The Glass Is Half Full
I've been to Bristol countless times. I've been there in the spring and in the fall. I've been there when it rained, when it snowed and when it was hot and humid. I've been there when the stands were packed for an Xfinity Series race, let alone a Cup race and I was most recently there last month when unfortunately, not too many others were. I went with two friends this time. Michael has been to several NASCAR races but none at Bristol although he had been there when Tennessee and Virginia Tech played football. Howard had never been to a stock car race on pavement at any level. I knew this was going to be a great experience on several levels.
Every fan knew the weather was going to be questionable for Sunday but they also knew Saturday was going to be gorgeous. Because of that, I expected to see a pretty good crowd for the Xfinity race. I figured the addition of a K&N Series race would also help the crowd. When we parked at the gravel lot on White Top Road, I knew immediately that I was wrong. I'd never parked so close to the road before; hardly anyone was there. The lack of campers on the hillsides between the parking lot and track confirmed that.
Much has been written about what NASCAR has done wrong over the years; there's no doubt they've created a lot of problems. Between laser inspection issues and pit gun failures, maybe they're still creating issues. As Saturday unfolded though, I realized that between the ruling powers and the track, they're getting a few things right. Unfortunately it seemed and still seems that a lot of fans are either unwilling or unable to recognize that.
Only 200 miles from Charlotte, Bristol is a three hour drive (or less) from parts of six states. That's an easy drive when so many cry on social media about the distance to tracks. As we learned in April, it has never been easier or quicker to get into and out of that track. I well remember sitting in traffic for a full hour after a snow delayed Xfinity Series race in 2007.
The racing itself was great. The track has done a great job of fixing the issues they created when they tried to "improve" what was considered to be the best racing surface on the circuit. We even saw shades of the old bump and run days on Monday when Kyle Busch moved Kyle Larson out of the way in the closing laps.
One issue that's gotten a lot of attention lately is the presence of Cup drivers and teams in the Xfinity Series. The Xfinity race at Bristol had no Cup drivers. I stood there throughout the day, a beautiful, sunny day and couldn't understand why there were no fans there. This was what so many people claimed they wanted; perfect weather, a Cup-free Xfinity race, at a great track. Additionally, perhaps because of the absence of fans, cell reception was better there than I've ever experienced. The sights were as exciting as ever. That sweetly pungent smell of high octane fuel mixed with hot rubber was as comforting as ever and that rumbling sound you felt to the core of your being was as tingling as ever. Why wasn't anyone there?!
Michael and Howard both loved it as I knew they would. Almost immediately after we left, we talked about when and if we'd be able to come back. I spent a lot of the time driving home thinking not only about how great that Saturday was but also why there were so few fans there. I don't know if I'm right but I have an idea. We become comfortable with our thoughts. Think about it; when the stands were packed and hotel prices were outrageous, many didn't care. They were comfortable and content in going to the track and having a good time. Non-fans, people on the outside wouldn't understand it but that didn't matter to us; we still went.
Then a combination of events happened. The recession hit, NASCAR made awful changes in so many areas of the sport, an era of drivers retired, we got older, the quality of coverage declined and on and on. Then social media took off. Now fans can (and do!) voice their opinion about every aspect of the sport and we have become comfortable in that setting. Believe me, I'm guilty of it; it's easy to do. How many of us are fair in our critique though? How many fans are enjoying the 2018 season, the streaks by Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch? How many fans are enjoying the positive press Bubba Wallace is bringing to the sport? Aren't we relishing in this "old guys" vs. "young guns" storyline? There's so much positive to talk about, yet there's still so much negativity from those who claim to be fans. Again, maybe we just become comfortable with where we are.
I realized I hadn't been fair to NASCAR lately. I had been like so many others, quick to criticize but slow to give credit and that's something I've tried and will continue to try to improve. That point has been stressed by Rick Mast on his weekly podcast The Mast Cast. All the whining and complaining about the sport on social media is being done by fans or people who used to be fans. Regardless of what category they're in, they're at least interested enough to pay attention even if it's just to criticize. Maybe if enough of us start recognizing and appreciating what's right with the sport and get comfortable in that role again, it will force some of those people to pay attention to what we're talking about.
Sunday morning my friends and I returned to the track. We knew it was going to rain at some point that day but we didn't care. We were there for the friendship, the fun and whatever racing we would get to see that day. We parked next to a couple from Wisconsin. Wisconsin! They drove south just for this race, just like fans used to do. It was the lady's first trip to a NASCAR race. She was a Ryan Blaney fan and I realized that with Blaney just entering what should be a long career, there was the possibility that he had a fan in this lady who would follow him for years and possibly to other races in person. That's how it begins and I was happy to celebrate that with her.
We didn't return Monday after the race was delayed; our schedules wouldn't allow it, but that was fine with me. Bristol was to me just like it had always been. It was a time of friendship and fun. It gave us great racing and an awesome experience. It brought back sweet memories as it helped me create new ones I'll cherish going forward. It reminded me of why I love this sport, its people and its pageantry. And it reminded me that for all its warts, it’s still special and has a lot to love. I just wish you'd been there. I wish a lot of you had been there.