Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO Bruton Smith has long been a man not afraid to publicly share many of his wild visions for innovations surrounding the numerous major racing facilities his company owns and operates.
Many of those ideas have helped to build his tracks into some of the most fan friendly sporting venues in the country. And still more of those ideas have fallen into the outlandish category. Smith has never shied from offering up some wild ideas for change.
Now the man wants to build a time machine.
There was a time when the .533-mile Bristol Motor Speedway was NASCAR’s Roman Coliseum of Sprint Cup Series racing. The tight confines made for some of the most regular aggressive action on the series schedule. It also made tickets for the track’s two annual events some of the toughest to get in the sport.
Sunday’s Food City 500 showed that there’s nothing tough these days about finding a ticket into the 160,000 seat facility, leaving many asking the question, why was Bristol only half full on Sunday.
In 2007 a repaving of the track added variable banking in the corners opening up the track for two and three-wide racing. Many point to this reconfiguration as the biggest problem at Bristol, blaming the track changes for stripping rough and tumble action from the track. Though many who point to the repave/reconfiguration as cause for the change fail to mention that even before the reconfiguration at Bristol, Sprint Cup Series racing had taken on a much tamer look than what fans became used to at the track in the 1980′ and 1990′s.
Earlier this week, Smith said SMI will look into returning the track to its old configuration. Is climbing behind the wheel of the DeLorean and going all Back To The Future really the answer? Probably not.
Can a reconfiguration change Bristol 2012 back to Bristol 1985? It all sounds good. Just change the track back to the way it was and the beating and banging and fighting for positions will return right? Simple logic right? Racing was boring on the new configuration, so changing it back will equal what it used be like?
Wait, not so fast, there’s some key variables many seem to be forgetting in this equation of easy fix, the drivers and the sport’s evolution.
The reality is, the beating, banging, bruising style of competition that was Bristol 20 years ago was NASCAR 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, drivers gouging for spots on the track took place not just at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it took place at Darlington, it took place at Dover. The tight confines of Bristol only served to magnify what stock car racing was about. Back then stock racing was the antithesis of open wheel racing. While open wheel was about technology and finesse and stock car racing was about building a tank that could survive what was a full contact sport.
Today stock car racing at the Sprint Cup Series level has drafted so far away from those full contact days. And the drivers who star in the sport today have been brought up competing with a style far from what the old days at Bristol looked like.
If you take a racing groove away at Bristol will it suddenly mean Jimmie Johnson will be rattling Matt Kenseth’s cage like the late Dale Earnhardt once said he did in stealing away a Bristol victory from Terry Labonte? No, it probably won’t happen because that’s not the style of the sport today.
Reconfiguring the track back to “old Bristol” could actually end up making competition at the track even more boring. Remember, today’s car isn’t the seemingly indestructible tank it was once and that fact is one of the reasons why finesse rather than contact has overtaken the sport. Anybody want to see a 500-mile freight train because drivers are afraid moving the guy in front will do too much damage to their car? That’s something a reconfiguration could create.
Just because you change it back to the previous configuration doesn’t mean it will create what everybody yearns for.
Reconfiguration is the knee-jerk reaction to a perfect storm set of problems that has killed attendance at the track. Are people not showing up at Bristol because the racing used to be better? Sure, that’s probably why some are staying away, but it’s probably not the biggest reason.
It’s the economy too, especially in a region where in the past fans probably had the money to hit multiple Southeast events. Going to a race these days is akin to scheduling a family vacation, it’s not cheap and money’s tight all over. Add to that the fact that too many around the sport don’t want to believe the NASCAR boom of the 1990’s is over. They want so hard to believe that NASCAR’s meteoric spike in popularity should last forever and it’s not doing that.
In the immediacy of it all, reconfiguration of Bristol and dreaming of a return to days gone by sounds good in the same way dreaming of 80 degrees and sunshine on a 10-degree day in January sounds so splendid too.
The high times have past and it has nothing to do with whether or not there’s as many bump and run passes at Bristol Motor Speedway as there used to be.
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