Bristol only half full, changes coming

UPDATE #2 After more than a week of studying requested fan input, Bruton Smith, Chairman and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, announced he has ordered the go-ahead to make changes to the track surface at Bristol Motor Speedway. "The race fans have spoken," Smith said. "We had input that included a wide range of opinions. But the majority we heard from said they wanted to see changes made. As a result, I have ordered the equipment and work will begin within the next two weeks to allow time to have everything ready for August." Smith said an announcement regarding the scope of the work will be made soon. "The question we wanted to answer as quickly as possible was 'Is something going to be done?' Smith said. "The answer to that is 'yes.' We will have the details in two weeks as to what that 'something' is. BMS

Bristol crowd not what it used to be

03/24/12 Some Sprint Cup drivers like the old Bristol, others like the new Bristol.

And to some, it just doesn’t matter because they don’t think they will ever race on the old Bristol again.

Bristol Motor Speedway was resurfaced and reconfigured in 2007, with progressive banking added to the new surface. Since then drivers have been able to race two-wide on the track, not having to resort to as much beating and banging to move cars out of the way and pass.

But after the 158,000-seat facility was only about half-full for the Food City 500 last Sunday, track owner Speedway Motorsports Inc. polled fans to determine if the track should try to recreate the old Bristol track. SMI Chairman Bruton Smith said about 70 percent of fans polled want the old track and old Bristol-style racing back.

There’s a problem with that, says Roush Fenway Racing driver Greg Biffle.

“To make it back like it was is very, very difficult," Biffle said Friday at Auto Club Speedway. “I mean, I don’t know how you would even do that.

“I don’t even know what you would do. … You can change the track, sure, and make it different, but you’re not just going to wave the wand or hire the excavating crew and say, ‘Come back and put it back like it was before you put it like this.’"

If SMI chooses to resurface the 0.533-mile concrete oval, NASCAR won’t have a problem with that as long as it can be done about 45 days prior to the race in order to have a tire test and manufacture tires.

“We have to have plenty of time to make those adjustments," NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton said. “If you’re not able to, then the cure could be worse than the cause."

Biffle would rather see a change in the current tire being used at Bristol. He says that would improve competition and create more action because drivers might have to choose whether to abuse a tire early in a run.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows a way to get the racing there back to the way it was – and it includes more than just a surface change.

“If he wants to move back to the other race track or the other surface the way it was designed, he should talk to the drivers as well about what made that work, what they liked about that," Earnhardt Jr. said. “There were some things about that race track before that I liked. One of the reasons why it was so good was because the yellow line was about a foot off the apron and they actually sealed underneath that yellow line.

“That provided grip for the left-front tire on the banking. That made a world of difference at that race track, being able to get down there and use that."

Of course, drivers could be a little biased in their opinions depending on their style of driving.

Brad Keselowski, who has won the last two races at Bristol, likes the new Bristol. He also noted that a similar track “to the Northeast" (Dover) also has had attendance issues and there has been no reconfiguration to the track.

“The whole reconfiguration story doesn’t go very far with me," Keselowski said. “Personally, I think it’s irresponsible, misinformed and, at best, self-serving for any driver or media member who goes out there and criticizes the track. I don’t think that’s right.

“I think there are drivers that struggle there as the track has been reconfigured and have ulterior motives to point (that they point) at the surface reconfiguration instead of their own teams’ performance. And I think there are media members that enjoy getting the extra attention and extra reads for talking about the track’s surface, but I don’t think that it’s an informed opinion when you look at it objectively."

The most difficult part for Smith will be just recreating the character of the former track.

“The only issue that I have with the current race track is that they did such a good job making all three grooves the same speed that it truly is difficult to pass," said Roush Fenway driver Carl Edwards. “Everything on paper looked like it was going to be perfect and they just got it too perfect because the guy can run the same speed on the top lane as the bottom.

“We all realized when there was only one fast groove, if you got an advantage and you got that groove, then you could pass a guy, so it was actually easier to pass the other way."

Smith said he has the blueprints from the old configuration and believes he can recreate it.

But there is another thing he may need to consider. Only one race with the new version of the Cup car – the first Cup race for that car – was run on the old surface.

“The only thing I would worry about is if Bruton Smith spent all that money to go back to the old track and it didn’t work out and looked the way they expected it, then that seems like a lot of money," Edwards said. “But it’s his money, and it might work. Bruton's made a lot of things work."

For some drivers, they’ll just show up and race and not worry about it.

“We will go work on it like we always do and figure out what we have to do to set our cars up," said defending series champion Tony Stewart. “It doesn’t matter to me. We race at different tracks all across the country."

03/19/12 With echoes and acknowledgement to the late, great Slim Pickens in “Blazing Saddles": What in the wide, wide world of sports is it going to take to fill up Bristol Motor Speedway again?

Five years ago, this place was filled to the light standards when NASCAR came to town. Every race sold out. The spring race, speckled as it is with sunshine and held on the Sabbath, was manageable. A man could still get a handful of tickets as long as he called the ticket office a month or so in advance. The August night race? Forget it. That race supposedly had a waiting list that required 4-5 years to reach the front of the queue.

Funny how track officials don’t talk about waiting lists anymore. Times have changed. When Brad Keselowski won at what used to be NASCAR’s most popular track on Sunday, about half as many cheered as there were in the days of yore. The hills surrounding the track, once alive with the sound of music and flow of beer, were half empty. When an official unofficial estimate was offered — the ink wasn’t invisible or anything — the crowd was listed at l02,000, which is 18,000 fewer than the highly dubious estimate of a year earlier.

The track has 160,000 seats. Five years ago that didn’t seem like enough. As recently as two years ago, Speedway Motorsports CEO Bruton Smith, typically prone to hyperbole, claimed he was going to add more. This time Smith said he thought the crowd would be “respectable." Respectable, as it turns out, apparently means anything over half full.

For what it’s worth, these eyes thought that’s what it was. These eyes thought this year’s estimate was roughly last year’s crowd, and this year’s crowd was probably, oh, 80,000 or so.

Some say it’s all economy, that Bristol, whose “Tri-Cities" media market (Bristol/Johnson City/Kingsport) isn’t exactly San Francisco/San Jose/Oakland, or, for that matter, Greenville/Spartanburg/Asheville, relies heavily on those who arrive from far away bearing tents, motorhomes and campers along with good tidings of great joy. The price of gasoline has shut those adventures down, and a cursory glance at the hillside behind the press box lends credence to the theory.

But it’s not all. The fans in the area and the pilgrims from afar grouse a lot about how management here “ruined" the track by making it easier for NASCAR’s finest to pass one another, whereupon they used to knock one another out of the way. Some of these folks claim they don’t come to Bristol for the wrecks, but their remarks suggest that they do.

Saturday’s Nationwide race only produced four caution flags. Five years ago, it wasn’t unusual to see that many in the first 25 laps.

I still like the place just fine.

Then again, I don’t pay to get in. Gaston Gazette