Earnhardt did what he had to do to win depending on how they personally felt about the Intimidator. Looking uncharacteristically if briefly sheepish and repentant, Earnhardt told the media he hadn’t meant to wreck Labonte, just to “rattle his cage a little.” Shortly afterwards, with the still passionate crowd still hollering, Earnhardt, typically a fan favorite, was asked how it felt to have so many people booing him. Earnhardt’s classic reply was the truest thing ever spoken in stock car racing: “If they ain’t cheering they better be booing.” Meanwhile in those grandstands, a highly intoxicated, overweight, elder Earnhardt loyalist with a prosthetic leg was telling everyone within earshot he was ready to fistfight them to defend the honor and tactics of his favorite driver. 

Twenty years later, the finish of that race has probably been used in more NASCAR-related commercials than any other single race. When it comes down to it, it’s my opinion that the five most famous finishes in NASCAR history were the two Earnhardt-Labonte battles at Bristol, the end of the 1976 and 1979 Daytona 500s and the epic battle between Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch at Darlington in the spring of 2003, a battle Craven won by two-thousandths of a second. (A race few people seem to recall was rain delayed until Monday and thus most fans missed seeing live.) 

So how come Bristol doesn’t sell out anymore? A large part of it has to do with the sport’s fall from grace during dark ages we can now term “The Brian France Era” in NASCAR history. And changes were made to the track. Ironically enough, many fans had been calling for the change, a switch to variable banking to allow clean passes to be made at Bristol — which is why great things are created and protected by individuals, not committees or study groups. Yep, at the old Bristol a driver had to use his bumper to pass a slower driver ahead of him and sometimes that didn’t turn out so pretty. But as it turned out, all those longtime racing fans didn’t actually care much for “pretty.” Rough and tumble was just fine by them. 

The next race on the schedule after Bristol is the Southern 500, which if you’ve been reading my stuff awhile you know is my favorite race of the season. A curse on Daytona and Talladega with that restrictor plate/tapered spacer nonsense. The 500-miler at Darlington is stock car racing as it ought to be with its history stretching back to 1949, the inaugural season of NASCAR’s top division. (Martinsville is the only other track left on today’s schedule that was part of that 1949 debut season.) Oh, for a few years the fall classic wandered from coast to coast like a nomad, making stops at both Fontana and Atlanta before common sense prevailed and the race returned to the oddly shaped track at Darlington on Labor Day weekend, the way God and Bill France Sr. intended it to be. And still at its full 500-mile length, millennials and their notorious attention deficit syndrome be damned. They’ve still got one more change to make at Darlington to bring things back to the way they oughta be. The Southern 500 is meant to be run during the heat of the day, not on a Sunday night. Hell, no stock car race should ever be run on a Sunday night even if it takes place during a holiday weekend. Yeah, it’s hot in South Carolina on Labor Day weekend. It was pretty dang warm at Woodstock back in 1969 (20 years after the first Southern 500), but they didn’t have any trouble selling tickets to that concert. 

More than a few drivers, including many of the heroes of our sport, have said more than once that Darlington is the toughest challenge they face annually. For 500 miles, a would-be winner has to beat not only 37 other drivers but the toughest and perhaps most oddly shaped track on the circuit, a track that has earned nicknames like “Too Tough to Tame” and the “Lady in Black.” (I wish I could say that the track’s odd egg-shaped layout was done purposely to spare a minnow pond, but that’s a myth — though a good one I wish was true.) One of NASCAR’s latest (typically unsuccessful) marketing campaigns claims if you haven’t been to a race live, you haven’t had the stock car racing experience. Let me add that even if you packed up the RV and attended the other 35 races on the schedule next year, until you’ve attended the Southern 500, you haven’t a clue what stock car racing is all about, how it should look, how it should sound and how it should feel. If just entering the Darlington track property doesn’t send shivers down your spine, you probably need to cut back on the Ritalin. 

