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Beside the Rising Tide: Are Short Tracks Making a NASCAR Comeback?

After a couple decades of having become almost an asterisk or footnote in NASCAR news (and sadly many of them falling by the wayside), it seems NASCAR’s short tracks are muscling their way back into the spotlight.

To avoid any confusion, let’s look at what the traditional definition of a short track is. Any race track of less than a mile in circumference meets the definition I grew up with. There are three short tracks left on the 2020 Cup schedule; Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond. All three of these tracks will host two Cup races this season (the Good Lord permitting and if the creek don’t rise). That’s six Cup short-track events, a number most fans would like to see increased. Hearing the fans’ request, NASCAR tried to pull a fast one and cynically claim that NHIS and Phoenix were, in fact, short tracks too. Officially, Phoenix is a mile track. New Hampshire is 1.058 miles. Neither of those is less than a mile. No sale.

Bristol grabbed its share of the headlines this season with the decision to haul in 2000 tri-axle dump trucks’ worth of dirt last week. The intent and the planning of the idea were perhaps noble, but the execution was somewhat flawed due to lousy rainy weather most of the weekend and a frankly bizarre and unsportsmanlike decision late in the race to go back to single file restarts. NASCAR’s rulebook is written on an Etch-A-Sketch, but it’s rare they’ve changed a rule mid-race, especially one that will have a drastic effect on who wins an event. They don’t give golfers one mulligan during the middle of a tournament.

The weather wasn’t any better this weekend at Martinsville. There was a silver lining there in that the lights made it a lot easier to see how hard it was raining on TV during the rain delays. The rain just didn’t make it easy to race or, in fact, even possible. That may change someday in the not-too-distant future. Ironically, NASCAR, Goodyear and the track recently ran some limited testing of a somewhat treaded rain tire (as opposed to fully slick tires typically used in NASCAR touring series events).

Those tests yielded largely positive results. There’s also hope that a similar tire might allow racing during light to moderate rains at New Hampshire, though of course more testing would have to be done first.

There were even some folks this weekend who wondered why NASCAR didn’t just break out their new wonder wet-weather tires and have at it. Well, let’s see. Tires, treaded or slick, do not just magically spring into existence like all those yellow dandelions trying to take over your front yard this spring. Goodyear was experimenting with those tires and didn’t have a couple thousand of them waiting to go in an 18-wheeler. I spent too many years managing a tire store years ago. The design and production of a modern radial tire is an extremely complicated process. I won’t bore you with the details the way I have so many slack-jawed, disinterested fellow dinner party guests over the years.

(True story. In the original scripts Al Bundy was going to be a tire salesperson, not work at a shoe store. They saw that as a despicable enough lot in life to earn contempt from the viewing public.)

I wouldn’t expect to see any Goodyear Aquatred Racing tires for at least three years.

The lights at Martinsville initially weren’t installed with the idea of scheduling night events there for the Cup series. Martinsville wanted to give themselves a window as what to do in the event it rained during an afternoon race scheduled at the track. We’re talking the Southeastern portion of the United States here. It typically rains a bunch down there in the spring. Good thing too. Otherwise likely a lot of us would starve. Clay Campbell is no dummy.

Martinsville is the only track left on the schedule that also hosted a top-tier NASCAR event in NASCAR’s inaugural 1949 season. Perhaps worth noting here is of the eight events run that season, five of them were on short tracks. Another was on the famed Daytona beach and road course (yes, one stretch of that track was Florida Highway A1A). The other two tracks that made up the 1949 Cup schedule were Langhorne (PA), a circular one-mile dirt track where one corner had the charming nickname “Puke Hollow,” and Hillsboro (NC), a one-mile dirt track that hosted some of the greatest (and most caution-filled events) in NASCAR’s early history.

Another track that hosted a 1949 Cup event was North Wilkesboro Speedway. Over the last couple weeks, I have heard men with sufficient money to get the task done discussing a possible revitalization of North Wilkes. Their lips (and checkbooks) to God’s ears. Yes, North Wilkes has fallen upon hard times. The track is overgrown and the infrastructure has either fallen apart or is well into the process of doing so. One argument that led to the elimination of North Wilkes from the schedule was the thought NASCAR had outgrown the tiny track. Those were the days, huh? NACAR tickets sold as quickly as they could be printed even as tracks added vast new swathes of grandstands to try to keep up with demand. As Todd Rundgren once sang, “Those days are through,” and as Jerry Garcia once sang, “Like a steam locomotive rolling down the track, they’re gone, they’re gone and nothing’s gonna bring them back.”

Get a group of Boy Scouts armed with scythes and industrial size bottles of Round-Up (and appropriate face masks) and they’ll have the track cleared in a couple weekends.

