Craig Murto: Bristol: The track’s the story

Jimmie Johnson won his second NASCAR Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Monday after rain delayed the race, but the real story is the track itself.

Just as last year, the speedway applied “Track Bite” to the bottom groove in the corners. A mixture of alcohol and glue, the solution makes that part of the racing surface sticky in an attempt to force the cars to race there.

Did it work? Well, yes and no. If they wanted to create multi-groove racing, it worked very well. The racing was competitive all day, and cars could pass high or low.

But I suspect, as good as the racing was, it wasn’t exactly what they hoped.

Let’s look briefly at the history of the track. In 1960 the track opened as a half-mile with 22-degree banking in the corners. In 1969 the track was reconfigured with higher banking, which the track advertised as 36 degrees.

In the 1980s, ESPN brought the Bristol races into living rooms all over the country. The single-file, high-speed action often created many more caution periods than most races, as the “bump and run” seemed to be the only way to pass. There was always a tense excitement in the air prior to any race a Bristol, because it truly was a matter of surviving until the end for the racers.

In 1992 the asphalt surface was replaced with concrete, which made the high-speed short track even faster. Fifteen to 20 caution periods were normal for a Bristol race.

Not only was it faster, it was popular. There was a waiting list for tickets. People passed their race tickets down in their wills. Bristol grew to become the eighth largest sporting venue in the world, seating 162,000.

You can’t please everybody, and there was always a chorus of fans who complained that Bristol races amounted to nothing more than high-speed demolition derbies, given how difficult it was to pass unless a driver knocked a competitor out of the way. Perhaps in response to those complaints, the track resurfaced in 2007 prior to competition, installing variable progressive banking in an effort to give competitors multiple grooves. It also began listing its banking as 24 to 30 degrees.

The first race on the new surface was also the first race for the so-called “Car of Tomorrow.” The race featured exciting two- and three-wide competition, but few cautions. Some people appreciated the fact that racers could race and pass without wrecking each other, but there were also complaints that the difficulty and excitement that made Bristol appealing was lost.

Hearing the complaints, it didn’t take long for the track to grind the top groove of the track down, in hopes of making the bottom groove the preferred line once again to return to single-file, bump-and-run racing. But instead of creating a bottom groove, the effort resulted in mostly single file racing at the top of the track.

Now they spray the Track Bite compound on the bottom groove. Following Sunday’s rain, they sprayed more on the bottom groove Monday morning.

The compound worked to create multiple grooves of racing in the corners. If they want multi-groove racing, it works well. Not as well as the variable progressive banking worked in the first place before they ground the top groove, but it works. However, if the effort was to try to force the cars back to the bottom, it didn’t work. And it never will.

If they wanted the cars to race single file on the bottom through the corners, they never should have reconfigured the turns with progressive banking. If they want the fans to potentially see bump-and-run racing, they need to leave the track alone and not apply the Track Bite compound. That will make most of the fast cars choose the top groove, and passing will become very difficult.

What’s not difficult is getting a ticket for August’s night race. They are available, something that was unheard of 12 years ago. Perhaps the moral of this story is “don’t fix it if it’s not broken.”

A Bristol ticket is still worth it. The night race is still thrilling. The speed at Bristol is amazing for a half-mile track.

But the single-file bump-and-run racing on the bottom will never return. The old Bristol is gone forever, killed off in 2007 with progressive banking. Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to force the issue, put the Track Bite away, and just let the racers race on the track that exists today.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.