Monday, August 27, 2012

COMMENTARY: The Best Mistake Of Bruton's Life

Speedway Motorsports CEO Bruton Smith was dead wrong in his attempt to narrow the usable racing groove at Bristol Motor Speedway by grinding down the outside lane.
Call it the best mistake of Smith’s life.
Since 1961, the track known as “Thunder Valley” has been famous for no-holds-barred, bare-knuckled stock car racing; the modern-day equivalent of Christians vs. Lions. Fans loved it, filling the seats to capacity, season after season, and making Bristol the eighth-largest sporting venue in the world. One of the toughest “gets” in professional sports, Bristol’s 160,000 tickets became the subject of divorce decrees and wills.
At least, that is, until 2007, when Smith decided a face lift was in order.
The bombastic owner/promoter hired a platoon of engineers to turn the venerable, 36-degree oval into a new, concrete bullring, complete with modern, variable-degree banking. While the rebuild was an artistic success, producing long stretches of side-by-side racing for the first time in the track’s history, fan reaction was mixed, at best. Raised on a steady diet of volatility, carnage and mayhem, longtime patrons rebelled against the new, more genteel Bristol.
It was like buying tickets to the Roller Derby, then sitting through a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet.    
The carnage was back at Bristol
Ticket sales plummeted, forcing Smith to announce that he would rework Thunder Valley once again, grinding down the track’s uppermost groove in an effort to force a return to the good old days when, in order to pass a man, you first had to move him.
It didn’t work, at least not entirely.
Drivers began Saturday night’s IRWIN Tools Night Race as expected, racing solely in the track’s bottom two grooves. But as the event progressed, they gradually expanded the racing lane upward. By the time the race reached its halfway point, Smith’s off-limits high lane had inexplicably become the fast way around, creating an unintended amalgam of both the old Bristol, and the new.
Drivers could still pass, as evidenced by a robust 22 lead changes among 13 different drivers. It wasn’t easy, however, and 13 caution periods slowed Saturday’s race; the most for a Bristol 500-miler since the rebuild. Tempers flared – just like in the old days – with former series champions Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth wiping each other out while racing for the lead on lap 333. Stewart climbed from his steaming, wrecked racer and hurled his helmet at Kenseth’s passing car, striking it flush between the headlights with a high, hard one that brought the faithful to their feet with the kind of lusty roar that had not been heard at Thunder Valley since 2007.
Danica was not happy with Regan Smith (78)
Stewart resurrected the long-dormant Bristol vow of revenge shortly after, pledging to “run over (Kenseth) every chance I get for the rest of the year.” Later, Danica Patrick’s crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, threatened to strangle driver Regan Smith, after contact with his No. 78 Chevrolet sent Patrick into the wall and ended her night just 66 laps from the finish.
It was everything we loved best about Bristol. And more.
For the first time in memory, pit strategy played a role at BMS, keeping the race’s final outcome in doubt until the late going. Not until Denny Hamlin surged past a fading Carl Edwards to take the lead with 39 laps remaining did the verdict become clear, and after claiming his third checkered flag of the season, Hamlin gave Bristol Motor Speedway’s newest incarnation high marks.
“It’s a different kind of racing,” said Hamlin, confirming that the bottom of the track was “not the fastest way around. It was the same (as the old days),” he said. “We were all running in line, waiting on the next guy to screw up to get around. That’s what you had to do at the old Bristol and that’s exactly what we had to do today.
“I don’t think we saw as much side-by-side racing, but you didn’t see side-by-side racing with the old Bristol, either,” said Hamlin. “You saw a bunch of cars waiting in line to get knocked out of the way or mess up, and that’s the same thing we had today.”
Multi-time Bristol winner Jeff Gordon went a step further, encouraging Smith to “grind the whole place. That was awesome,” he said. “It reminded me of old-school Bristol. It was pretty exciting.”
Things may not have worked out quite the way Smith had envisioned Saturday night, but the end result is beyond dispute. Fans enjoyed great racing, with enough mayhem to satisfy those for whom the Bolshoi Ballet will never do.
All hail the newest Bristol Motor Speedway.
Photos: Tyler Barrick, John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR


  1. Anonymous11:36 AM

    I can see this style of racing at my local short track. That being said why would i ever spend the kind of money needed to attend a NASCAR race to see this? Those of us that liked the single groove on the bottom are accused of wanting wrecks. Which is wrong. I enjoyed the talent of the driver not to wreck when bumped & watching the "train" around the track.