Martinsville was added to the Cup schedule in its second season (as was Darlington), and has been hosting two events a season ever since. In fact, in 1961, Martinsville hosted three Cup events. They ran a Cup race on April 9, but it got rained out on lap 149. That was far enough to be an official race that day, and Fred Lorenzen was awarded full points for the win. Fans back then were too smart to sit around in the rain all afternoon. Many of the fans who attended that race also went back to the track on April 30, 1961, to watch another official race, that one won by Junior Johnson. The Cup circuit came back to Martinsville for a third race on Sept. 24, 1961, for an event claimed by Joe Weatherly in a Pontiac months before GM officially quit racing.

A bit ironically, Martinsville was switched from a dirt to a paved track between its two Cup races in 1955. If Clay Campbell is a smart guy, his grandfather H. Clay Earles may have been the smartest man ever to found and run a racetrack. He saw that women were coming to the race track on their way home from church services in their “Sunday clothes,” which they didn’t like soiled in dust and mud, so he paved the track.

(Recall back in those days, women were by and large tasked with doing the whole family’s laundry, so having to do an emergency load, on a Sunday no less, probably wasn’t much appreciated.)

On a different note, Martinsville has known tragedy as well as triumph. On Oct. 24, 1985, one of the sport’s short-track legends, Richie Evans, lost his life in a Modified race at the track. Evans had just clinched that year’s Modified title the previous weekend. Evans had claimed nine total Modified titles, eight of them consecutively between 1978 and 1985.

Safety is said to have played a role in NASCAR’s decision on when to pull the plug on Friday night’s NXS race. Some folks felt they threw in the towel too early. Had they hung on much later, it would have meant that crew members (with no hotel rooms in the area) would have been facing the 120-mile ride back to the Charlotte/Mooresville area where most of them live in the wee hours of the morning, with many of them facing the run back to Martinsville hours later.

It didn’t take place after Martinsville (it happened after the next week’s race at North Wilkesboro, by coincidence). Rob Moroso, son of high-performance pioneer Dick Moroso, finished 21st at both Martinsville and North Wilkesboro as part of what had been a frustrating season like many drivers in their first season racing in the big leagues. Four days after the North Wilkes race, the younger Moroso went to a bar called Twisters in Cornelius, NC. He had too much to drink that night, and on the way home, got into a head-on wreck that killed both Moroso and the other driver. Sadly enough, Moroso went on to win Rookie of the Year honors in the Cup series though he missed the last four races of the year.

Naturally, not all drivers who win a clock at Martinsville cherish it and the local jobs it represents. During Saturday night’s rain-shortened race broadcast, Clint Bowyer admitted he finds his noisy and thus annoying at times. Of course, the same can be said of Bowyer.

Those Ridgeway grandfather clocks have served as a trophy for winning Martinsville since Fred Lorenzen was given the first one for his victory at the track in 1964. Those clocks are manufactured locally, and in fact are quite ornate and beautifully crafted. For about $2600, you can have one of your own, the same model clock given to Martinsville winners, minus the champagne and beer stains, of course. To the best of my knowledge, Kyle Busch never attacked one with an ax to mimic the way he destroyed the Sam Bass guitar trophy at Nashville in 2009 Of course he’s only had two chances, winning Cup races there in 2016 and 2017.

In other short track news, last week Marcus Smith announced that Bristol is studying the feasibility of adding a roof over the Tennessee short track. On paper that might make sense, and it’s been discussed before, but let me go on record here as being against the idea. Viewed from above, BMS looks like an alien advance invasion ship that crash-landed into the Tennessee Alps. Towering concrete grandstands almost completely encircle the track. My last few trips to Bristol, I found myself developing a massive headache and shortness of breath in the infield and even in the grandstands due to heavy concentrations of carbon monoxide in those areas. Eventually, I’d have to find my way to one of the concourses, hang my head over the railing and take some deep breaths for a while. Even after doing so, I usually had a pounding headache for the rest of the day, and on my last trip to the track, one of those headaches dogged me the entire ride back home to Philly. I’d urge Smith to proceed carefully here and potentially take a look at tearing down some of the grandstand seats to restore more natural airflow to the track.

But back to Martinsville, a track steeped in tradition. If I’m recalling correctly, tickets on what was then the back straight didn’t go on sale until the morning of the race to give local fans the chance to attend. I always dug the visuals of seeing those freight trains rolling past the track on race day.