Between Bristol and Darlington during this most wonderful time of the year, there’s an off weekend for the Cup tour. And an off weekend is a pretty wonderful thing, too. It’s one of just three such weekends off on this year’s schedule and the last one of the year. Yep, right now temps are flirting with the 90s daily and even the retriever dogs are seeking shade beneath the trees, panting contentedly away and rarely even bothering to crack open an eye to check out the postman. Here in the Northeast, this is indeed the most wonderful time of the year. The fire-flies have returned. The crickets sing their tunes nightly providing a perfect lullaby. The Tiger Lilies are in full bloom again. The crops on nearby farms in Chester and Lancaster County are nearing full height and seem ready to provide an abundant harvest this year. (If they don’t, it won’t be for lack of rain this summer.) 

By the time the NASCAR season ends, those leaves that are bright green right now will have changed to abundant colors before falling from the trees and turning a funeral brown. They’ll need to be raked and hauled to the compost pile. Hours of daylight will get shorter and the nights colder. Last year in these parts, we even had our first measurable snow before the checkered flag flew at Homestead. Perhaps it’s part of the aging process, but I’m coming to the conclusion that the only season that seems to drag on longer than the NASCAR Cup one is winter. 

After the Southern 500, the series returns to action or some semblance of action at the Brickyard 400, which I’ve felt since its inception was a freight train load of sizzle absent even a milligram of steak. Yes, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is rich in history and tradition … when it comes to open wheel cars. I feel no compulsion to worship in somebody else’s church. This year Indy will also be the final race of NASCAR’s regular season before the playoffs begin the following week, at Las Vegas of all places. Many of you will probably agree with me that once the Chase, the Playoffs, or whatever they are called annually begin, TV coverage of stock car racing becomes simply intolerable. It’s as if the first 26 races of the season and the 26 or so drivers outside of the playoffs have simply ceased to exist. Jimmie Johnson may be a seven-time Cup champion, but if he misses the playoffs, put a picture of him on milk cartons because that’s the only place his fans will see him as NBC descends into its hyper-focused “playoff-a-palooza coverage” 

The next race I look forward to after the Southern 500 is Richmond. I’ve always felt Richmond was a near perfect track, the Goldilocks pick. It’s not too short and it’s not too long. Richmond is a multi-groove track so passing can be tough, but it’s not impossible. Even the current length of the Richmond event seems about perfect to me, and if you’ve never visited Richmond before, prepare to fall in love with both the place and the people that call it home. 

I wonder how different stock car racing would be today if back in the rapid expansion era, when new race tracks were sprouting up like dandelions on a springtime lawn in the suburbs, those track builders had modeled the new tracks after the 3/4-mile track at Richmond rather than the 1.5-mile cookie cutters patterned after Charlotte. I think at the time, the developers said they couldn’t build enough seats around a short track to keep up with demand. As I see it, if they can fit 185,000 seats around the half-mile track at Bristol, I’ll bet you ought to be able to build at least 200,000 seats around a 3/4-mile oval. And I’ll bet that no race track outside of Indy in May or Daytona in February is ever going to sell more than 100,000 seats for a race ever again, and that’s being wildly optimistic. 

Yeah, imagine if they built five tracks that were replicas of Richmond and also that someone sober had the backbone to shout Brian France down when he first started drunkenly planning some sort of playoff system to decide a Cup champion. How much better would life be now?  There still would be a winter every year, but I bet it would be a little warmer and wouldn’t snow as much or as often.

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About Matt McLaughlin

Matt McLaughlin
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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21 comments

  1. Avatar

    Happy Birthday Matt

  2. Avatar

    This article is a must read. Show me the good old days when teams had to have good mechanical knowledge & drivers had to DRIVE! Forget about making new cars or rules to try to enhance racing.

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    What killed the excitement of Bristol? The main blow was tearing out the asphalt and putting down concrete. It’s never been the same since!

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    Nice piece Matt, but a couple of boats missed. Let Mama refresh your memory. The infamous “Cage rattling” race between Earnhardt and Labonte was in 1999, not 1998. Also, the Southern 500 was NOT a part of NASCAR’s initial season, since it hadn’t yet been built. First race there was in 1950, won by Johnny Mantz running truck tires, which he never changed. I know the minute you read those it will be a palm to forehead moment. They say when we age, the second thing to go is memory. I’ve learned by bitter experience not to trust my once photographic memory because someone sneaked in and exposed the film!
    Happy Birthday come Sunday! I won’t send a card, as I know you have a phobia about opening them. I’ll just say, you’re getting old!

