It’s Bristol Baby, but Which Bristol?
I bid you welcome gentle readers and hope you all enjoyed a wonderful and blessed Easter. Because I love you all, this won’t be a dissertation on what I did on my Easter vacation, though what I did on Easter Sunday was watch a race… at Bristol… from 1988! That would be on the 36º banking and run on asphalt. For the record, there were 12 cautions, all but one for wrecks, and the remaining one for debris… it was someone’s rear bumper. I’ll save you the time and tell you it was won by Bill Elliott… one of the two Bill won on short tracks… the other was at Richmond. I’ve no idea if today’s “fans” would have liked the race or not, but I enjoyed it immensely.
Not coincidentally, this week, for race #8 on the schedule, we go to Thunder Valley, or as the “mainstream press” now calls it, “The Last Great Colosseum”… Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tennessee, a town that actually lies in two states, the other being Virginia… but the track is on the Tennessee side of the road. In days gone by, this spring race was the one folks might actually have been able to buy tickets for; the night race in August… Fahgeddaboudit!
Sadly, in recent times, little Bristol, once the hottest ticket in racing, has suffered the fate of all the rest; tickets are now easily come by for either race and sections of grandstand now are no more… gone in the name of a feeble attempt to make the remaining stands look full. They weren’t last year and they won’t be this year either.
“Bring back the old Bristol.” That’s the cry we hear from the fans, as if, if that could be accomplished they’d all come back to the track as they once did… in great numbers. Yet probably no more than one in a hundred of those saying it ever even saw the “Old Bristol.” I didn’t! She bowed into the racing scene in 1961, the idea come to fruition of Carl Moore, Larry Carrier and R.G. Pope. She was asphalt, not concrete, and her turns were banked a mild 22º, not 36º. That wouldn’t come until 1969 when Moore and Carrier decided to give the track an uplift as it were, which increased speeds on the track considerably.
I guess the folks making that request must be lovers of speed, because the racing was tough on drivers, cars and asphalt, and was pretty much either follow the leader or wreck the leader. I recall Benny Parsons winning his only race in 1973 en route to a championship by 7 laps over the next best finisher. (L.D. Ottinger) If that is the style of racing you miss, I simply cannot agree, though I certainly do miss Benny.
By 1982, Bristol had changed ownership twice more with the last purchaser being Warner Hodgdon, who named former owner Larry Carrier as General Manager. Some three years later, Hodgdon filed for bankruptcy and Carrier took possession of his little girl once more, paying off liens and outstanding debts.
About a decade later, the tires had greatly improved, with more traction making the cars much faster. The high banks of Bristol couldn’t carry that combination and the track surface began to deteriorate faster than Carrier’s wallet could keep up with it. Between the spring and summer races of 1992 Bristol became the first speedway to host a NASCAR Cup event that boasted a track surface of all concrete. Oh yes, the “fans” hated it! (The fans didn’t have to pay upkeep on the track)
Early in 1996, Carrier sold the Speedway to O. Bruton Smith and his Speedway Motorsports Inc. Smith paid $26 million for the Speedway that at that time seated just over 70,000 fans. Please note… that was just over 20 years ago, so “old” is really not a term that applies there. The “old” Bristol was long gone well before that time.
One of Smith’s first moves was to hire Jeff Byrd (R.J. Reynolds) as General Manager of Bristol, and he would not regret that choice. Under Byrd’s guidance, BMS continued to grow and by April of 1997 was the largest sports arena in Tennessee and one of the largest in the country, seating 118,000. The speedway also boasted 22 new skyboxes. By the end of the following year, that total had grown to 131,000 seats and 100 skyboxes. In just those 2 years, Smith’s investment in Bristol after purchase was in excess of $50 million.
In 2002, work began on an ambitious project that would see the entire backstretch, including the remaining concrete seating, demolished in favor of a new backstretch grandstand that would increase the track’s seating capacity to an estimated 155,000. The backstretch now includes three levels of seating and features 52 luxury skybox suites. By 2005, with the completion of the final 35 luxury suites, Smith’s efforts to accommodate fan comfort were finished, at a cost well beyond my ability to estimate.
