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Thursday Morning Thunder, Vol. 13: For Better or Worse, the Bristol Dirt Race Is Today’s NASCAR

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. 

See also
Timmy Hill to Race for Penske in Pro Invitational Series at Virtual Bristol Dirt

#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.

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.

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Gary

You know you’re going to watch.

Matty

Bryan excellent article – every word the truth too. You speak like you’ve been around the sport for 50 years. Like your style. Matty H

Bill B

Good article and I agree with most everything you said but, I have to admit, you really lost me with “it’s been 291 days since I watched a NASCAR-sanctioned race”. Good for you. However as a reader I must say, not watching the events of the sport you are supposed to be covering for a NASCARcentric website is counter intuitive enough to make me feel “why should I read anything this clown writes if he isn’t even watching the events on which he is reporting?”. I reiterate that the article is good and I like your insights and observations even though you aren’t watching.

Your larger point about it being an artificial dirt race, while correct, doesn’t acknowledge that the race can’t be so different from the other 35 races that it doesn’t conform to what is considered “normal”. Of course the heat races are a waste of time since no one is going to miss the race (kind of like the Duels for the Daytona 500). And yes 250 laps removes the urgency of a 35 lap race but if NASCAR did that, the race would only last 30 minutes which would be ludicrous to award points and count equally as the other 35 races. Also, how many fans would show up and be willing to pay the price (travel, lodging and ticket) for a 30 minute race and how would the television broadcaster make it worth covering with such a limited window for advertisement. So, while your points are correct, you seem to be ignoring common sense issues in the name of purity of dirt track racing. The real problem here is that NASCAR is trying to fit a square peg in a round hole and that is why it is hokey. It would have been a better fit if they had done this at the all-star race. As it is it could be a really cool and fun race to watch, or it could be the most stupid race NASCAR has ever staged. No one knows yet but one has to wonder, how wise is it to stage such an experimental race, with so many unknowns, during the regular season.

KU

You are spot on. When they announced this race I thought WTF? Why? Still fixing what you broke? I will watch just to see how bad it is so I can comment. But I have a feeling that it will be a mistake.
BTW I agree with leaving the grass alone. Like a golfer wanting a bunker removed.

WJW Motorsports

Keep the grass, lose the splitters. Problem solved. On the subject of Sim racing – I think sadly it has a brighter future than the real thing.

Jeffrey angstman

Very concerned about pit crews and pit road.This is a case where there will be a lot of major pit work! The first to go will be those airdam/splitter bumpers.That track will get rough and dry.If it rains at all there is no fixing it.It has had a thousand laps run on it in the last week.Pit road will be dirty and hard to stop on.Untested tires and heavy race cars! What was the point after they ran much faster,lighter DLM cars there already too? Just a gimmick race and I hope it is not a gamble that kills someone…

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