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Did You Notice?: NASCAR Racetracks, Not the Next Gen, Now at Risk

Did You Notice? … There’s a chance Bristol Motor Speedway may not have two NASCAR Cup Series dates in 2024?

It’s made news during a slow off week, rumors broken by Jordan Bianchi at The Athletic that Bristol’s Easter Sunday race could be replaced by one at North Wilkesboro Speedway instead. The move would produce the first points-paying Cup event at the track since Speedway Motorsports bought the property and promptly sold its two dates down the river in 1996.

The thought of Bristol with only one Cup race a year is something once deemed unthinkable.

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Dubbed “The Last Great Colosseum,” the concrete track hosted racing so incredible at its peak the waitlist for a ticket could take years. In 1983, the .533-mile oval hosted just 25,000 fans for its night race. Twenty years later, that seating capacity increased to a sold-out 160,000. And that’s not counting the additional tens of thousands who made a week of partying (er, camping) right outside the facility.

Even now, in an era of reduced attendance at sporting events around the country, Bristol’s capacity sits at 146,000. The night race on concrete remains well attended; we’re less than two years removed from a wild Kevin HarvickChase Elliott confrontation that brought fans to their feet, costing Harvick a win and altering the course of that year’s championship chase.

This type of competition could easily be replicated during the spring and was for years before NASCAR turned Bristol into its experimental dirt race event back in 2021.

For three years, “Thunder Valley” electrocuted itself as the sport learned the hard way neither the Gen-6 nor the Next Gen chassis were built to withstand the pounding they’d receive on that surface.

But the fix on paper seems easy, right? Just leave Bristol alone, switching it to two exciting short track races on concrete. Then, take a date from virtually anywhere else if needed within Speedway Motorsports: Atlanta Motor Speedway, Dover Motor Speedway (which would put it on the chopping block), even Texas Motor Speedway to add a points-paying race at North Wilkesboro.

Heck, keep the All-Star Race there, too, giving NASCAR the most short track Cup dates since the Nashville Fairgrounds left the schedule after 1984.

It all sounds so simple: short tracks are where NASCAR stars are born. It starts with the fender-banging, hard-nosed action at tracks in the south like Bowman Gray Stadium, drivers getting noticed by car owners in lower NASCAR series who then give them a shot to prove themselves.

That’s how it used to be, at least.

The reality in 2023 is far different.

Cutting your teeth at the local bullring won’t get yourself noticed. A far easier way to do it is by cutting a check. There’s plenty of car owners and manufacturers available willing to take your money and profit off that dream.

Not only are short tracks no longer integral to NASCAR’s success, they don’t fit with the sport’s Next Gen chassis. The 2022 season produced some of the worst competition we’ve seen in the modern era at Martinsville Speedway.

The April race there featured just five lead changes, seemingly a handful more passes throughout the entire field and just one spin on a track known for fender-to-fender combat. A litany of offseason changes to the package failed to fix the problem, leading to just marginally better racing in 2023.

In the past, NASCAR would ring alarm bells and work behind the scenes to make changes to the car. That’s what happened throughout the duration of the Gen-6 era, a nine-year stretch where, COVID cancellations aside, the NASCAR Cup schedule remained remarkably stable. The knee-jerk reactions this sport often makes after a few 37-3 NFL-style stinkers on the track led to the owners absorbing the majority of the cost, either in the form of new parts or R&D after having to throw out all their previous notes and start over.

And the cost for some of those owners? Letting the competition around them catch up. What’s in it for them was some self-sacrifice that, before the implementation of the current charter system, provided limited financial protections if either performance or sponsorship went south.

Well, if there’s anything 2023 has taught us so far, it’s that the owners are no longer willing to be the sport’s financial punching bag. They’ve turned the tables on NASCAR, threatening retaliation and a potential strike if officials refuse to increase revenue from the next television deal along with making the current charter system permanent.

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That means NASCAR can’t build the car around the tracks it currently runs at. With even small-scale Next Gen fixes unlikely in the short term, it needs to build the tracks on its schedule on where the car currently runs well.

It means the history of short tracks doesn’t matter. It means 60 years of racing somewhere becomes little more than a “fun fact.” It evens limits the importance of a media market of a struggling track, like Dover (close to major metropolitan areas like Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington, D.C.)