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      If I remember right, after the race in ’98 Earnhardt spun him in turn 4 and said he waited to long to spin him and Labonte got to the line first and the car looked worse than Harry Gant’s car at Martinsville. In the ’99 race he spun him in turn two in front of the rest of the field.

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        The races were in ’95 and ’99. In the first one, he definitely waited too long, as Terry won it after hitting the wall. In the 99 race, where he only meant to “rattle his cage’, he made darn sure he’d stay wrecked.
        The ’98 race was won by Mark Martin. Earnhardt and Labonte finished 6th and 13th respectively.

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    The Brickyard is a great venue, but not for NASCAR. One year I sat behind a guy who found a different way to flip off Tony Stewart for each and every lap of the race! That was the most interesting and memorable thing I witnessed at the two NASCAR races I attended at the Brickyard. I never made it out to see the trucks or Busch cars run IRP live (not sure what the track is named now) but it’s a travesty they moved the Xfinity cars to the big track – IRP made for some great racing and people had a great time out there.

    Speaking of travesty, what they did to Bristol is inexcusable! The fans griping about beating and banging, I can only assume from my one fortunate trip to the Night Race in 1998, are NOT the ones who attended the event live and supported the track. I blame the Jeff Gordon fans for that, the ones who came in and thought NASCAR needed to become civilized, prim and proper gentlemen instead of gladiators duking it out (both on track and occasionally off). I’m glad I got to be a part of it, if only once, before the ninnies ruined it.

    Otherwise, there doesn’t need to be any more than 2 mile and a half D-oval races per year. If they want to add any additional 1.5 mile track races, they need to be road courses or figure-8’s.

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      I was a Gordon fan and while I can’t speak for all Gordon fans I can say that if you were a Gordon fan and had a problem with contact on the race track you were either not paying attention or were a hypocrite. Gordon was no stranger to doing whatever it took to win some races. I think you are blaming a driver for something that probably was more a reflection of the larger PC and SJW culture that arose at the turn of the century. Ever see the movie “Demolition Man”, sort of like that.

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        C’mon, Bill, everybody knows “pretty boy” Jeff Gordon and his clean-cut image ruined NASCAR! lol

        Speaking of Gordon fan hypocrisy… years ago at work a couple coworkers and I were talking NASCAR. One of them says “I really like Matt Kenseth, but I can’t cheer for him when he’s driving the Crown Royal car due to my religious (Christian) beliefs. So those races I root for Jeff Gordon.”

        The other replied, “Wait a minute… you won’t root for Kenseth when he’s sponsored by a company that sells alcohol, but you can cheer for a guy who got divorced because he was caught cheating on his wife?”

        With that, the first coworker turned red and left without saying a word. He didn’t speak to either of us for a good two weeks!

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          I was a Gordon fan. And you know who made me a Gordon fan? None other than Dale Earnhardt.

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            I saw a brief piece Gordon did about his experiences with Big E, and it was interesting. When I got into NASCAR I was a Mark Martin / Bobby Labonte fan, and eventually a Tony Stewart fan. I’ve since come to be more a fan of racing in general, and don’t really pull for any specific driver these days, but rather tend to have a group of them I am happy to see do well.

            I’ve come to appreciate Gordon more since he’s no longer whipping on all of my favorite drivers week in and week out, and actually like what he brings to the Fox telecasts. The Pepsi “test drive” commercial from years back was epic. Do you remember “tire-gate” where Jack Roush accused Evernham of soaking Gordon’s tires in some magical undetectable solution to gain an advantage on the late 2-tire stops? Even though I was a Martin fan at the time, I thought it would have been hilarious if Ray had set up a tub and had a couple of the crew acting like they were ladling some solution onto the tires during a race just to aggravate Jack!

