Race Weekend Central

Bristol Racing, Bad Crowds: Can Bruton Smith Ever Win?

The folks at Bristol Motor Speedway had the proverbial goose that laid the golden egg. They threw open the gates and sold out the joint for a generation: 27 years, in fact, from the summer of 1982 straight through 2009. Then, nearly a half-dozen years ago the powers that be made a fatal mistake; they repaved the goose. While the simple act of repaving is not a bad thing, especially with a concrete track, the process of adding progressive banking and trying to make more than one lane of racing — especially on a place that made its reputation by people wrecking each other to pass was the kiss of death.

It’s a shame, because the “new school” Bristol battles were fantastic. You had cars running two and three-wide for multiple laps, with the guy on the outside having just as good of a chance as the guy on the inside of gaining the spot. For fans who love to see great competition, it was Nirvana. But for those who wanted to see cars destroyed and drivers throwing water bottles and booties at each other, it was horrendous.

Side-by-side racing, combined with unpredictable excitement was the norm at Bristol on Sunday. So why were fans sitting at home instead of cheering on their favorite at Thunder Valley?

The track that once had a waiting list longer than the Denver Broncos for season tickets now had empty seats, despite an end result which is what many fans of short track racing would like to see. Side-by-side action, faster cars able to make passes both high and low while working their way to the front, the best drivers with the best cars able to rebound after putting on fresh tires… I could go on and on. Unfortunately for the folks at Bristol, that is apparently not what the majority of the fans wanted to see who buy tickets to the northeastern Tennessee speedway. It culminated in the Spring race of 2012, when the stands looked like there were as many ushers as there were fans (OK, not really, but 45,000 people in the stands at Bristol looks really bad when the place holds 165,000). Bruton Smith, alarmed asked the missing ticketholders what they wanted, and the majority of them spoke up, loudly. They asked to see the track go back to a single-file parade, where you had to at least bump someone out of the way, if not wreck them, to make a pass.

So after spending millions of dollars to turn the racing surface into a fantastic venue, he spent millions more to bring in a company to grind down the top groove of the track in an effort to make it unraceable and force the cars back to the bottom. When August came around, the Nationwide Series did just that. But by the end of the race, some drivers had moved to the top and were finding some grip. The next thing you knew, they dropped the rag on the Cup side and people were against the wall and digging to the front within 100 laps. While the fans showed up with a near-sellout crowd, the racing was still multi-groove and there were only 13 caution flags (even though seven of them were for multi-car wrecks). When the checkered flag flew, it seemed like the fans were happier but, when the gates flew open Sunday, it appears as though it wasn’t all that good.

NASCAR is not estimating attendance this season, so we don’t have an official count – and that is probably a good thing, considering how bad they were at it – but from looking at the stands they were showing on television it was a terribly attended event. Sources on the ground say, for certain the track was well short of sellout capacity. There are certainly debates about the people in the stands, or lack thereof. The ridiculous price of hotel rooms around the speedway has been identified as a major hindrance. However, while gouging fans with $500-a-night rooms and three night minimums has been the norm around Bristol, it was never a problem before the racing changed. It certainly could have an effect on the people attending the events, but most of the time, fans are willing to ignore such blatant abuse if the action itself is worth the price of admission.

The other point that has been proposed multiple times since the track was reconfigured is the economy. The Great Recession of 2008 means the region went in the tank right around the time that track was changed. That downturn has most likely contributed to the struggles of Bristol filling the seats but, in other years when the economy was less than ideal, people found a way to purchase their tickets. In fact, indicators are beginning to show that the economy is coming back around so one might think that the fans would be able to spend a little more. In the end, finances might be a factor but it still appears the racing is the problem.

Mind you, the competition “crisis” is for those fans who are interested in seeing people wrecked. The track now has many ways to pass, which affords drivers the chance to run on the bottom or the top of the track. The fast way around right now is the top, but the inside line affords the chance to make passes without having to move other cars. Similar to Richmond, which is often called the best track on the schedule, it can take a large number of laps for a driver to complete the pass but, as they try to, the racing is intense and side-by-side for most of that time.

In the end, Bristol is different than it used to be. The racing is less costly to the teams because fewer cars are torn up. The drivers have multiple options to try and work their way around those that are in front of them. Drivers who have faster cars can make their way to the front if they have a penalty or a bad pit stop without wrecking cars. While the fans of Bristol have made another vote, with their wallets by not showing up for the Spring race, the true litmus test will be in August when the Night Race hits the high banks. In the meantime, we’ll be left to wonder why the fans will not support a style of competition that does not require a dozen cars to be taken off the track on rollbacks.

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About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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