By Craig Murto - email@example.com
Is the new Bristol Motor Speedway the final version of the track, or will Bruton Smith spend more money altering the track's surface?
Smith ground down the top four degrees of banking in an effort to force cars to race on the bottom and get back to the single-file racing fans once knew. Strangely enough, by the time the Cup race was over on Saturday night, that new top groove was the place to be.
Bristol has gone through a number of changes since it was built in 1961. Then, it was a perfect half-mile oval with 22-degree banking. In 1969 the track was reconfigured with 36-degree banking and measured .533-mile.
As cars got faster and tires got better, the racing surface took a beating, so in 1992 the track was given a concrete surface. As with the paved 36-degree configuration, cars raced on the bottom and the only way to pass was to move somebody out of the way.
In 2000 and 2001, dirt was placed on the surface for some successful Sprint car and dirt Late Model events, but due to the cost of transporting the dirt and the toll the heavy truckloads of dirt took on local roadways, the dirt was abandoned.
In 2007 an effort was made to provide better racing and get away from the single-file parades that Bristol races had become. Progressive banking was put in the track, and as a result two- and three-wide racing ensued.
But there were also a lot less caution flags, as drivers could race side by side without wrecking each other. The crashfest Bristol was known to be turned into just another race to some fans. Races that used to have 20 caution periods now averaged four or five. At the same time we entered what some call "The Great Recession," from which arguably we haven't recovered, and Bristol ticket sales declined for the first time in the track's history.
After the race this spring, Smith made an attempt to bring the old Bristol back. What he got, however, was something completely new.
I liked the progressive banking. I liked two- and three-wide racing. I like passing without wrecking, and I hate when racing promoters adopt a WWE mentality. Whether it was the lack of wrecking on the new surface or the sour economy, Smith wasn't selling as many tickets. He was determined to bring back the old Bristol show.
The Modifieds took to the track and, well, crashed. Half the field in one wreck. But they are so different from anything else that races on the track, they aren't a good indicator of what the new surface would bring.
The Camping World Truck Series was next, and it appeared that all Smith did was render the top groove useless. The trucks used the middle and lower groove, and, thankfully, demonstrated that two-wide racing was still possible.
The Nationwide cars started using the top. They also showed that the new racing groove narrowed at the exit of the corners. There were plenty of thrills and spills in the Nationwide race, but Saturday night's Cup race was still a huge unknown.
But now we know. The new Bristol is a new animal altogether. Two-wide racing is possible, but it's difficult, as most cars head toward the preferred upper groove once enough rubber is laid down. Thrills and spills? There were plenty, 13 cautions, and a lot of good cars got torn up because of the tough track. And we even saw tempers flare again, something we haven't seen at Bristol in a while.
Fans say they want side-by-side racing, but when they got it they stopped buying tickets. Now Bristol is a configuration that is difficult enough that sheet metal pays a price, so hopefully the fans will once again pay the price of admission.
Smith meant to make the bottom groove dominant, but just pushed all the cars to the top. Who knows what results he'll get if he attempts to change it again? There's excitement at Bristol; Bruton, leave it alone.
There's excitement at local tracks as well. Winchester, Hagerstown and Old Dominion feature Late Models on Saturday night. Old Dominion will have its "Legends Night," honoring legends at the oval. The drag strip will have its legends event on Sept. 16.
-- Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.