News & Media

Caraviello: Bristol isn't broken -- it's just susceptible to change

March 21, 2012, David Caraviello,

Nothing is wrong with Bristol Motor Speedway.

It's difficult to see that now, in the clamor following this past weekend's Sprint Cup race at the self-proclaimed world's fastest half-mile, where Brad Keselowski won in front of a crowd that was downright startling to those who have been making the trek to the east Tennessee track for some time. The announced attendance was 102,000, a number that would fill almost every football stadium in America to beyond capacity, but looked lost in a 160,000-seat behemoth that once sold out 55 consecutive times and produced tickets that were fought over in divorce proceedings.

"I think we'll look back 10 years from now and say, 'We miss the old Bristol from 2012.' I think those that don't like the new Bristol are missing out on something great."


Understandably, the aftermath has generated a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth, as well as no shortage of opinions on how to "fix" a track that has long been one of the most popular in NASCAR. A fashionable culprit: the 2007 resurfacing that widened the racing groove enough to produce side-by-side action, but removed the bump-and-run aspect that had made Bristol so irresistible. Even Bruton Smith, chairman of the facility's parent company, Speedway Motorsports Inc., hinted to the Associated Press this week that he might be willing to spend $1 million to return the track to its former condition.

* SMI considering track changes to Bristol; fan comments key

Of course, this is the same guy who said a few years ago he was going to build race tracks in Qatar, and once threatened to dismantle Charlotte Motor Speedway and move it somewhere other than Concord, N.C. (where it still sits), and last week said he wanted to build a replica of the German road course Nurburgring in Nevada. So we'll see. But all of this overlooks the fact that nothing about Bristol is broken to begin with, and its only crime is being susceptible to the same force that exerts itself upon every other aspect of the sport. It's cliché to say that the only constant in NASCAR is change, but there is an indisputable nugget of truth in there, and it points to a relentless evolution that marches on no matter how much fans want everything to stay the same.

The issue affecting Bristol is the same one affecting every other race track that eventually needs to be resurfaced, that leads to new car bodies and new safety systems, that leads old drivers to retire and new ones to ascend in the sport. This is a series where sponsors come and go, where teams expand or contract or shut down altogether, where struggling tracks lose races while those in more promising markets gain them. NASCAR is a business where everything is constantly in motion, an industry comprised of countless moving pieces that evolve at their own pace but evolve nonetheless, and to try and stop time is to live in a fantasy world. As great as it was, to hope to hold onto that bump-and-run Bristol forever is like pining for eternal youth.

Smith says he may try to rebuild it back to the way it was. But even if the bulldozers start rolling, there are absolutely no guarantees. NASCAR is a sport fraught with unintended consequences, thanks in part to aerodynamic forces that can never be completely harnessed, and drivers and crews who are savvy enough to find a way around anything. Resurface Daytona because of the pothole, and you have a tandem style of restrictor-plate drafting no one foresaw. Bring what appear to be perfectly good tires to Indianapolis, and you have an abrasive surface and a new race car chassis that chew them up in less than 10 laps. Push out the dogleg to try and offset a resurfacing at Phoenix, and you have drivers scrambling along the apron to cut the corner. Time and time again, we are reminded that what's drawn up on paper or what's simulated on a computer screen becomes something very different once the cars are rolling for real.

So even if Smith does try to rebuild his mountaintop short track, the old Bristol may very well be gone for good. It was inevitable, really. Just as the grass on athletic fields must at some point be replanted, tracks ultimately have to be resurfaced. The pothole incident that marred the 2010 Daytona 500 taught the entire industry the hazards of trying to hold onto a good thing too long, and may very well have led other tracks to resurface sooner than they might have otherwise intended. Phoenix did just that, its years of baking under the desert sun making track management worry the old surface might start breaking up at the worst possible time. Next up is Kansas, which will put down new asphalt after its spring race, the vicious heat-thaw cycle of the lower Midwest taking its toll on a relatively young surface that nobody wants to see come apart during a race weekend.

Does resurfacing a race track change the character of a venue, and in some cases the type of racing that takes place upon it? No question. Does wishing for track surfaces gone by change that fact? Absolutely not. Look at Darlington Raceway, which for decades was defined by a surface so abrasive, Dale Earnhardt Jr. once famously said it would cut your hand if you brushed against it. Events there were dominated by tire management. After years of patching up spots here and there, the facility finally conceded to a repave in 2007. Racing at the Lady in Black has changed fundamentally as a result, to the point where Regan Smith won last year's Southern 500 on old tires -- something that would have been inconceivable for much of the track's history. And yet, nobody claims Darlington has been ruined, or is broken and in need of some kind of fix.

Yet that's the case with Bristol, even though its 2007 resurfacing was prompted by concerns similar to those at other tracks that have gone through the same process. "It's reaching the end of its term," a track official told the AP in 2007, referring to a concrete surface that had been poured in 1992. "It's not a matter of what we want, but what we must do." What's the alternative there? Hold on to the old stuff for as long as you can, and just hope it doesn't break down on an event weekend? Mess with the configuration to try and make the new surface racy from the very beginning? Ask the folks in Daytona and Phoenix, respectfully, how those options worked out.

No question, the bump-and-run Bristol was fantastic while it lasted. The greatest night of racing yours truly has ever witnessed was at Bristol in August 2004, when Ward Burton threw his shoes at Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson flipped off Robby Gordon, Elliott Sadler punched an ambulance and Jeff Gordon moved Rusty Wallace out of the way to win. It was epic theatre. And to a certain degree, fans have been conditioned to expect that stuff every time out from a track that continues to feed off its "rattle his rage" reputation. But those nights don't come along every year, which is what makes them great. And even then, it's not so much the racing people loved, but the craziness that surrounded it.

Because in all honesty, when it comes to racing, the Bristol of today is a far superior venue than its predecessor, which produced all kinds of fireworks but little in the way of the competition that true fans supposedly want to see. This past Sunday was mesmerizing at times, with cars dueling side-by-side in the corners, and particularly at the end when Matt Kenseth was trying to chase down Keselowski through lapped traffic, the gap between the two cars expanding and contracting like an accordion. That was good stuff. But because it wasn't a crash-fest, and because one driver didn't go after another, it was somehow seen as lacking. That's about as ridiculous as putting Sprint Cup cars back on the sands of Daytona Beach.

Sure, Bristol has its issues, many of them beyond the track's control. The hotel rooms in the Tri-Cities area are too few and too expensive. The region the speedway draws from was hammered by the recession and still is struggling to get out of it. Weather in east Tennessee in March can be unpredictable, as we witnessed last weekend. There are a lot of factors that go into why Bristol is no longer the guaranteed sellout it used to be, and blaming it all solely on the track surface is unfair. Especially when that surface is producing racing -- the kind of side-by-side, door-to-door racing fans always say they want -- for which is better than it gets credit.

"The heart grows fonder with time," Keselowski said Sunday. "I think we'll look back 10 years from now and say, 'We miss the old Bristol from 2012. That was great. Why did they ruin that?' I think that's how we'll look at it. It's just one of those things that people look back with nostalgia for things that were. I think those that don't like the new Bristol are missing out on something great."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

Watch all the highlights from the Food City 500 at Bristol: