Craig Murto: Bristol is fine the way it is

Craig Murto

There’s an old saying in NASCAR that has been around for a long time, and that is, “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.”

It’s probably about time track owner Bruton Smith paid attention to those words and left Tennessee’s Bristol Motor Speedway alone.

In the ’60s when the track first opened, Bristol didn’t have the high banks that make it famous. That came a few years later, in 1969, when the owners of the track created the high banks and advertised it as 36 degrees.

By 1992 speeds and the grip of the race tires increased to the point that the asphalt surface just didn’t hold up, so Bristol became the first all-concrete surface on which NASCAR raced. By the time Bruton Smith purchased the speedway in 1996, the racing became a single-file high-speed freight train, cars glued to the bottom until somebody knocked somebody else out of the way to make a pass.

The racing was rough, often leading to about 20 caution periods in each 500-lap event. It was also popular; divorce settlements determined who kept Bristol tickets, and season tickets were handed down in wills. Every race was a sell-out.

You can’t make everyone happy, and some fans complained about the bump-and-run single-file racing. So, despite the obvious popularity of the track as it existed, when Smith resurfaced the facility in 2007 he put in progressive banking. That same year the NASCAR “Car of Tomorrow” debuted.

Race fans hate change (a fact with which NASCAR still hasn’t come to grips). Whether it was the new car with its ugly wing in the back, or the change in the racing, race fans weren’t happy. By most standards the racing was actually fantastic. Two- and three-wide racing was the norm, and cars could race in any of three grooves. You actually had a high-speed Bristol Motor Speedway that allowed for some passing.

Unfortunately it appeared that the fans wanted a return to the moving demolition derbies of the “old” Bristol. Ticket sales declined. So in 2012, Smith ground the top of the progressively banked turns so that the banking matched the middle grove banking. The theory was that it would force the cars to race on the bottom, just as it was in the days of the single-file freight trains.

Much to the chagrin of track management, the new banking made the high groove the fast way around. So you often had a single-file parade, but it was on the top of the banking rather than the bottom. It still didn’t create 20 cautions, and seats remained unsold.

Now in 2016 another attempt was made to recreate the old Bristol. The bottom groove in the turns was polished and a rosin treatment added to the bottom to allow for more traction.

During the midweek Camping World Truck Series event, competitors seemed to prefer the bottom. It was fast in qualifying, and track records were set. But within 50 laps of the 300-lap Xfinity race, the top groove again became the preferred line, though some competitors were able to make the bottom work.

More rosin was added before the Cup race, but heavy rains and jet dryers made the surface unpredictable. Some drivers said they’d never seen a track surface change so much so quickly.

But they never did recreate the old Bristol. And frankly, it’s time to stop trying. The racing is fast, it’s competitive, and it’s very exciting. Is it the demo derby it was 10 years ago? No. And chances are it never will be again.

Continually trying to “fix” the track is not going to help; it’s just going to tire fans who are already weary of change. The rules seem to change with each race, the championship format is different each year, and now one of the best tracks on the circuit is constantly getting a makeover. It’s time to stop.

Perhaps the decision to reconfigure the track in 2007 was a mistake. The track was a success; it was not broken. Bruton Smith should never have tried to fix that which was not broken.

But the racing at Bristol is still fast. It’s still exciting. And it still bends plenty of fenders. And nobody considers the fact that the economy crashed in 2008, and could just as well have led to the empty seats. Perhaps if the track promoted the positive and stopped trying to remake itself every few years, the fans would get comfortable enough to fill those seats again.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.

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