April 15, 2012
By Kim Roberson
What is happening at Bristol Motor Speedway?
We won’t officially know what is up track owner Bruton Smith’s sleeve until he holds a press conference on April 25th, but this week, we got inkling that whatever it is -- involves taking down the SAFER Barriers, because sure enough, pictures have surfaced of cranes doing just that.
General rumor is that Smith, who just refreshed the track at the fans behest to include variable banking so that cars could race side-by-side instead of having to knock each other out of the way to pass back in 2007, is going to re-configure the track yet again -- again in response to fan complaints about the racing.
Now, it seems the fans are missing that beating and banging, and not liking the two and three-wide side-by-side racing on the reconfigured surface.
This is turning into a pretty expensive habit, but I suppose if the end result is getting the 160,000 seats at Bristol filled again (remember when there used to be waiting lists to get a ticket at Bristol?), it will be worth it to Smith.
So, how do the drivers feel about the changes? Well, they apparently don’t have any more insight as to what Smith is going to do than we do, but they have some ideas on what they would like to have happen.
“I think you have to be very, very careful and here’s my opinion on this is that we’re all sitting here going, ‘Okay.’ Before it was a one groove race track and so you basically, if your car was good enough, to get to the guy’s bumper in front of you then if he wouldn’t get out of your way then you would knock him out of the way and that’s what created the drama and the excitement,” noted the driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevy Jeff Gordon. “That was also before this car came along.
"This car punches a big hole in the air and I’m not so sure we’d be able to get to the guy’s rear bumper. We might see more single file racing and I love the fans opinions and weighing in on it. I think it takes a combination of the fans, the drivers, the guys that work on these race cars, the engineers that understand aerodynamics and all of the tire data and all those things, as well as the engineers that build these race tracks.
"I think it takes a group effort to weigh-in on what the best solution is. To just go and change the race track, I don’t think there’s a problem with the race track. I love it. The funniest thing I’ve ever heard is I had a tweet from a woman that said, ‘I’m not going to Bristol anymore, that two and three wide racing at Bristol is driving me crazy.’
"I laughed and I still laugh every time I think about that tweet. 10 years ago we were praying and just wishing we could get two and three wide racing at Bristol. We have to be very careful what we wish for. I don’t really think we need to make any changes there.”
“Everybody in Bristol was trying to make the racetrack better, and in the end it didn’t work for them,” says Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 29 Budweiser Chevy. “The telltale sign of that was standing in the infield and looking at the crowd. It used to be years-upon-years of waiting lists.
“When you take a risk like they took on changing the racetrack with engineers, and thoughts, and whatever process they went through, you’re taking a big risk. Now they are going to pay probably the ultimate (price), just because of the fact they changed it. Now they’ve got to change it back.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew Chevy, says the track surface itself is what used to make racing so exciting. “Well, they haven’t asked me personally (about the changes). I’m sure they’ve reached out to certain drivers and obviously they’ve gone back and listened to what the fans have asked for. So, I think there’s only one thing that’s particular to me about the old race track that made it different. This particular thing to me about the old race track made the difference in the track entirely. And without it, I’m not sure how good it can be.
"But, with the old surface the yellow line around the bottom of the track was about a foot up away from the apron, and the apron was sealed black quite often. And they would seal all the way up to the line. That sealer is grippy. And so there was about a foot of sealer on the very, very bottom of the race track right above the apron; and then there would be the yellow line. And if you were smart and you hooked your left front tire on that sealer and didn’t overdrive the car and get the car up off that, you could find grip and find speed. And if you were smart enough to do that and be patient, you could make speed on guys that weren’t smart enough to use that. And that sort of made the racing look better and made the race funner from a driver’s point of view too. And without that, I think we’ll all just kind of -- I don’t know if that track will be as good as it was.”
Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota, says it might not need to be the track so much as the tires that need to be changed. “Back in the day when people used to lap the whole field and no one complained about the racing, it's because overtaking was happening. Cars were getting passed. You could watch your guy move from 15th to wherever up to the front.
"Now, it's like he's got to make all the room, all the space up in the first five laps of a restart and then he sits there for the rest of the run. That's because we don't have enough fall-off. It's a tough job to make a tire that does that and will live and ultimately not put our safety at risk of blowing tires. Really, Goodyear has made tires that are idiot proof now. We can't abuse them enough to blow them out. That's why you don't see the passing that we used to have."
Jeff Gordon feels that in the end, it is more about the entertainment brought about by the activity on the track, and that includes bringing back the crashes and hard hits to replace the ability to race clean and get past each other. “I think that common sense always prevails and I feel like, what I love about Bruton’s approach to things is that he’s not afraid to make changes. He’s not afraid to take the fans opinions and do something about it because he realizes that those fans that fill the seats are very, very important and I love that. He’s all about the entertainment value of it and I think that’s the balance that has to be there.
"The racers, we’re trying to create a competitive race out there and we hope the entertainment comes because the racing was good. I think if you’re NASCAR, you’re caught in the middle of the entertainment value as well as keeping the competition pure. Then as a track owner, I think you’re concerned about safety, fans and them being entertained and happy. I think that again, it’s not just one thing that I believe needs to be done, I think it’s a combination. I don’t think it’s the racing that is the biggest problem.”
Whatever Smith thinks IS the problem, we will know what his plans are in just over a week. And when we return back to the track this fall, who knows what we will see. But I know that one thing I would love to see is more fans back in the seats, and great racing on the track. And if Bruton has to get a little dirt on his hands and spends a million or so dollars to do it, let’s see what he’s got.
Follow Kim on Twitter: @ksrgatorfn
The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.