In my estimation, the NASCAR Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 28 is the most anticipated event of the 2021 season. Heck, make that the most anticipated race of just about any season.
I think you know why.
Bristol, a high-banked, half-mile beast of a track — and one of the fans’ favorites — has been converted into a dirt track. In a marvel of engineering, the concrete racing surface had been covered by massive amounts of soil.
It has become a modern-day throwback to the very early days of stock car racing and even the birth of NASCAR itself 74 years ago. Dirt tracks of a half-mile or less in distance — a few were one-mile facilities — were the staple. They littered the country.
And now, fans are going to get a look at how it used to be. They are going to see Cup cars and drivers compete on tracks that once dominated stock car racing.
Once it got organized, NASCAR’s season schedules consisted mostly of dirt tracks. It had little choice. They were the majority of available venues.
In fact, the first Grand National race was held on a one-mile dirt track in Charlotte on June 19, 1949.
That inaugural season consisted of just eight races, all of which — save the Daytona Beach road course — were held on dirt tracks from Hillsboro, N.C., to Langhorne, Pa.
Dirt tracks held sway until the ’60s began. By that time, Daytona International Speedway had been built. Martinsville Speedway, Richmond Raceway and North Wilkesboro Speedway had been converted to asphalt. Charlotte Motor Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway, followed by Bristol, opened.
In less than a decade, speedways in Rockingham, N.C., Brooklyn, Mich., College Station, Texas, Ontario, Calif., and Talladega, Ala., were built. All were at least a mile in distance, and all were asphalt.
This seismic shift in venues meant the days of the dirt tracks were numbered.
By the end of the ’60s, there were only three dirt tracks remaining on the Grand National circuit. They were Columbia Speedway in Columbia, S.C., Greenville-Pickens Speedway in Greenville, S.C., and North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, N.C.
When the 1970 season began, Greenville had been converted to asphalt. Columbia and Raleigh remained the last of the dirt tracks.
And, although few knew it at the time, the Home State 200 at Raleigh on Sept. 30, 1970, — the 42nd of a grueling 48-race season — would be the last dirt track race on the Grand National circuit.
When it came to NASCAR, the Raleigh track didn’t have a glorious history. Prior to 1970, it had staged only two races, one in 1955 won by Junior Johnson and another in 1969 won by David Pearson.
The ’70 event was witnessed by only 6,000 people, and they were most likely bored to death. Journeyman driver John Sears won the pole and led 10 laps before he retired with engine failure.
Benny Parsons led the next 78 laps until he, too, suffered engine failure. Richard Petty, driving a Plymouth sold by Petty Enterprises to Don Robertson and then rented for the race, took the lead and ran away to the checkered flag. He finished two laps ahead of Neil “Soapy” Castles.
Only 12 of the 23 starting cars were still running at the finish. Among them were those of such NASCAR pioneers, legends and future members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame as Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison, James Hylton, Bobby Isaac — who became the 1970 Grand National champion —, Dave Marcis and Cecil Gordon.
After the race, Petty said, “The dirt tracks are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. I hope a few dirt tracks are kept on the schedule. This is where our brand of racing started. I hope we come back just so we don’t forget.”
The fate of dirt tracks on the Grand National circuit was sealed the following year when NASCAR struck a deal with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. to form the Winston Cup circuit.
The schedule was drastically altered. The number of races was reduced, and many venues were eliminated. The new era began without a single dirt track, and it remained that way for decades.
Despite their absence from NASCAR, dirt tracks remain vastly popular in American motorsports. From stock cars to sprint cars, dirt has been the foundation for many of the most well-received sanctioning bodies and their races.
Many NASCAR fans are well aware of this and have expressed great interest in a return to the dirt.
I believe NASCAR has been making decisions and changes designed to, first, regain its once dominant popularity and, second, to rekindle dwindling fan interest that fueled that popularity.
Which leads to the conclusion that, among other things, it has decided that for the first time since 1970, it will give us a dirt track race.
Two months ago, Bristol sold out its allotment of grandstand tickets for the first Cup race on dirt in 51 years.
Anticipated? Make that very eagerly anticipated.