This weekend, the NASCAR Cup and Camping World Truck series will race on Bristol Motor Speedway’s dirt surface for the second time.
But … why, though?
Speedway Motorsports has taken its greatest and most beautiful facility and dumped truckload after truckload of mud onto it. It’d be like taking the iconic Lambeau Field and changing the field color to blue (of course, Bristol was already tampered with when it went from asphalt to concrete, but that’s a whole other topic).
Putting dirt on Bristol essentially happened because of two reasons: low attendance for the spring event and because FOX wanted it.
Something needed to change to try to boost attendance, right? Actually, no.
Bristol holds over 160,000 people, so it could literally have double the attendance of last year’s Nashville Superspeedway race and it would still look half empty. Meanwhile, Texas Motor Speedway has had races where I wondered if there were more people racing on the track than there were in the grandstands, and yet not a thing is being done to change that abomination of a racing surface.
Attendance doesn’t matter anymore. Just ask Pocono Raceway, which lost a race despite packing the place for the last year’s doubleheader. Why’d it lose a date? Because TV ratings weren’t good for the Saturday race.
Ratings are what matter now. And FOX paid the big bucks to NASCAR, so it gets to call the shots. Which is completely fair, but it’s just hard to go along with the vision of a company that thinks it’s a great idea to put someone in a watermelon seed costume to convince viewers to stick around and watch the race.
I’m all for trying new ideas, but NASCAR tried dirt on Bristol last year and it was pretty much a disaster. Rain plagued the weekend, as it has and will continue to do every single time you have an event in Bristol, Tenn., in April. And when the track wasn’t too wet, it was too dry. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you create a temporary dirt track at which crews can’t get consistent reps in prepping it.
So should the Bristol dirt experiment come to an end after this year? My opinion on it isn’t worth two cents, but there are three NASCAR icons who have come out against the Cup Series being on dirt at all.
Defending Cup champion Kyle Larson, one of the most highly regarded dirt racers in the country, voiced his displeasure at Cup racing on dirt on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Dialed In.” His issue with it stems from NASCAR’s refusal to remove windshields for the event, as one of the biggest issues last year was the windshields being quickly being covered with mud as soon as the green flag dropped.
“I guess the way that I look at it [is] if we’re not going to take the windshields out, then why are we racing on dirt?” Larson said. “We just shouldn’t race on dirt if we’re not going to take the windshields out and actually have a dirt race with moisture in the track and being able to produce a real dirt race. I feel like we’re just wasting everybody’s time a little bit and not giving the fans and competitors what we all deserve.
“So in my opinion, if we’re not going to take the windshields out, we might as well just never put dirt on Bristol again – which I’m all for not putting dirt on Bristol whether we have windshields or not. I think the racing at Bristol is amazing just as normal.”
NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty, who was the most recent driver to win at dirt at the Cup level prior to Joey Logano winning at Bristol last year, was the first significant figure to speak out against NASCAR returning to dirt. The King was against the idea from day one.
“I have to be careful here, because there’s some politics involved and I don’t want to annihilate NASCAR on this,” Petty said. “I guess I’m looking at it from an old-time deal because we spent years and years and years trying to become a professional sport. Years and years to get away from that stigma [that racing wasn’t professional]. But dirt-track racing is not professional, so we’re going backward. It would be like taking a professional football team and going back to play at a high school field.”
Thirty of Petty’s 200 Cup wins came on dirt tracks, and his father, Lee, has the most dirt wins in Cup history with 42. So the seven-time champion is no stranger to dirt racing.
“Cut the cord,” Busch said. “As Richard Petty said, dirt takes our sport backwards.”
There’s 10 combined championships between Larson, Petty and Busch. When they speak, NASCAR, FOX, Speedway Motorsports and fans alike should listen.
Recently inducted Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr. is more open-minded to NASCAR racing on dirt but doesn’t believe it should come at the expense of a Bristol short track race. With one Bristol race becoming a dirt race, the Cup schedule is now down to five short track races (not including The Clash at the Coliseum). Despite fans begging for #MoreShortTracks, they have received less.
“I think that it’s the wrong track,” Earnhardt told the podcast Door, Bumper, Clear. “Brett [Griffin] talks about the mystique and aura of a dirt track like Eldora [Speedway], that’s what’s missing.
“If we’re going to race dirt, we need to be celebrating a historic facility that has a lot of amazing things from its past and taking Cup cars there and seeing how that works and being embraced by that community, right? We’re not going to the dirt community when we go to Bristol.”
I agree with Earnhardt’s view on this. NASCAR should try some dirt racing, but at a permanent dirt track with a long history. Eldora or Knoxville Raceway would be perfect. Eldora hosted Trucks from 2013-19, and it put on some solid racing. But Eldora’s management elected not to renew its contract with NASCAR, and one rumor is that it was because NASCAR would not give the track a Cup date. If that is true, it’s ridiculous on NASCAR’s part to throw dirt on Bristol rather than go to Eldora.
Knoxville hosted a disastrous Truck race last year and will again this year (yes, I’m expecting it to be bad again), but the Truck Series has wreckfests nearly everywhere these days, so that’s not a good baseline. Cup would probably run a much better and cleaner race at the track.
There’s a crowd that wants to see North Wilkesboro Speedway turned into a permanent dirt track, and that could be what Speedway Motorsports’ big announcement scheduled for April 16, is. But that would be a wrong move. Last year, I spoke to Steven Wilson of the Save the Speedway campaign for North Wilkesboro, and he was against turning the facility into a dirt track for several reasons.
“I can go on and on and on about the history of asphalt racing at North Wilkesboro Speedway,” Wilson said. “But if you ask me what happened on dirt there, I can only point to just a handful of things that even occurred there.
“… One of the other things that we have to look at is what events can you bring in on a dirt track. Last time I knew, Metallica isn’t or Lollapalooza, any these major concerts aren’t bringing millions and millions and millions of dollars worth of equipment to a dirt track. So you’ve already lost out on one revenue stream there.
“You think about drifting events, one-on-one drag strips, burnout competitions. You think about so many other different opportunities. Filming is another thing that has, Joey Logano, Vaughn Gittin Jr. has been out there, Top Gear has been out there. … Would those opportunities have come to the track if it was dirt? I don’t think so. They would have been passed over. So you’re losing critical revenue streams to keep the track open and operating.”
So Speedway Motorsports should instead revive North Wilkesboro as the history-rich asphalt track that it is. And if the organization is looking to change one of the tracks it currently owns into a permanent dirt track, how about it bulldozes Texas or Kentucky Speedway and rebuilds one of them as a dirt track instead?
Even if the races this weekend at Bristol are wildly entertaining, people’s opinions on whether it should be a dirt race or not are likely already set. It’s too polarizing of an issue for a track that is universally loved by fans.
So let’s get away from dirt racing at Bristol and try it somewhere else — if anywhere at all.
About the author
Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.
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