Another tradition that caused a bit of controversy at Martinsville had to do with the famous Martinsville hot dog. Manufactured locally by Jesse Jones, said hot dogs have a distinctive bright red coloration. Traditionally, they are served slathered with chili, mustard, coleslaw and onions. Talk about a gut bomb. Perhaps even more notably, these famous hot dogs are still just two dollars apiece, a price that won’t get you a shot glass of tap water at most tracks’ concession stands.

Those hot dogs were phased out for a couple years and a lot of fans were very unhappy about that. It probably wasn’t the actual menu item’s loss that upset them as much as another tradition falling by the wayside at a track that many fans’ families had attended for generations. I heard this weekend that Martinsville serves up 50,000 of these atomic hot dogs on a typical Cup race weekend, which indicates there’s a whole lot of people with a whole lot more intestinal fortitude than I at those races.

If there’s been any news lately about the new short track being built to replace Fontana out west over the last few weeks, I missed it. Doing business in California, especially if it might disturb the habitat of some obscure critter like the blue-toed sand flea, is notoriously difficult.

It’s ironic that Fontana was one of the new generation “super-tracks” added to the schedule to create more geographic diversity on the schedule. In that era, a new track had to be designed to accommodate both NASCAR stock cars and IndyCar open wheel racing. As a result, most of those new tracks featured racing that wasn’t much good for either sort of racing. It’s ironic that some of those newer venues are losing race dates or even shutting down entirely while racetracks designed by guys riding on the metal seats of tractors pretty much by eye continue to thrive. Quick, someone ship that construction crew out in Fontana a vintage John Deere.

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11 thoughts on “Beside the Rising Tide: Are Short Tracks Making a NASCAR Comeback?”

  1. I find it amusing that Nascar thinks they still need huge numbers of seats to hold a race. Not only are the crowds not up to ‘the old days’, but it seem to me that being put on a waiting list for tickets (you know, like it used to be for Bristol) is a lot smarter. Most people really want what is hard to get. Why does no one discuss Iowa when they toak short track venues?

    • Why not Iowa Speedway? It’s a great short track and quite similar to Richmond which is a lot of the drivers favorite track. In the past Cup drivers always seemed to like in when they ran there in the Xfinity races. ( To be fair they usually won) but all in all it seemed real good.
      Airport is right there next to it as well as the Interstate so why not. To my knowledge all they have scheduled for 2021 is one weekend of ARCA. Not sure if the Indy cars are even going there this year. If I am correct, Nascar might even now own the track? Lastly still wondering what the real reason for Tony not getting the Cup dirt race?

  2. used to be, in days gone by, that only activities were done on sundays were going to church and family time. stores and gas stations were closed. restaurants opened after 12 noon. you didn’t do yard work or chores. races used to have chapel for drivers and families to attend prior to the race event. races used to start at 1 pm. look back at old film and men wore shirts and ties in the grandstands. but also, people would dress to run to the grocery stores and go out to dinner at a regular style restaurant.

    when i read about marcus smith thinking about doming bristol….they’d have to have some awesome ventilation system. those hot summer weekends with 1000% humidity makes breathing difficult at best without lung issues. i can’t i magine where a capital improvement project like a roof over bristol would be profitable. i guess they could have more college football games. heck asm trucked a ton of dirt in and is having motorcross racing this week. luckily they didn’t pile the dirt on the racing oval. it’s all in the infield grass area.

    i think after covid restrictions are lifted you might have more fans at the track for a while, but i don’t think too many will sell out. product isn’t alike it was. bristol hasn’t sold out for the past few seasons. use to be you could never get bristol tickets.

    i’m tired of people telling me what to eat and what not to eat. those martinsville hotdogs were part of the experience. i know my stomach’s limitations on processed foods and junk. i always felt that any hotdog purchased at a race tasted better than any i prepared at home. i think it had to do with the entire day.

    i’m on the fence about wilkesboro. can the town, how it is now, help support the needs of the track? there’s so much to be considered. i don’t know if it can be revitalized.

  3. Short tracks were only a footnote to NASCAR’s management. They had to because they built so many damned 1.5 mile tracks and they had to sell them. To fans short tracks were looked forward to and cherished due to the interesting races they produced and their scarcity. (BTW, you left out Dover as being one of NASCAR’s redefined short tracks. What a crock that is.)

    While I think a roof could be put over Bristol, I am not sure it would be a good idea. Although, if it had a roof, that might make it the perfect place for the final championship race, 0% chance of rain.

    I would love to see North Wilkesboro back on the schedule as another short track, I just don’t think it will happen. There is nothing left to build on. The whole track would need to be razed and rebuilt. If I am going to have to build a track from scratch, I think I would pick somewhere more tourist friendly.