If SMI and NASCAR want to stay connected to those areas, it may take hundreds of millions to renovate a facility and make it irrelevant and exciting enough to fill the seats with fans all over again.

Let’s just say if Auto Club Speedway hasn’t broken ground on its fixes yet … I don’t see that coming elsewhere anytime soon.

Meanwhile, NASCAR is stuck with the chassis it made, and what it has is a car that races outstanding at tracks somewhere around 1.5 miles in length. Suddenly, it’s the race on a Charlotte Motor Speedway oval, not the ROVAL, that will have fans sitting on the edge of their seat. Kansas Speedway has had more classic races in the last two years than it may have had in its 21-year existence prior to the Next Gen.

It means maximizing those racetracks becomes a priority.

Kentucky Speedway suddenly looks like a place that shouldn’t be collecting mothballs; it should be holding events. Chicagoland Speedway suddenly seems like a solid backup plan if the Chicago Street Course falls apart.

But the Bristol Night Race?

Considered one of the sport’s crown jewels? The Martinsville Round of 8 finale whose lone claim to fame last fall was Ross Chastain pulling a Mario Kart-style move?

Bad. Bad.

And here’s the forecast: looking ugly, at least until NASCAR gets through the rest of their financial negotiations, clears up ownership and pushes more spending/evolution in 2025. And if the racing for those marquee events isn’t up to snuff, there’s no reason to go searching for more short track dates elsewhere. It feels like even the Fairgrounds could be slow-played at this rate because if the competition stinks in Cup’s first race back, what’s the point?

So yes, Bristol could only have one race date in 2024. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Suddenly, every track not listed as an intermediate oval is at risk, a shocking turn of events considering NASCAR was looking to sweep those same tracks into the trash bin as recently as just two years ago.

For better or for worse, loyalty has shifted. Tracks not on the right side of recent history better have some deep pockets to fix their problems or risk both empty stands and uncertain futures.

It’s not just a new chassis; it’s a new shift in philosophy, at least for now. The jury’s still out as to whether it’s healthy for the long-term growth of this sport.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…

  • Among the quirks you wouldn’t expect back in February: Ty Dillon having more points than the replacement in his former No. 42 car, Noah Gragson. Sure, it’s with one more start, but would you have ever expected it to be that close? Especially with Dillon driving the vastly underfunded No. 77 for Spire Motorsports? What a nightmare rookie season for Gragson.
  • Dillon and Gragson are two of just three full-timers without a top-10 finish through 16 races. The third might shock you: Ryan Preece of Stewart-Haas Racing. While some might argue he’s had bad luck ruin several promising performances, his average finish of 22.3 is actually worse than Cole Custer’s 20.6 last season.

Follow @NASCARBowles

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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19 Comments
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DoninAjax

Just like the NA$CAR brain trust to blame the tracks when the turd they try to build can’t perform like a real “race” car! NOBODY complained about the race tracks until the new regime took control and everybody knows it is the car that can’t be raced.

Dav_Daddy

Nobody complained? Geez talk about rose tinted glasses!

It was even addressed in the article for Pete’s sake. Or do you think NASCAR left Kentucky, and Chicagoland plus cutting dates from Kansas, the Charlotte oval, and Texas because, “no one was complaining?

The old car raced like crap on mile and a halves, and Superspeedways if you can remember all the way back to three years ago!

DoninAjax

Go back to the 70s and 80s. Nobody complained about 500 miles at Dover. The complaining started around 2003 when the self-appointed genius youknowwho got his new toy.

WJW Motorsports

Yes, blame the tracks for the car’s failure. Sounds about right for NASCAR.

Shayne

NASCAR is screwed. Somehow they ruined a great product. We didn’t call it a product back in the day.

NASCAR owns most of the tracks. SMI owns most of what’s left. Hallowed grounds, going belly up. Think of the operating costs for each facility. They must be losing tons of money. How much longer can NASCAR operate with their current business model?

The one-off races might save NASCAR some money, but it’s going to cost someone else a fortune to host. I don’t see much value in that scenario either.

Grab some popcorn and let’s continue watching this train wreck happen every weekend.