In 2007, NASCAR introduced the “COT” or Car of Tomorrow… another discussion for another day… and little Bristol was once again showing her age and near the point of disintegration. The old concrete surface was removed… and yes, for the folks dragging out that tired old, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, it was “broke” and in desperate need of fixing. Being a forward thinker, Smith decided that the new surface would consist of the newer graduated banking rather than just the straight-up 36º that limited racing to the bottom groove only and made for many wrecked cars and frayed tempers because cars could not pass each other without a “bump and run” maneuver.
This scribe found the racing under that configuration to be nothing short of awesome. Cars easily racing three-wide around tiny and steep little Bristol was a sight to behold. It was very reminiscent of the racing at Irwindale in California, a track on which this old fan has always loved to watch a race. Irwindale had installed the graduated banking, and I suspect that might be where Bruton Smith got the idea for Bristol. At this point, if one had to guess, mine would be that all in all, Smith spent somewhere in excess of $100 million on Bristol, not including the original purchase. Please, just let that number sink in and think about it for a minute…
Did the fickle fans thank him for the grand palace of speed he’d built for them? Of course not. The hue and cry began almost immediately. They wanted the “old” Bristol back. At this point, I must point out that those that stood in that camp are not race fans; they are wreck fans, and there are no two ways about it. Bristol had racing, and it was excellent racing!
In 2012, Bruton Smith did what no other track owner would ever do. He spent almost 2 weeks listening to fans and weighing their input and then announced his decision. The banking in the upper groove of the race track would be reduced to the same degree as the middle of the surface. The project was designed to eliminate the third groove as a viable option and create tighter racing.
Who else would have done that for the fickle fans? Now, what do we hear, again and again? The “fans” want the “old” Bristol back. No, they do not! They want back the wrecks. They want back the twisted sheet metal and injured drivers. They want leaders out on laps by themselves and somehow they call that “racing.” If you want routing and gouging, take a ride over to Bowman-Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem N.C. That’s a tiny ¼-mile track surrounding a football field and I hear that the show there is something to behold… about everything short of outright murder!
Here’s a bit of a wake-up call for you. Attendance at all tracks is down. ALL tracks! Is that all the fault of changes made to Bristol Motor Speedway? Of course it isn’t! “The times, they are a’changing” is not just a trite saying. The times are always changing; the only constant in life is change. Learn that and learn to deal with it.
In the days when I could go racing, I was there, and it was, for me, absolutely thrilling… the sights, the sounds, the smells, the food, the camaraderie with other fans, all worked together to make every race a memorable experience, no matter the weather or the temperature. If younger folks today can’t or don’t care to share that sort of experience, then my sympathies are with them. Perhaps, if phones were left in pockets… in airplane mode and concerts forgotten, the racing might once again take center stage. It is, after all, a race track, not a concert hall or a phone booth.
So dear gentle readers, when we watch the race on Sunday… those of us that choose to do so while others are busy watching cement dry or playing mindless games on a phone… don’t despair at the emptiness of the stands or the lower TV ratings. A lot of tracks are setting records for low attendance this year and it’s becoming apparent to everyone but Brian Z. France that no one is watching on TV either. NBC and even FOX have finally begun to twitch as the numbers go lower and lower. Please, join your scribe in enjoying the race because it’s Bristol and don’t worry about which Bristol. Oh, and in our little game we play here on site, my choice for high score this week is the son of the guy that won in my living room on Sunday, Chase Elliott! Who says there are no racers anymore? It’s Bristol Baby! Let’s go racin’!
Time now for our Classic Country Closeout and we’ll take another dip in the pool of golden Country available to us through the magic of YouTube. This is from a series called “Stars of the 1950s” and there are many of them. Today’s selection starts off with Webb Pierce and is full of surprises and happy memories. Unlike Bristol, we can bring back the “Old Country” and in a most delightful way. Please enjoy!
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!