News & Media

Bristol to be put through the grinder

April 25, 2012, David Caraviello,

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Change to track's progressive banking should lead to more fan-pleasing contact

Progressive banking is on its way out at Bristol Motor Speedway, in a move the track hopes will restore the kind of racing that brings more fans back in.

Track owner Bruton Smith announced Wednesday that the upper groove in the corners of the half-mile facility will be ground down to essentially eliminate the progressive banking added to Bristol in a 2007 resurfacing project. The goal is apparently to make Bristol a narrower race track, as it was back in the days when drivers had to move one another out of the way here to pass.

Grinding it down

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

"We're modifying what we have," Smith said. "I think it's going to be a lot better than it was. It's going to be exciting. We do think we will win all these race fans over to our side on this, and chances are we'll have a complete sellout here in August."

The change is being made in response to a drastic drop in attendance at the 160,000-seat facility, which sold out 55 consecutive Sprint Cup events until that streak was snapped in March of 2010. The crowd at this year's spring race was jarringly small for Bristol, and moved Smith to take action on what has long been one of the most popular and beloved facilities on the NASCAR circuit.

Bristol's track surface was replaced in 2007 in a project that also added progressive banking in the turns. What had been 36-degree corners became varied between 26 and 30 degrees, opening an upper groove that allowed drivers to compete side-by-side. Competitors loved the changes, but many fans missed the bumping and gouging that had been a hallmark of Bristol events -- exemplified most famously by Dale Earnhardt spinning Terry Labonte to win the night race here in 1999.

Smith said the resurfacing project five years ago was a necessity, given that the old concrete was so worn in places that the supporting rebar was showing through. "If we hadn't rebuilt the track itself, we'd be here at a race one day and pieces of concrete would be coming up," Smith said.

And yet, the progressive banking added during the project -- which revitalized what had been flatter tracks like Las Vegas and Homestead-Miami -- never quite caught on at Bristol, where fans came to see fireworks as much as competition.

"We felt like it was the right decision to make at the time, after a lot of studying and a lot of feedback from our team, from drivers, from fans," Marcus Smith, president of Bristol parent company Speedway Motorsports Inc., said of progressive banking. "We decided after having it for a few years that the best thing to do was take the progressive banking out of Bristol and put it back to a single-banked track that has a consistent angle in the turns and gives the divers a chance to race for the win just like they always have."

Bruton Smith said he consulted with NASCAR and Goodyear before deciding to make the change about 10 days ago. He added that in retrospect, adding the progressive banking was probably a mistake. "I don't think it worked too well here, and I think our race fans have told us they don't like it, either," he said. "I'm on their side. And so we are eliminating a lot of that."

Track general manager Jerry Caldwell said the project is already underway -- the SAFER barriers surrounding the half-mile oval had been removed by Wednesday, and machinery was on the concrete surface -- and is expected to be complete in time for Goodyear to test on the facility in advance of the track's Aug. 25 night race. The grinding will take place in the upper groove in all four turns.

"As this progressive banking goes, there are three distinctive grooves," Caldwell said. "What we'll be removing is one of those on the upper side. ... That's where the advantage has been. [Drivers] have been able to gain that advantage coming off the top. This will move the banking down on that slightly to where there's not as much of an advantage up there. It will still allow for plenty of racing room, but probably achieve the best of both worlds, where it's going to tighten these guys up, bring them back together, not let them get away from each other as quickly. It will breed excitement."

It's also likely to breed disappointment among drivers, who were almost universal in their praise of the current surface, which allowed them to pass without making contact with one another. Fans, though, clearly preferred what they had been accustomed to. "We took a place that had been a blue-collar joint and spiffed it up too much," said Darrell Waltrip, a 12-time winner at the facility.

"Fans want to see sparks and see some sheet metal tore up," added Sprint Cup driver David Ragan. "But as an industry, we can't survive tearing race cars up and having a demolition derby every week. So there needs to be a balance, and maybe there's a need to adjust some things, and maybe Bruton's got the right idea. I'm sure we'll all go up there and try as hard as we can to win the race no matter what race track they give us."

Smith realizes he's trying to please two very different constituencies. "I've had driver after driver tell me, 'Don't touch it,' " the track owner said. "... They said the last race was the greatest race they'd ever seen. We're getting it from all sorts. I guess what we're doing is now trying to satisfy both sides. ... We do believe we're doing the right thing, and we're going to go with that."

So much so, that the prospect of a reinvigorated Bristol had Smith dreaming of one day adding 7,000 more seats. Once it became public that the facility was making changes, he said, the track's ticket sales tripled. "Something tripled our ticket sales," Smith said, "and I have to credit that."