What was old was new again Monday at Bristol Motor Speedway, a track celebrating its 60th anniversary that showed it still has some new tricks in its bag. That newfangled form of nostalgia came in the form of dirt — tons of it — and the resurrection of a surface that hadn’t hosted NASCAR’s big leagues in its modern era.
The Cup Series’ first dirt-track race since 1970 — the first of several big swings made on the 2021 racing schedule — delivered on the drama that the hype had promised, but not without a hitch. To be certain, there were hitches.
“I think the industry had everything thrown at it,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s top competition official after the Food City Dirt Race.
None of it came easy, from the logistical hoops to the track transformation to the continual adaptation that was needed throughout the weekend to make two national-series races happen on a not-so-familiar surface. And oh the weather, which ranged from floods, hail, downpours and bright sun. Torrential rain gave the half-mile a thorough soaking, turning the creek that encircles the speedway grounds into a trackside moat by Sunday. The flooding finally subsided but gave the track crew a tall task to prepare for a doubleheader on Monday’s rain date.
By early evening Monday, the organizing parties figured the fun factor outweighed the hurdles and decided let’s do it all over again next year. Tickets for a 2022 dirt redux went on sale with 50 laps to go.
“All in all, I’d give it a thumbs-up with some things to learn, “O’Donnell said, giving nods to track owner Speedway Motorsports Inc. and its staff. “The fans had asked us for years to look at innovation around the schedule. In fact, we’ve been taken to task for not making some moves. We were bold and aggressive this year. I’m proud of the team for doing that, proud of the industry for taking a chance here.”
It’s still on the soon side to tally all of the reviews, but the wide smiles from the drivers dicing it up in Friday’s clear-sky practice day told the early tale, turning once-wary veterans into converts at first blush (see: Kevin Harvick). The uncertainty that loomed over the entire weekend kept churning on race-day Monday, humbling hotshots with extensive dirt backgrounds and making mud-slinging stars out of the surface’s relative newbies.
Race officials mimicked the drivers with their own version of chasing a changing race track, keeping the lines of communication open with the dirt-savvy specialists in the field for their input. Officials added competition cautions to address tire wear, then switched to single-file restarts and groomed the track mid-race to combat visibility issues. As racers are wont to do, they filed it away in their memory banks for 2022, when the Cup Series plans to bring the Next Gen racer to the schedule’s first major zigzag.
“I think the track crew learned a lot with these heavy race cars, what they need to do to be better,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Monday’s runner-up behind race winner Joey Logano. “They adapted well, like I said, with the rain. Those are things that are always changing with dirt-race tracks. They did a good job. Next year is going to be just as much of a toss-up with a different race car.”
An equally sizable toss-up may well be next season’s schedule, which will have work to do to one-up the 2021 edition. Dirt-track racing at Bristol is already confirmed to come back, the glut of road courses on this year’s schedule would be a welcome return, and last week’s reveal of a NASCAR-endorsed Chicago street course on the iRacing simulation at least hints that a temporary road-racing circuit in an urban setting may not be so far-fetched. Variables remain, but the announcement of a Bristol dirt re-up for next year at least allows one of this season’s most buzz-worthy events a chance to grow.
Cup Series drivers and teams flexed their versatility in Bristol’s inaugural dirt-track weekend, and they may be called upon to do more of the same in 2022. Monday’s learning curve was an accelerated one, and even dirt newcomers proved to be quick studies.
“It goes to show,” Logano said, “that the talent in this NASCAR Cup level is something else.”
That goes for the industry, too, in managing the multitude of obstacles to make the first dirt-track race in more than a generation a reality, wrapped in newfangled nostalgia.