There’s an irony that the week prior to the Bristol Dirt Race, the week prior to NASCAR taking its most tangible steps “back to its roots” since returning the Southern 500 to its rightful home in 2015, that one of the controversies leaving Atlanta involved artificial turf.
I didn’t watch any of the weekend’s races at Atlanta (it’s been 291 days since I watched a NASCAR-sanctioned race. It works if you work it.), but everything I picked up off the Frontstretch group chat made it clear it was a repeat of a story that’s surfaced at every track since Charlotte Motor Speedway put fake grass in its infield; that real grass tears up racecars and that it’s past time to modernize facilities and put in turf that looks pretty and is splitter-friendly.
Anyone that’s read Frontstretch long enough knows that I hate the idea of artificial turf on a racetrack infield, and not just because NBC allowed Jeff Burton to get away with one of the most blatant conflicts of interest a NASCAR broadcast booth has seen in recent memory when he all but demanded that Texas Motor Speedway put turf down at the same time his son Harrison Burton was being sponsored by a company that installs artificial turf. My objection is simple; professional racecar drivers should be able to avoid the damn infield on a superspeedway. And if they can’t, there should be consequences for doing so. Like having a splitter torn off.
Having said that, artificial turf is perhaps the best metaphor to describe both the NASCAR of today and their first dirt racing weekend in 50 years. After all, it’s hard to go back to your roots when there’s none left outside of Martinsville, Virginia.
Case in point, look at this week’s controversy du jour (at least that doesn’t involve Noah Gragson). Trending on Twitter, getting the attention of every outlet from the Associated Press to NBC, and getting the championship-contending Team Penske stable involved? It had nothing to do with the upcoming Bristol Dirt Race … it had to do with getting Timmy Hill, a driver that has scored as many top fives in nearly 400 NASCAR touring series starts as Denny Hamlin has in the last two weeks, into a freaking video game race.
#LetTimmyRace? How about #WGAF? It takes an awful lot for me to agree with anything Nate Ryan has to say, but his Tweet from Wednesday (March 24) on this whole debacle was spot on.
First dirt race in over 40 years in #nascar's premier series this weekend … and here's a topic in Twitter's "What's happening" trends.
— Nate Ryan (@nateryan) March 24, 2021
That’s as much as attention as video game racing deserves. So let’s look at the upcoming dirt race itself, being run on a temporary dirt track in Bristol, Tennessee.
Yes, Bristol is synonymous with NASCAR racing, a track steeped in tradition and a venue whose size and high banks are iconic. Bristol is also not synonymous with dirt racing, with no such tradition or symbolism to draw from. And yes, I wrote about this last week.
Given our earlier discussion, seeing NASCAR opt to go such an artificial route is hardly surprising. That doesn’t make it any less disappointing, any less a potential disservice to the dirt racing side of the sport.
One of the more misunderstood stories in all of stock car racing in 2021 involved the circumstances surrounding the Truck Series schedule, which saw Tony Stewart’s Eldora Speedway off the slate despite having led the charge of NASCAR’s touring series back onto dirt in 2013 with the Mudsummer Classic.
What Stewart and his track did with that event was nothing short of an achievement. In my 34 years on this earth, I’ve attended likely thousands of races at 95 racetracks in 47 states. I can count on one hand with room to spare a race atmosphere as electric as that first truck race at Eldora. I sat in the turn 1 grandstand that day while my longtime colleague Mike Neff was working the race from the turn 4 media center. During a break in the action, we left our seats to rendezvous and catch up. Forty minutes later, we both returned to our seats without so much as a handshake, as the mass of humanity at Eldora was impossible for us to navigate and actually find each other.
Yet despite having made dirt racing at a big-league NASCAR level both possible and a success, Eldora didn’t get even a nod for Cup racing’s return to dirt. That stung Stewart, who told Area Auto Racing News and other outlets back in January that his track opted not to return to the Truck Series schedule in 2021, not the other way around.
Stewart’s ire is warranted given how much his venue has meant to truck racing the last few years. It’s more warranted in 2021. With all NASCAR venues currently handcuffed as to how many spectators it can put in the grandstands this season, the gate isn’t going to a major revenue source this year. If there was EVER a season to experiment with a smaller capacity (and actual) dirt track, 2021 was the year.
Instead, NASCAR acted like it’s protectionist self, throwing SMI yet another life preserver. Can’t sell the fall Charlotte Motor Speedway race? Sure, we’ll try your ROVAL. Can’t sell the second Texas race? We’ll give you the All-Star Race. Can’t sell the spring Bristol race? Yeah, let’s bury the track in dirt.
That NASCAR’s first Cup race on dirt in half a century is going to occur under such a cloud of artificiality is a crying shame, and sadly is one that also could prove a detriment for dirt-track racing, given that for many race fans and even writers on this site their first exposure to racing on dirt will be at Bristol this weekend (weather permitting).
It is very possible that the Bristol Dirt Race will prove NASCAR’s greatest triumph in years. The heavy Cup cars will run at low enough speeds that side-by-side racing should not be a problem, and the Bristol dirt surface proved durable enough to handle more than 800 cars running thousands of laps over the course of last weekend’s Bristol Dirt Nationals.
It’s also very possible that this event could be a complete disaster. Namely, there’s been no testing.
The Cup cars are not meant to run on dirt, and given how heavy they are when compared to a super late model or modified may prove to be lumbering around instead of racing. The Cup race Sunday will put more cars on track than the Dirt Nationals did, and for longer periods of racing. And if there’s any lesson NASCAR should have learned over the last 15 years, it is just how bad an untested race can be. Let’s not forget that the 2008 Brickyard 400, arguably the worst stock car race ever run that didn’t involve a driver fatality, was a direct product of insufficient tire testing on the Car of Tomorrow.
I’m leaning more towards the middle with regard to the technical specs of the race. I don’t think the track will fall apart, and I imagine that the novelty and unknowns of having Cup cars on dirt will keep the show interesting.
Where the upcoming Bristol Dirt Race is already doing a disservice to the sport of dirt racing is with regard to its format. A standard dirt racing program is all about short bursts of building intensity. An 8-10 lap heat race. A 12-15 lap B-main/last chance qualifier. And at night’s end, a 25-35 lap feature, a race long enough to make a driver fatigue manhandling a dirt car while having to conserve tires, yet short enough that the field has to get going from the drop of the green.
There’s always an urgency in these programs. Screw up a heat race, you’re either starting in the back of the field in a 25-lap race or forced to run a highly consequential B-main/last chance race. And given that the vast majority of dirt tracks and series alike hold no more than two provisional spots available for their regulars, last-chance races are reason to sweat bullets.
NASCAR took that model and replicated it on paper, but it’s just that, a replica. Artificial, if you will.
By making 40 spots available in the feature race, they’ve guaranteed that all 39 drivers entered will make the A-main. The A-main will consist of two 75-lap stages and a 100-lap final stage. Seventy-five laps is 2-3 feature races at most dirt tracks or on most dirt tours.
Kiss the urgency, the sweating bullets, goodbye. Instead, the heat races will prove largely inconsequential. With 250 laps of feature racing on docket, what difference does it make starting first or 31st?
The Bristol Dirt Race is big-league NASCAR racing. The spectacle is big. The names are big. The potential, I’ll concede, is big.
But considering that the clouds of artificiality and protectionism hanging over Bristol are already thick before the forecasted rain has even showed up, well, I think it’s safe to say my streak of 291 days without watching a NASCAR race will be safe this weekend.
Just like a dirt track, baby. It works if you work it.