  4. Random thoughts:

    Best fried chicken in the world was at North Wilkesboro. Marcus Smith needs to atone for the sins of the father & restore North Wilkesboro to its glory. It can be done, in spite of the naysayers.

    A slaw dog at Martinsville was the one time a year that I’d have eaten a hotdog. “The product” such as it is sucks with the exception of Martinsville.

    Local short tracks produce more action simply because there’s less real estate to vie for. There’s better racing at my local 1/3 mile asphalt & 1/3 mile than 99% of the venues for “the product”.

    If ya wanna run dirt, run on a dirt track. Magnolia Speedway in Columbus, Mississippi leaps to mind. Or Knoxville, Iowa. Or Rossburg, Ohio. That kludged together mudhole in Bristol cheapens the image of Bristol.

    Some diversity in the schedule for the best drivers in the world may rekindle interest –road / street courses, short tracks ( 1 mile). Three buckets nicely divides into 36 at 12 races per venue type. I personally would send Kansas & Texas the way of Kentucky & Chicago.

  5. I enjoyed the Bristol race–ratings were up and the action was intense. Mother Nature had rain planned so humanity has to change THEIR plans. Redefined short-tracks is a crock…there are three and I am extremely excited to see what Fontana will be like. But as we all should know, TIME TAKES TIME and I firmly believe NASCAR is planning more radical changes for the future. As for sell-outs–it’s simply because fans have copped out. As a fan since 1988, I have seen GREAT racing in the past few years but many people turned away when Jimmie Johnson dominated in the late 2000s and the rise of “SELF” cellphones that allow you to see whatever YOU want, when YOU want it, how YOU want it. So why even go to a race when you can keep your lazy tushy on a couch on Sundays. Start times should always remain at 1 pm with exception of a few night races yearly. Church attendance, of course, is WAY DOWN as our country goes the way of most European countries; secular. Domed Bristol-with proper ventilation it could work but the track would have to provide hearing protection. North Wilkesboro–with just a little like 20 million from SMI or Lemonis could be state of the art again-I say tear it all up and revitalize it. TIME TAKES TIME. Whatever happened to the Milwaukee Mile or Indianapolis Raceway Park or South Boston? All could be great short tracks (shorter in the case of the MM). I also believe the destruction of the family via divorce (which is at a much higher rate than in the 80s,90s, and early 00’s) keeps NASCAR from being a “family adventure.” Couple with many states now having laws limiting full driver’s licenses until 18, kids just aren’t getting excited about cars now like when I was growing up. Listen to Jr talk about “cruising” for an idea of what it was like for me. Now we have Uber, Lyft, etc and so many single-parent families that kids have to use those services. When I was in school the lot was filled with cool-souped up cars…now, I ride by the local HS everyday (and they have full week classes) and only half the lot has anything in it (and my socio-economic area is about $65k yearly). NASCAR won’t go away and I expect it to even revitalize a bit-the internet/IRacing community is much stronger than when I ran N2K3 or even before that with NASCAR 98.’ We, as fans, need to support. I will be at Talledaga and Charlotte this year (since I was able to get tickets even though I’ve seen no official annoucement for Charlotte) but I will support the sport that has meant so much to my life. All the autographs, the memories of childhood diecast racing, spending time with my family-no way will I ever be fairweather. Sure, the racing has changed but that’s in line with the durability of newer model cars. To survive, you must progress and for naysayers, sit down, shut-up and watch and you will be surprised.

    • So people have an obligation to watch and attend anyway, even if they don’t like what it’s become, because they owe NASCAR something? Good luck with spreading the Gospel According to Daytona. Many fans hung on until their favorite driver retired, despite the myriad changes needlessly thrown at the sport. They already barely recognized what they had come to love however many years prior. They’re not duty-bound to suck up stage racing, fake dirt tracks, and supposed playoffs just because NASCAR was a big part of their life at one point or another.

  6. Short track racing on an old narrow flat track is not that interesting. Pass at your own peril. You can be taken out at any time for no good reason. It reminds me of a glorified Bowman-Gray Stadium.
    Good race tracks need a lot of run off room, wide straights and turns and some banking. Martinsville would be great for smaller race cars (Legend/Dwarf Cars and Open Wheel Midgets.

  7. “Get a group of Boy Scouts armed with scythes and industrial size bottles of Round-Up (and appropriate face masks) and they’ll have the track cleared in a couple weekends.”

    What and have the scouts sued for something else? Mine as well have the boys wear (and girls) wear asbestos face masks too.

    • I kind of laughed at that line myself. My thought was; Why? So the bulldozers can see what they are doing when they raze the entire track.

      To imply that scythes and round-up is all the track needs is laughable. Those Boys Scouts better be Transformers.

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