News & Media

Caraviello: Beating and banging, from the very beginning

March 19, 2011, David Caraviello,

Instead of rising out of the east Tennessee hills as it does today, it held only about 18,000 spectators in spare, concrete grandstands along the start/finish line and the backstretch. The infield was dirt, and the banking in the corners was a fraction of what it is today. Still, the first race at Bristol Motor Speedway 50 years ago was such a curiosity that traffic backed up for miles on state highway 11-E, and it took four hours to get out of the parking lots after the race. Even then, the half-mile race track wore down equipment and wore out competitors, to the point where it took two different drivers to win.

It was all very different in the summer of 1961, before Bristol became the high-banked, 160,000-seat racing palace that is today. This was well before current parent company Speedway Motorsports Inc. bought the track, before the changes and improvements and the onset of a never-ending grandstand expansion, before the place became so popular that owner Bruton Smith blew off the top a mountain to add seats that seemed to touch the sky. Five decades ago it was a much simpler, far less spectacular facility that some of the locals looked askance at, believing race car drivers and the people who cheered them came from a more roughneck segment of the population.

Bristol Motor Speedway has risen from extremely modest beginnings. (BMS Photo Archive)

Clearly, much has changed throughout time, both in terms of the facility and how it's perceived by the community around it. Bristol celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and although the track is not expected to sell out for Sunday's Sprint Cup event, it has long since asserted itself as one of the most popular stops on the NASCAR tour. But then as now, one thing has been constant -- it could be a punishing place to race. The beating and banging, such a Bristol trademark, has been around from the very beginning.

"Bristol was extremely hard on cars, because it was a fast track early on, especially for that weight of a car," said Paul Lewis, a resident of nearby Johnson City, Tenn., who finished 11th in that first Bristol race. "In the corners, the speeds those cars ran up there, they did a lot of beating and banging. The attrition rate was pretty bad, always. That's the thing about Bristol. They say now, oh, that's Bristol. But even early on, the attrition rate, and the beating and banging, and the crashes, were real bad."

Lewis would know. A racing mainstay in east Tennessee who grew weary of competing on the region's dirt layouts, he consulted with founder Larry Carrier on the Bristol project, which was initially envisioned for the nearby community of Piney Flats before objections forced it to relocate seven miles up the road. Lewis won a Grand National (now Sprint Cup) event at Smoky Mountain Raceway in Maryville, Tenn., beating David Pearson by two seconds in 1966. But Bristol -- where his best finish was second to Holman-Moody driver Dick Hutcherson, also in '66 -- was his home track.

"I try to picture it back then, and it's just hard to do because of the time frame," Lewis said. "But I was thrilled the first race we ran up there. I was proud of the product, of course, being part of the original design and it coming into being. Having a facility like that here in east Tennessee that would be my home track, yeah, I was thrilled."

Fred Hayter remembers what it was like back then. The resident of nearby Bluff City, Tenn., has been to all 100 Bristol races, and says he can remember the first one better than the most recent one. The old concrete bleachers, some of which were still in place when Smith bought the place in 1996, featured five sections apiece, and rose 36 rows high at the start/finish line and 24 rows high on the backstretch. Highway 11-E was just a two-lane road back then, and Hayter remembers that parking attendants weren't sure where to put all the cars coming in. Getting out, which took almost four hours, was even worse.

Although Bristol would go on to sell out 55 consecutive races from 1982 until 2009, Hayter doesn't believe that first race attracted a full house. Many locals, he said, looked down at racing at the time, seeing it as a pastime for the less genteel members of the community. Some ticket-buyers for that first event were such NASCAR neophytes that they crowded into the first rows of grandstand seats, allowing Hayter to buy tickets at the top -- where he could actually see more of the race track.

"Most people back then thought the closer you got, the better you were," he remembered. "A lot of them were buying the lower-seat tickets. I was able to get top-row seats for the very first race. I maintained them for several years."

Another difference between then and now -- the corners were banked only to 22 degrees, still steep for a half-mile track, but not quite as dizzying as banking that reaches up to 30 degrees today. If anything, that shallower banking of Bristol's early days only served to encourage more contact on the race track, which at the time didn't give the much heavier stock cars as much help getting through the corners. In vehicles made of truly stock components that weighed nearly 4,000 pounds, a trip through the flatter turns at Bristol meant more wiggling, more vehicles rubbing against one another, and more cars getting knocked out of the race.

"They were beating and banging from day one," Hayter remembered, and the toll in that first race was evident. Country-music star Brenda Lee, then just 17, sang the national anthem for the inaugural Volunteer 500, held on a hot day in late July. Of the 42 cars that started the event, a staggering 23 failed to finish.

