News & Media


Caraviello: Smith tries to strike a middle ground on Bristol

April 25, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

The new Bristol surface has led to more side-by-side racing but fewer fans in the seats. (Autostock)

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- To Darrell Waltrip, Bristol Motor Speedway was like a meat-and-three restaurant, the kind that serves fried chicken or meat loaf with maybe some mashed potatoes, green beans, and macaroni and cheese on the side.

"That's what this joint was. It's where you went, you knew what you were going to get. The food was great, and you were happy. And you left there full," said Waltrip, the facility's all-time race winner with 12 victories here on NASCAR's premier circuit.

"Because the track was made wider, smoother, and then the progressive banking -- it's given the drivers too many options. You never had any options here in the past. The only option was to root and gouge and poke somebody, get them out of the way, move them up off the bottom of the race track. "

--DARRELL WALTRIP

"But then somebody decided they were going to turn it into a gourmet restaurant. And the gourmet restaurant, it's beautiful. They've got white tablecloths, china, silverware on the tables, somebody's giving you your seats. It was perfect. It couldn't be any better -- except it's just not what you were used to. And the food in this gourmet restaurant, it's better than the food you can get anywhere in town. But it's not what I want. It's not what I'm used to. What happened to my meat-and-three? And that's kind of where they got caught in a trap right here."

And that's why Bristol is trying to recapture a little bit of its past, and put a little more bumping and banging into what's long been one of NASCAR's most popular tracks. A 2007 project that replaced the half-mile track's aging concrete surface also added progressive banking in the turns -- giving drivers more room to pass one another without pulling moves like the bump-and-run, which inflamed tempers among competitors while delighting spectators in the grandstands. The new track brought with it a new kind of action, one more subtle that allowed for more side-by-side action, but it wasn't what fans at Bristol were used to. They wanted their meat-and-three.

So track owner Bruton Smith is giving it to them -- to a degree. Smith said Wednesday the facility's top groove will be ground down to eliminate the progressive banking and create a narrower race track. It's a rather simple and straightforward project with an ambitious goal of once again making Bristol the kind of phenomenon that sold out 55 consecutive Sprint Cup races between 1982 and 2010. Back then, season tickets were fought over in divorce settlements. Smith blew off the top of a nearby mountain to expand the track to its current capacity of 160,000 seats, the rows of grandstands stretching up into the Tennessee sky. There was nothing like it, anywhere. Bristol became NASCAR's own Roman Colosseum, the events here sometimes resembling the chariot races in Ben Hur.

But change comes to everything in NASCAR over time, and Bristol was no different. Progressive banking had worked wonders at facilities like Las Vegas and Homestead-Miami, and no one expected anything different at Bristol after it was added here. Yet the project effectively widened the racing surface, giving drivers more room at the top of the track, and allowing for an increased level of side-by-side racing that also provided competitors space to pass opponents without knocking them out of the way.

Suddenly all kinds of new labels were being applied to Bristol, many of them negative, and many of them unfair. In truth the racing at Bristol these days is entertaining in its own, different way, as anyone who watched Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski chase one another around this half-mile oval last month will attest. And side-by-side action is what spectators demand at almost every venue -- except here, as it turns out. Here, they wanted beating and banging and bashed fenders and frayed nerves. Here, they wanted the kind of Bristol that's still featured in television commercials. And many of them showed it by staying away.

"The people spoke," Waltrip said. "They spoke in a lot of different ways."

Well, not all of them. Smith said that the opinions he solicited from race fans ran about 60 percent in favor of leaving the track as it is -- but evidently, that 60 percent isn't buying race tickets at Bristol, and was shouted down by a much more vocal minority. That divide, so illustrative of so many of the polarizing issues in NASCAR, is what led the track's owner to refrain from more drastic changes. Smith is effectively striking a middle ground, making modest changes that he hopes will satisfy those who clamor for more fender-banging action, while at the same time leaving the current configuration of the race track intact.

Grinding it down


Bruton Smith announced Wednesday his plan to essentially eliminate the progressive banking in the corners at Bristol.

"I certainly didn't want to come in here with bulldozers and bulldoze what, because a lot of the drivers, and lot of the fans [said], 'Don't touch it, don't touch it,' " Smith said. "You can't please everyone. But we had more [people saying], 'Don't touch it, leave it alone,' than we did otherwise. So anyway, what we're doing now is modifying what we have, and I do believe we're doing the right thing."

Will it work? The track has tried narrowing up areas of the racing surface before -- a few years ago, officials extended the SAFER barriers in the turns in a move that took away three feet of concrete but ultimately had only a minor impact on competition. Now comes the grinding, and eliminating that top groove altogether. It all feels like an attempt to satisfy opposing constituencies, doing just enough to please one while leaving intact enough to please the other. Because despite the rancor and the empty seats, there are some who like Bristol as it is, from that silent 60 percent to most of the drivers in NASCAR's top division. Waltrip, who's been around the place a few times, can see why.

"It's a more fun track to drive than it was in the old configuration. So fun usually leads to better racing, or at least you would expect it to," the Hall of Famer said. "But apparently, because the track was made wider, smoother, and then the progressive banking -- it's given the drivers too many options. You never had any options here in the past. The only option was to root and gouge and poke somebody, get them out of the way, move them up off the bottom of the race track. When that was taken away, it makes it much easier on the drivers. They don't have to line up beside the [NASCAR] truck after the race is over with, and they seem to enjoy the race a lot more. Even though there's a lot of green flag racing, they seem to enjoy it a lot more."

Of course, drivers don't buy race tickets. One fan Smith consulted suggested that he bring in suspended New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, and have him award bounties for smashed quarterpanels and banged-in bumpers. "This, of course, is not NASCAR approved," the track owner deadpanned. It was a joke, of course, but it also illustrates what people have come to expect from Bristol, and why some see the current type of racing there -- good, hard, aggressive, side-by-side but ultimately cleaner racing -- and want to send it back to the kitchen, demanding instead their meat-and-three.

"We're all caught in this trap of trying to appeal to everyone across the board," Waltrip said. "People that are happy, they don't complain very much. I've never heard people leaving the race track saying, 'Oh, I'm happy.' ... The people who are not happy are the ones we hear about. It's kind of the NASCAR way -- the squeaking wheel gets the grease. Or, sometimes it gets replaced."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.