            I need to check out Jeff’s book (I have read Dale’s, Tony’s, DW’s, and both of Dale Jr’s. and found them very interesting). Imagine Jeff’s would be equally enlightening.

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            Jeremy, read Richie Evans’ and Bobby Allison’s books. They are very enlightening.

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    Nice read Matt. Very well written.

    The perfect season; keep the Daytona 500, the 600 on Memorial Day, the two road course for a change of pace (I know you will disagree with that Matt), then just run Darlington, Martinsville, Bristol and Richmond over and over again for the balance of the season (except for maybe 5 races at other current tracks, once again just for a change of pace).

    With all the tracks that have two dates, it’s a travesty that Darlington doesn’t have two and shows just how short-sighted the folks that make the decisions at NASCAR are.

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      Whoever is left over from Brian’s bubble head brigade still haven’t figured out how to “improve the product.” Making the “fan experience” better would start with real race cars and drivers who want to race.

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    interesting how you mention woodstock matt…..since woodstock 2.0 has become a bust this summer.

    i read in usatoday that jr things nascar can rebuild it’s popularity but it will take time he said original surge took 50 yrs. well i hate to tell old jr earnhardt now that na$car hasn’t got 50 yrs left in it. i wonder if it even has 20 yrs left.

    i was at the 1995 brickyard. i can say i went, i can say i saw earnhardt win there. but stock cars have no place running on that flat track. old benny parsons’, God rest is soul, loved to call stock cars taxicabs. maybe cause he was a former cab driver. but 3400 lbs 35-40 on the track is too much lumbering. be interesting to see what tire mess goodyear takes there this year. between the spacers (i can’t recall if they ran spacers there last year) and wrong tires, it’s a crap shoot to see how racing will be there. what hurt na$car at indy was that year when they could only run 10 laps without blowing tires.

    be interesting to see the spin media puts on attendance at bristol. they’ll say they have a “sell out” but you have to remember all the seats covered by advertising banners. drivers will be roasting in the cars if this hot weather in the south doesn’t break by the weekend. stage racing at bristol just doesn’t cut it.

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      Went to the brickyard in 1997 –free tix but a long drive from my neck of Dixie. I never bought into the hype of IMS. The Indy bubbas had their butts in a sling & needed the popularity of NASCAR to save ’em. I still remember the snobby open wheel fans looking down their nose at us Southern rednecks of stock car racing. But, like I said: free tickets.

      My experience was IMS produced boring racing for stock cars and the sightlines from the stands sucked. Indianapolis was an ok town. The best part of the trip was the little bullring to the west: Indianapolis Raceway Park. Stock car racing the way it was meant to be.

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    I used to have one of those season tickets to Bristol before it lost its character. What ruined it for me was the creation of ‘the chase’. That mistake turned Bristol into an ‘After you, Alphonse’ track, those outside ‘the chase’ not wanting to do anything to spoil the chances of the chosen few. When I found myself nodding off with 150 laps to go in 2007 I knew it was time to admit defeat. One of the big attractions of Bristol was that it was different that all the other tracks. The beating and banging made for a lot of short tempers-something you didn’t always see much of in this ‘refined’ version of Nascar. Changing the track made the racing more run of the mill and too much like most of the other venues (with the exception of a few you mentioned). Nascar has plenty of track wide enough to let cars run side by side (though they seldom can with the aero these days), so changing Bristol made it …routine. It’s painful to see so many empty seats there now, remembering the electricity in the air that used to charge the atmosphere before the night race.

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      Electric is the perfect term for the old Bristol. I was there in 2000 for the night race and when the crowd went crazy, you could feel your whole body vibrate. I have never experienced anything like it since.

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        Mack – i experienced that sensation when earnhardt beat bobby labonte by inches at ams in march 2000 and when he won the fall dega race in 2000. whenever earnhardt was a threat places rocked and rolled.

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          I think everyone experiences that “electric” feeling when they attend their first race. Especially if they are already a fan from watching on TV and finally make the decision to attend a race live. At least it was that way for me. The only difference with Bristol is that, in it’s heyday, it could produce that feeling every time no matter how many times you attended the race.