News & Media

Menzer: What's good for drivers not always good for fans

April 26, 2012, Joe Menzer,

RICHMOND, Va. -- It was just recently that track owner Andy Hillenburg talked in general about what made racing at his Rockingham Speedway facility so exciting.

Hillenburg talked about how the asphalt surface of his 1.017-mile venue was worn and weathered, full of bumps and cracks. Put simply, it's not easy to drive on and it's hell on tires.

"If fans want to see wrecks, then I guess we have to wreck more. It's actually good for us drivers to not have to have those things and not have that kind of drama that we have to deal with. But if the fans need that in order to buy tickets, then I guess we've got to do what we need to do."


And it's difficult for drivers to feel comfortable racing at high speeds on it, especially when their tires are worn and their precious lap times quickly start falling off as a result. The drivers, Hillenburg said, "always are on edge -- and that can lead to mistakes."

His point was that's really what you want out of a race track. Drivers who are always "on the edge" and make the occasional mistake, thereby possibly causing the occasional spectacular wreck, put on a great show for the fans.

Drivers motoring around smooth, repaved, relatively new surfaces have the tendency to get a little too comfortable. This leads to long green-flag runs that many fans ultimately find boring.

All of which brings us to the situation currently unfolding at Bristol Motor Speedway, where track owner Bruton Smith announced amid much fanfare on Wednesday plans to grind away the top groove of the .533-mile track and effectively narrow the track while straightening out its progressive banking a little. Smith is doing so, he insisted, because fans had spoken and many of them demanded a change, apparently any change, to the track after a series of races that didn't seem to measure up to what they used to be.

Smith also did so knowing that he would possibly anger many NASCAR drivers who wanted the track left alone.

Reaction from Richmond

Two such drivers who appear to belong to that group made media appearances at Richmond International Raceway on Thursday.

"Well, as far as I know -- you can correct me if I am wrong -- but they're just going to grind the top. Is that what they're going

to do?" Denny Hamlin asked. "I don't know a whole lot about it, because I wasn't in construction but for a little bit of time when I was younger, but there's rebar in there, so you can't grind but so much. So I don't know. I don't think it's going to be much different, to be honest with you.

"If anything, maybe the grinding will cause for grip and people are going to run up high anyway. So who knows what's going to happen?"

Kyle Busch, Hamlin's Sprint Cup teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, was even more emphatic. He said he understands to a degree that fans want to see the old bumping and grinding and door-to-door banging that was required at Bristol when there essentially was only one racing groove on the race track.

But only to a degree. As a driver, Busch said he cannot understand at all why Smith would tear up any part of the Bristol track that has produced a plethora of side-by-side racing across multiple grooves since its surface took on a fresh layer of concrete and added progressive banking to the corners in 2007.

"That's a tough situation for Bruton, for the guys up there at Bristol -- for anybody," Busch said. "It's disappointing to see them change a perfectly good race track that promotes good side-by-side racing for a lot of the event. I don't put the blame on the race track at all. I think we've had some really good races there since it's been repaved that way: last fall, Joey [Logano] and I racing each other side-by-side for the last 15 laps before we were banging doors in [Turns] 3 and 4 coming to the checkered [flag]; Carl Edwards and me in 2008 running into each other and everything else there.

Grinding it down

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

"There's been a lot of good racing at Bristol. But it's not the 'move the guy out of the way, spin somebody out,' atmosphere anymore -- and if fans want to see wrecks, then I guess we have to wreck more. It's actually good for us drivers to not have to have those things and not have that kind of drama that we have to deal with. But if the fans need that in order to buy tickets, then I guess we've got to do what we need to do."

The specter of wrecks

Hold on there, Kyle. This has long been a bone of contention between racing fans and drivers who fashion themselves as "purists" and supposedly their polar opposites, often branded a bunch of Neanderthals disguised as race fans who do nothing but root for bended sheet metal and the emotionally-fueled conflicts that often result from it.

The truth, as so often is the case, lies somewhere in between.

What the drivers think is best for them isn't always the best for the sport. As Hillenburg hinted, if the drivers get too comfortable on multi-grooved, smooth-as-glass surfaces, they're simply too good at what they do to run into each other much, or even fret about doing so.

Fans in general aren't blood-thirsty dunderheads who root for guys to plow into each other at high speeds, risking life and limb. But the sport was built on the specter of that possibility. What drives it is the ever-looming chance that anything can happen at any moment; the tiniest of mistakes by one driver could impact or alter the outcome of a race, ruining the day for some and elevating it for others.

That scenario also contributed to another aspect too often missing these days: that of the dramatic comeback by a driver who suffered injustice at the hands of others earlier in a race (see Cale Yarborough and 1979 Daytona 500 for further reference).

All Smith is trying to do at Bristol is bring much of that back. But he's only able to do so much before the next race is held in August, and Hamlin doubted that what is being done will matter much in the long, green-flag run ahead.

"You want to fix it and make it a tough track, you need to pave it [with asphalt]. Concrete is not the answer as far as that is concerned," Hamlin said. "They're in a box. They're trying to do everything they can. I understand that, because the fans want a change. You commend them for trying, but I think that they're time-limited on what adjustments they can really make to that track."

Meanwhile, remember this: whatever the drivers want or whatever makes them most comfortable in terms of a race track isn't always what's best for the fans or the sport. It's that simple.

So hopefully whatever the end result is after the adjustments are made at Bristol, it will lead to giving drivers more of a challenge when it comes to attempting to get around each other. And if that puts them on edge for much of the next event there, mission accomplished.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.