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.