Into the Great Wide Open
– Into the great wide open
Under them skies of blue
Into the great wide open
A rebel without a clue … –
Well, here goes nothing. Hold my beer. Hey ya’ll, watch this.
Depending on how closely you still follow the sport of stock car racing such as it is in late-pandemic America, you’re either aware that the Cup cars are returning to dirt track racing or you’re about to be seriously surprised when you tune in catch the race next weekend. (Weather permitting.) Yes, for the first time since Sept. 30, 1970, the stars of the Cup series will compete on a dirt track. The world was a very different place in the fall of 1970. The US military was still waging war in Vietnam. Richard Nixon was still in the White House. You could buy a 450 horsepower Chevelle SS off the showroom floor and feed it a steady diet of 40 cent a gallon Texaco Sky Chief hi-test. Marcus Welby MD was the top ranked TV show, edging out the Flip Wilson comedy program. The top album that year was by George Harrison of the recently disbanded Beatles entitled All Things Must Pass. Including stock car racing on dirt tracks, apparently.
I can recall few experiments this bold that NACAR has made over the history of our sport, and I’ve been shopping at this five and dime a good long time now. But as the actual date for the experiment bears down on us like a deer hypnotized by the lights of an 18-wheeler, there seems to be equal parts anticipation and trepidation. Whether this is going to be a triumph or a complete boondoggle remains to be seen. It does seem that NASCAR is trying to hedge their bets a bit even this late in the game. There’s been some talk that passing may be at a premium and caution flags could be frequent. Recall that weather forecasts more than a day or two out are at best educated guesses, but the long range forecasts I am seeing right now for Bristol TN/VA (the state line runs right through the middle of town) calls for rain late in the week with a 60% chance of thunderstorms on race day itself (and a 57% chance of storms Monday). If I recall anything from high school chemistry, years of being an avid dirt bike rider and a frequent convertible owner with a penchant for road trips in ragtops with varying degrees of waterproofing, it is that the recipe for Instant Mud is take dirt and add water. And dirt tracks can’t use jet dryers or suck trucks to hurry along the drying process.
While NASCAR has gotten a fair amount of ink (or bandwidth) devoted to this grand experiment, returning to a dirt track, they really haven’t done a great job of explaining how the race will be run, at least going by the number of questions I’m having emailed to me about the nuts and bolts of next weekend, which in turn has led me to write this column. Let me preface it by saying that all information I’ll present here is “to the best of my knowledge.” I find it likely that at least some salient points will change between now and whenever the race is actually run, whenever that turns out to be. This isn’t a matter of the glass of water being half full or half empty. The introduction of water to the track surface anywhere during the proceedings is going to throw a left-handed monkey-wrench into the weekend.
First off, there will be practice at the Bristol dirt track this Friday. (Not to be redundant, but weather permitting.) There are only eight Cup weekends this year with pre-race practice sessions. Mostly, they are on the road courses or at tracks new on the schedule (or of course race weekends that are both new to the schedule and on a road course, which a bunch of them are). Friday there will be two 50-minute practices according to the schedule. Those practice times will then be thrown out and will have no affect the starting lineup for the rest of the festivities in any manner. Bristol of course is not a new track for the series. It has been buried under a huge amount of dirt, which reduced the banking of the tracks to a more manageable degree. I’ve read the banking in the turns has been reduced to 19 degrees down from the variable 24-28 degree banking for the concrete track racing surface for a typical Cup weekend event in Thunder Valley. The racing surface is said to be 50 feet wide. Part of that additional 10 feet of width was made by removing the soft walls on the outer side of the track. I hope that’s not a decision that comes back to bite them.
Qualifying races will be run Saturday to set the starting field for Sunday’s main event. As of right now, NASCAR is planning four qualifying races with 11 cars in each (total entries divided by four in any case), each of 15 laps with only green flag laps counting toward that total. Which driver is in which qualifying race will be decided by a random draw. Sigh. I hate having random draws at a race track used to determine matters of import. Perhaps this is where those practice times could be used in some way? Fans of local short tracks will probably be quite familiar and comfortable with the idea of heat races setting the field for the main event. Most of the local short tracks also have a “last chance qualifier” for drivers who still haven’t made the big show and are facing long tow home. Usually only the top two advance to the Main out of the Last Chance qualifier. I’d like to see NASCAR add something like that, but with the charter system I’m not sure how that would work.
The top 10 finishers from each qualifying race advance to Sunday’s Big Show. But don’t count anyone in just because they were one of the first 10 cars across the line at the finish of that heat race. Points will of course be awarded for the drivers finishing position, with the winner awarded 10 points, the second place finisher nine and so on down the ladder with a single point reduction per position so that the 10th place finisher gets one point. But those finishing points will be added to what NASCAR is calling “passing points.” What’s that? The difference between that driver’s starting spot and where he finished. Say a driver starts eighth (based on that damned random draw) and finishes fourth. In addition to his seven points for the fourth place finish, he gets another four points for passing four cars during the event. See, NASCAR was very concerned that passing was going to be at a premium. To answer the next logical question, no a driver doesn’t lose four points if he starts the race fourth and finishes eighth. Ties between point totals will be decided by that car’s associated owner’s points. Another example of the rich getting richer, but at least it’s not another random draw. Points earned in a heat race don’t get added to that driver’s season-long points totals.
Here’s the potential issue as I see it. Let’s say a driver has what you could term a “perfect” race. He is awarded the first starting position in the random draw. He leads every lap and earns 10 points for the win. Obviously, he didn’t earn any passing points starting and finishing first. The only thing he was passing out there was the time. Now another driver is awarded the seventh starting spot. He goes like a bat out of hell and drives to a third place finish. He gets eight points for finishing eighth and an additional four passing points for a total of 12 points. Anytime another driver can score more points than a flag-to-flag winner, something is wrong in my book. Of course, we put up with it every week with stage points added to the game. If NASCAR were to add a single additional point for each green flag lap led in a heat race, it would at least go a long ways towards addressing such a situation. (Though a driver who finished second in the heat and passed nine cars to do so would still have more points when it came down to setting the starting order for the Main event.)
The “overtime” rule has the weekend off at Bristol. Races may in fact end under caution at that 15th lap. The “wave-around” and “free pass” rules will still be in effect.
The Main race will be run in three stages, with stages ending at laps 75, 150 and 250. Pitting will only be allowed at the stage breaks. (Though drivers who get a flat or are caught up in a wreck will be accommodated.) NASCAR is a bit concerned about pit road safety for the crew members, especially with the dirt tires on the cars entering a concrete pit road with pit stalls potentially slippery with dirt tracked into them, especially in light of many drivers’ inexperience on dirt tracks. Thus, the field will be frozen at the stage ends. The only position changes allowed with be that drivers who choose not to pit will restart ahead of those drivers who did make a stop. NASCAR doesn’t want drivers fighting for position entering or exiting pit road after a stop like in a normal race, again out of safety concerns.
The “choose cone” rule also gets a weekend off at Bristol. It’s kind of hard to paint an orange triangle on a dirt track surface anyway. Points earned in Sunday’s main event will be added to the driver and team’s season-long totals.
So, will the Bristol Dirt Track experiment be what one network used to call “Must See TV” entertainment, or a “You Must Be Kidding Me” TV farce of epic proportions? I can’t tell you. Like everyone else, I’ll just have to watch and wait to see “weather” it’s any good or not. (Misspelling intentional.) I guess you don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Tune in Saturday night at 6:00 p.m. ET to watch the heat races on FS1 and Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX for the Big To-Do itself, and we’ll all find out together.