Flat Spot On: Bristol Night Race Still Great Spectacle

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, August 21 2016
Bristol Motor Speedway at night is still pretty special. (File photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Bristol Motor Speedway at night is still pretty special. (File photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

BRISTOL, Tenn. – The double duty gate, which also served as a barrier in Turn 2, lumbered open, allowing crew members, NASCAR officials, drivers and assorted others to walk down the steep banking that tested knee strength and into the infield of the Bristol half mile. At the time, 1992, it was the only way to get in.

bugopinionAs we ambled down the hill, Les Richter, then a senior vice president at NASCAR, smiled his avuncular smile, the one with some teeth slightly rearranged by time spent in the NFL in the days of no face masks. Looking at Turns 3 and 4, where the grandstands had been joined to create a completely enclosed track holding 100,000 fans, Richter, his eyes dancing, said, “This place has changed, hasn’t it?”

Well, now I know the feeling. It’s been 24 years since I walked down the banking at that long gone Turn 2 gate. Since then, the circular bowl has grown another deck that reaches to the sky, trimmed by luxury boxes at the top. This year, now suspended over the infield is Colossus TV, the world’s largest center-hung video board. It’s easily visible from every one of 160,000 grandstand seats.

Not all that far from the myth and mist of the Great Smokey Mountains, the Bristol track with its surrounding tiers for parking and neatly arranged row of haulers in the infield is easily NASCAR’s most picturesque facility, especially under the lights. And, it remains home to great spectacle.

Arguably, Bristol is the toughest place to win a race in NASCAR’s premier series, because of the steep banking’s gravity forces, the 15-second laps around a half mile, and the ease of getting into

Bristol Motor Speedway has a lot of nicknames. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

Bristol Motor Speedway has a lot of nicknames. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

crashes that require split-second reflexes to avoid. Then there’s the rooting in the corners in the late going when the race is on the line and it turns into a good ol’ local short track event with an exponential increase in speed and talent.

Feuds have flared and friendships ended at Bristol. Friday’s Xfinity Series race added another chapter as Kyle Busch called Brad Keselowski a “dirty driver” after contact cost Busch a shot at victory. (To which Keselowski calmly responded by explaining how Busch wrecked himself.)

It is the appreciation for this Sumo wrestling element that supposedly has gone unrequited since the track was reconfigured to a two-groove track in 2007, meaning the bump-and-run, mano-a-mano in the lower groove disappeared. While that viewpoint has taken on a life of its own when it comes to explaining where the fans have gone, there’s enough classic Bristol romping that continues (see Friday night) that the question is begged.

More likely, just like elsewhere the Great Recession interceded and the world changed. People couldn’t afford the expense of travel and found all manner of reasons why NASCAR wasn’t any good. It’s against human nature for people to stand up and say, “Well I can’t afford it quite like I once could.” Instead, it was easier to blame it on Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR, Toyota, TV saturation, aero push, etc. Even with the vacuous nature of the current presidential campaign, it’s easy to see that the same segment of the American electorate that is most angry and unhappy with being gerrymandered out of the economy is the same group that long supported NASCAR.

On Saturday night, then, it was a shame the weather did not cooperate on a night when there was an uptick in attendance. Despite an afternoon of intermittant rain, slightly more than half of the grandstand seats were full at the start — and then emptied as the day-long rain returned, postponing the race until Sunday afternoon.

Four years after the recession ended, it’s been an interesting year of close racing, late passes, surprise winners and the chase to get into the Chase. At Bristol, there was a good possibility that a first-time winner could emerge in the form of rookies Chase Elliott or Ryan Blaney or Chase aspirant Kyle Larson.

Almost all of the other tracks on the Sprint Cup schedule with ticket sales problems have hacked away seats. But “The Last Great Colosseum,” as Bristol bills itself, would be a difficult place to perform such reconstructive surgery. The track’s chief stockholder, O. Bruton Smith, has found a unique way out with the upcoming football game between Tennessee and VPI on Sept. 10. (The original Bristol International Raceway featured two concrete grandstands on either side of the track and a football field in the middle.) The upcoming college game, which led to the Colossus TV to free space in the infield, has sold a majority of the grandstand tickets. Can the World Wrestling Federation or other such events be far behind?

As for the racing, nobody asked me but I have a suggestion. In the glory years, Bristol had a long line of season ticket holders for the summertime Saturday night race – which sold a lot of tickets to the spring race. Why not work that scenario in reverse? Move the spring race elsewhere and get the fans to migrate back to the August event.

NASCAR’s current five-year agreements with promoters mean no new tracks or promoters are to be added. But Smith can move the spring race from Bristol to another one of the tracks in his Speedway Motorsports Inc. portfolio.

There is currently a cry to see a road race in the Chase as a result of outstanding crowds and races at Watkins Glen and excellent races at the Sonoma Raceway, where attendance is solid. If a championship should reflect the all-around ability required by road racing, why not move the spring Bristol date to a second race at Smith’s Sonoma Raceway in the fall of 2018?

In any event, the Saturday night summer race at Bristol has become the only event on the Sprint Cup schedule where the “good ol’ days” of huge crowds can possibly return. If the owner is not inclined to tear down any grandstands – especially if they work well for college football games — then there’s a chance to find a way to fill them up again.

Weather permitting, of course…

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, August 21 2016
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