WJW Motorsports

It’s not coincidence that HMS was in Le Mans with an F1 champion sharing driving duties. Not a lark that they are doing novelty races in places like LA, Chicago (Portland) and NYC or Philly (or Killy, as we locals like to say) will be close behind. Not shocking to consider NASCAR owns IMSA. The business plan is to squeeze every last nickel they can out of the stock car world, until they join in with F1.

Last edited 11 months ago by WJW Motorsports
Dav_Daddy

That’ll be the day.

Dav_Daddy

SMI is a publicly traded company genius. That means instead of bleating on here you could take the 5 minutes required to look up their financials.

Of course if you did that there is a chance you could also refrain from making yourself look foolish. For anyone curious Speedway Motorsports Inc (SMI stock symbol TRK) made .98 per share last quarter in profit.

Shayne

Some of that is corporate welfare Gov. Cooper gifted Marcus Smith. Our tax dollars wasted on snake oil salesmen.

WBEZ in Chicago ran an article earlier this year about how NASCAR has screwed the city along with former mayor Lori Lightfoot. Another back room, secret handshake kinda deal. I read the contract. Chicago is getting screwed.

Rr

Nobody held Chicago hostage, if they signed a bad deal, that’s on them.

Shayne

I’m no genius.

Understand this: Speedway Motorsports has more than 100 (%) percent chance of experiencing financial distress in the next two years of operations. The calculation of odds of distress for Speedway Motorsports stock is tightly coupled with the probability of bankruptcy. It complements the equity performance score by supplying investors with insight into company financials without requiring them to know too much about all of the complex accounting and financial indicators surrounding the entity. Financial distress as an operational condition where an entity such as Speedway is having difficulty meeting its current financial obligations towards its creditors or delivering on the expectations of its investors. Macroaxis derives these conditions daily from public financial statements and analysis of stock prices reacting to market conditions or economic downturns, including short-term and long-term historical volatility. Other factors considered include Speedway Motorsports’ liquidity analysis, revenue patterns, R&D expenses, and commitments, as well as public headlines and social sentiment.

What the hell do I know?

Bill B

Good answer!!!
I guess if you are no genius, you must have stayed at a Holiday Inn Express.

WJW Motorsports

Used to be public, until the family took it private and levered it up in 2019. They do still have some public debt though and likely looking at some pain when refi time comes (assuming rates stay/continue). Pretty bad timing on their part but such is life.

Echo

What’s your point genius !

Kurt Smith

Before NASCAR once again goes into panic mode and has a knee-jerk reaction to races not being high quality at short tracks, they need to take a damn breath and hold on for a second.

I remember well the Car of Tomorrow and not just how poorly it raced, but also just how butt ugly it was. But what happened after the first year or so? Teams started figuring it out. The Hendricks and Gibbs types of the sport started using tricks like “yaw” (cars going crooked down the straightaways), and they started making the car work better and the cream rose to the top again.

That will happen with the NextGen car too. At which point NASCAR will notice that the racing will be better on the short tracks again, and the intermediate races will probably be less exciting than they are now (and I will say the racing is better at intermediates right now than it ever was).

But the upshot of all this is that for all of it to work, NASCAR will once again have to do what their leadership is utterly incapable of doing…leaving the damn thing alone. If NASCAR makes any drastic moves right now, it should be to finally admit that the playoff system is a big turd and get rid of it, and put the races starting times back to where a 15-minute rainfall doesn’t result in a Monday race.

If King Brian had done nothing when he inherited the sport, it would be the most popular sport in America right now, instead of fighting for its life to stay relevant.

Last edited 11 months ago by Kurt Smith
DoninAjax

There’s a cloud over the Chicago event.

https://www.chicagotribune.com/politics/ct-nascar-chicago-protest-safety-traffic-city-council-20230615-6edjg3u4y5dqdjyg2mmxgucl24-story.html

The CHEAPEST ticket is TWO HUNDRED AND SIXTY NINE DOLLARS.

Shayne

Gotta pay extra to read the Tribune. No thanks. The cars will be fitted with mufflers to reduce the sound by 10dB. I wonder if Midas got that contract? How much will it cost to reduce the sound of a race car by 10 dB? Stay tuned.

Steve C

Hey Tom, great article. You reminded me of why I no longer spend money and time on na$car. Lots of great racing across the country without having to deal with the France mess!

Ellenjay

Ellenjay

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