Race Weekend Central

Bristol Brouhaha: Will He or Won’t He?

Bruton Smith’s announcement that Bristol Motor Speedway would, presumably, return to pre-makeover nastiness cuts two ways.

On the one hand, race fans want to see a 15-car pileup, rooting guys out of the groove and the bump-and-run to the finish on the final lap. This, if you’re a race fan, is considered a no-brainer.

On the other hand, it’s not going to be that way overnight.

In other words, how much kvetching are we going to have that the changes aren’t working because we don’t have an Intimidator-style wreck-fest on the final lap, first time out of the box?

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Empirically, the data suggests that the move to progressive banking was a stinker. It took the unpredictable nature of the place away and replaced it with two- or three-groove racing that was exciting, but not incendiary.

This is true, because I can remember watching Jeff Gordon lay waste to the field back in his Wonder Boy days, only to trip over a lapped car in traffic and wind up in the garage for the remainder of the event.

You can’t, reasonably, understand how the changes are going to work until you run a race there. We’ll see in August if it’s better, but chances are it’s going to take at least 1,000 laps to see if they work, not 500. The groove is going to have to be re-established, for one, and the setups must change to meet it.

The tire has a lot to do with it, too. When the track was changed in 2007, it took a little bit to match the tire to the surface. The tires are good enough to run three wide, but that also means that everybody’s tires are the same. They don’t fall off that much and that means everyone has pretty much an equal car.

What does that mean? No clear advantage on setup, no clear advantage in skill. You can’t pass, easily. Even rooting a guy out of the groove you want is counter-productive, because you’ll be right beside him when he hits the fence.

If he rebuilds it, will they come? Probably, but it will be a bit before it happens. I applaud Bruton for making the call and the fans who spoke up staying true to their roots.

But just because change is occurring doesn’t mean it’s going to be for the better, at least not right away.

I wonder, and this is a personal wonder not a corporate-affiliated wonder, if the drivers of today remember how to race at Bristol with one groove. Don’t laugh: it’s a valid point.

When it was the original quill, drivers knew you had to stick the nose in and stay with it. It was an art form. Now, it’s a parlor trick reserved for Daytona and Talladega.

Change is here, and we’ll see what it brings. Be careful what you wish for, because you might get it and still not like it.

What happens then?

If, as Bruton has suggested, it won’t be the original layout, what will it be? There aren’t too many configurations around for a high-banked half-mile oval. We’ve tried the straight 36-degree banking and we’ve tried progressive banking.

It isn’t going to be a flat track, not in this lifetime, and if they make a mini Richmond out of it, they’ll riot throughout the Smoky Mountains. So the surmise is that it will be somewhere in between.

The fact that hardly anyone likes the progressive banking is not in doubt. Race fans flocked to Bristol because they knew the fur was going to fly and they knew they could see every moment of it because there isn’t a bad seat in the 160,000 or so they have there.

When you’re not delivering that, the natives get a bit restless and they stay home. When you don’t deliver what they came for and instead deliver Kansas in a smaller package, then they stay home and bad-mouth you.

As for Bruton not knowing that the banking was going to be progressive or not, you can believe that as you will. When something that major slips by Bruton, you can bet the end is near. It is not.

It was one of my engineers,” Smith said recently without identifying the name of the person who made the decision to change the track. “He made the decision without mentioning it to me. In my opinion, that is where we went wrong.

“I have never been a fan of progressive banking. I had never, ever liked it.”

Smith said he discovered the configuration had been changed a few weeks after the project was completed.

“The gentleman is a good man,” Smith said. “He still works for me. We didn’t shoot him or anything like that.”

Whether you believe him or not, the fact is that Bristol is going to be redone. Next week, it will be revealed what shape Bristol will be in August.

I’m betting there will be a lot of noise and a few details. The better to string the process out a bit, keep them guessing until it’s time to buy tickets. Bruton is a promoter, perhaps the last one left from the old school. The others around, like Eddie Gossage, all work for Bruton.

What we know now is that work is going on to revamp the track for the second time in the last five years, in an effort to bring back the fans who left because of the first revamp.

Will we see another bump-and-run like we did when Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Terry Labonte, Gordon and Rusty Wallace did it? Will we see root-hog-or-die? I honestly don’t know. Nobody does, except for Bruton Smith.

If the fans come back the way they were before the place was redone, then it will all have been worth it. If they don’t … well, Bruton will keep changing it until he gets it right.

It will be interesting to see what form that will take. He’s talked about racing Indy cars there, putting a roof on the place and a hundred other things that none of us know or remember.

One thing that is for sure and for certain: life is never dull as long as Bruton Smith owns racetracks which host NASCAR events.

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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