"We were running more stock stuff back then. The durability wasn't there," said former driver and owner Cotton Owens, from across the Appalachians in Spartanburg, S.C. "We didn't have the oil coolers back then, and no big oil pans. All that came later in the years from keeping engines together. The cars didn't hold up as well because they were stock. You couldn't but the great ol' big radiators in them. Then, they had to stay in the same frame the original radiator was in. There wasn't no big radiator like they have now to keep the engines cool. It was awful hard to keep the engines cool back then, or have enough oil in them to run the 100 miles, 200 miles, or whatever it was we were going to run."

It wasn't just a Bristol phenomenon. Independent drivers like Lewis would save their equipment, let the factory-backed drivers hammer on one another, and try to sneak in and steal a good finish at the end.

"The attrition rate back then was one of the governing factors among us independents," Lewis said. "You had all those factory-backed cars in there, and your situation was, you start the race, qualify as good as you can and so on, and you watched the factory cars, see how they were running and how much beating and banging was going on. ... If they were beating and banging on one another and really getting wild, you just protected your car and waited until they knocked each other out, and that way you got a top-10 or a top-five finish. That's the way I always looked at it. I tried to judge the thing about 30, 40 laps in to determine how the situation would be, and that gave me some idea of how hard I needed to drive my car."

Today's Cup cars are limited to 3,450 pounds not including the driver, but the vehicles were much heavier back then, and harder to maneuver without power steering. They also lacked air venting systems, so on a hot day like that of the inaugural Bristol race, they could grow to be stifling inside. Lewis once drove the equivalent of a modern-day Nationwide Series car. The difference?

"Unbelievable," he said with a laugh. "These guys today -- and I'm not taking any licks now, they know how lucky they really are -- they've got these air-conditioning situations, they've got the power steering. They've got the HANS thing, the body supports for the G-forces and so forth. The modern-day car is an absolute miracle thing compared to what we used to have to drive. I've helped guys in the past, would get in the car and do some test drives, and the first time I sat down in a modern-day Busch car, or Nationwide as they say now, I made a few laps in it and I thought, Lord o'mercy, no wonder these guys and these girls can drive one of these things. It's so much improved. It was unbelievable to me how they responded to chassis adjustments, how easy they were to drive, the whole nine yards."

So no wonder that first race at Bristol, an inaugural event on a hot, punishing, new race track, unfolded like it did. Jack Smith of Spartanburg dominated the event through the first 290 laps, but the extreme heat of the day began to blister his feet. Smith was forced to turn over his car to relief driver Johnny Allen, who finished the race -- and won it by two laps, although Smith is credited with the victory. The two drivers both appeared in Victory Lane. Owens doesn't recall being affected by the heat, but he remembers what a toll those kind of conditions could take on drivers like Smith, who were burlier in stature.

The cars at the time didn't help. "It was extremely hot," Lewis added. "You see, we didn't have the air inside the car, there was no power steering, the cars were extremely hard to drive. It caused a lot of physical exertion. We didn't have the air coming into the car, and all that heat coming off the engine up through the floorboards, the materials weren't sealed off like they are now."

From his perch atop the main grandstand, Hayter remembers watching the driver swap take place. Many drivers then would wear only shirt sleeves in warm weather, he said, racing in little more than street clothes. He remembers seeing another driver -- he didn't recognize Allen on sight -- approach Smith's pit stall with his helmet on. "Back then, your pit stops were probably 40 seconds or something like that," Hayter said. "I saw them switch drivers, but I didn't know who it was. You couldn't hear the PA system, there was so much racket."

It was one of just many things that made that first race at Bristol so memorable. These were still very much the early days of NASCAR, well before the advent of modern safety advances and crowd control, and in subsequent Bristol events Lewis remembers things like Fireball Roberts' car vaulting over the restraining fence and out of the race track. Once the grandstands filled up, fans would sit in a grass banking between the third and fourth turns, so close to the action that such a thing would never be allowed today. Bristol back then was a simple place with simple beginnings, and despite the rock 'em, sock 'em nature of its events, no one who was there had any idea that the facility would grow into the coliseum it's become today.

"I don't think anybody had that vision," Lewis said. "With all the racing situations up and down the United States, there was just no way to draw that picture in your mind of what it could be and what it could become. We were just looking at the present day. Now, later on, when all that reconstruction stuff started going on, the grandstands kept getting filled, and you had to raise them higher and so on. They had to increase according to demand. But I don't think anybody in that racing then could picture it like that."

Owens agreed. "No idea that it would be this big," he said. "What they've done with it, they've made a complete bowl out of it. It's a beautiful race track now."

And the best part? Now Hayter, who leaves immediately as the checkered flag falls and has a local's knowledge of the road system, can be back home in 30 minutes. Sometimes, he even makes it back to his Bluff City home to catch the end of the post-race show on TV.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.