Colossal team effort used to transform ‘Colosseum’ into dirt track

Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, said his department was on hand at Bristol Motor Speedway when the first shovelfuls of dirt landed this winter. Since then, the dirt has arrived by the truckloads to total roughly 20,000 cubic yards, and the trips to the Tennessee track have become more regular, up to once or twice weekly.

Preparations are humming along in Thunder Valley as the inaugural NASCAR dirt-track weekend at Bristol on March 26-28 nears reality. It will mark the first of two dirt races this season for the Camping World Truck Series but also signify a return to dirt-track roots for the premier Cup Series, which has run on paved tracks exclusively for the last 50 years.

The process of temporarily transforming the .533-mile bullring from a concrete surface to dirt has been a monumental project, overseen by Steve Swift — the senior vice president of operations and development for track owner Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI) — but managed in collaboration with NASCAR’s competition department. As a live camera mounted high above Turns 3 and 4 has documented in recent weeks, the track’s conversion is taking shape and in the final stages.

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“We’ve been keeping an eye on what’s going on and putting our two cents in where it needed to be, but yeah, we’ve been involved,” Miller said. “Steve Swift and his team up there have done a great job. Big project, and I feel like they’ve done a really, really good job getting it to the point where it is right now.”

The project has also involved the drivers who will participate in the event later this month. Competition officials have drawn on the expertise of drivers such as Chase Briscoe and Kyle Larson, who both have a rich background of racing on dirt.

In some ways, Miller said, that cooperation isn’t much different than the normal procedures for each race weekend. After the preseason Busch Clash exhibition last month on Daytona International Speedway’s road course, for example, Miller said drivers were consulted about how to prevent shortcuts on the backstretch chicane, which kicked up excess dirt onto the racing surface. Those discussions resulted in new-look curbing that was installed for the points-paying race on the circuit 12 days later.

“We met with five or six of them and got their opinions and went to work on how we could fix it,” Miller said. “Working with the drivers on different aspects of the racing, the race tracks, anything, is something that we do on a weekly basis, but we’ll certainly keep the dirt-track specialists in the loop at Bristol, but that’s the same as we do every weekend.”

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As scheduling fate would have it, Bristol’s dirt will get a real-world test run in racing conditions with the Bristol Dirt Nationals scheduled March 15-20, the weekend before NASCAR’s arrival. Competition will span eight divisions, and a handful of NASCAR standouts have already filed entries to get a sneak preview of the layout and mix it up alongside the grassroots racers in the field.

Larson and Kyle Busch are entered in the Super Late Model division, while fellow Cup Series regular Joey Logano and three-time Camping World Truck Series champ Matt Crafton are set to compete in the Open Modified class. But Miller said his department will also be on site to see what can be noted about the track’s characteristics and what, if anything, may need to be adjusted before the NASCAR race weekend.

“Absolutely, we will have a representative there to witness it all and really just see if there’s anything that we need to be on our toes about over the weekend, how the track comes in, or any learnings about operationally anything that we can get,” Miller said. “I think that when they announced that they were having those race prior to our weekend, I was really excited about it because it will give them a time to understand the dirt and the track prep, and us operationally seeing if there’s any problems with equipment moving around the infield or any of those things. We will certainly be up there observing and learning during those events.”

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What might have seemed like a lark when the 2021 schedule was announced last September is now becoming more and more a reality. Those initial talks with Speedway Motorsports president and CEO Marcus Smith, FOX Sports executives and NASCAR organizers have created an uncommon first-time event that’s just more than three weeks from its dirt-slinging debut.

Count Miller among those with a vested interest in seeing it all unfold.

“I think ever since we started having success at the Eldora (Speedway) truck race and the dirt thing was kind of intriguing, there had been talk about bringing Cup to a dirt-track event,” Miller said. “A lot of little whispers here and there for a few years, but really and truly, FOX and SMI and NASCAR kind of got together and decided it was time to give it a try. The broadcasters are behind it, Marcus committed obviously a ton of time, effort and money into making it happen, so the timing was right. I expect it to be a really, really good show and we’ll see. It’s not too far away now.”