  2. Anonymous11:43 AM

    It sure does seem that Bruton is much more "fan friendly" than his counterparts at ISC. His tracks seem much better kept, better promoted and overall more reactive to fan amenities. I guess it boils down to Bruton isn't afraid to change things or spend the money.

  3. Anonymous11:51 AM

    It was a great WWF event

    1. Michael in SoCal10:28 AM

      World Wildlife Federation?

  4. Anonymous11:53 AM

    Bruton wasn't "dead wrong". The tire was the key. No inner liners in the lefts and little stager.........grinding was just to sell the seats. When we go back and the teams can make the cars turn on the bottom will be right back to last spring.

    1. Michael in SoCal10:29 AM

      I don't believe Nascar uses the inner liner at tracks smaller than 1 mile (maybe 1.5 miles), so that should not have been a factor.

  5. Anonymous12:30 PM

    It was good to see the style of racing that brought this sport to where it currently is. The "cookie cutter tracks" are nothing compared to the "bull ring" of Tennessee. Seeing the cars and drivers in action was a very good change of pace for me. Seeing Smoke "smoke" Kennseth with his helmet, was a throwback to the old days of racing before the PC world took over. Thanks Bruton, for bringing the old style back and thanks NASCAR for continuing the "boys have at it" mentality. This is what made this sport. Let's not forget that.

  6. Bruton Smith stepped in poop and came out smelling like a rose. As they are want to say, especially in Nascar, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

  7. Anonymous2:12 PM

    Bring back bristol back to the way it was in the spring . I like race not crashing. I can watch that at my local short track.

  8. The side by side racing up front was more noticeable in the Nationwide race due to the lesser number of wrecks. The upsurge in stupid wrecks, though, brought reminder of why Bristol had to be changed to begin with. Saying that Stewart's wreck and helmet toss with Kenseth was somehow good is insane. The true old style of Bristol - in the asphalt days on bias ply tires - was far closer to the "boring" side by side of March than it was to the brainless demolition derbies a lot of message board writers clamor for.

  9. I agree with everything you said in the article, and after the races I thought it would be a positive week on the show. Then I read the comments... Here we go again.

    I can't tell if people that say they're fans mean it, or if they hate NASCAR. It's a steady stream of complaints after every race. The 3 C's of Dale Carnegie are all its about every M-F. Then they watch the races Sat-Sun to see what they can complain about next M-F. Love it or leave it.

    Great racing happened over the weekend. Raw emotion was on display. Threats, banging, rubbing, and sparks. Bristol, looking like it had some people in the stands. The constant flash bulbs popping around the track. Possibly a huge wild card with Smoke teetering inside the top 10. He could lose his bonus points if he falls out, and everyone that's outside looking in right now can kiss it goodbye if he has another bad day. Huge implications.


  10. Anonymous4:11 PM

    Agree - Bruton and his track presidents are all empowered. Eddie Gossage, Jerry Gappens and others are very visable and great promotors. I could not tell you who the presidents of ISC tracks are (aside from Joie Chitwood at Daytona)Maybe ISC should take heed and make their folks more visible and accessible ?

  11. Dave this race left me confused.2 days later i'm still not sure if i liked the racing or not.the fact is though that i watched every lap and if the ran Bristol again next saturday i wouldnt miss a lap then either.I will go as far as to say i believe it's not the wrecking that made it cool,it was the drama it caused.Story lines are what makes people come back and we will tune in to see what happens between Smoke and matt,danika and regan,and everyone and jpm.

    all in all it wasnt my FAVORITE race but the more i think about it the more i can't wait till spring
    p.s. pls make it a night race too lol


  12. I'd prefer the presidents of ISC tracks remain anonymous rather than be public spectacles the way Eddie Gossage et al seem to be. ISC may not have the flamboyance of SMI tracks but that lack of flamboyance is a good thing - quieter, more focus on racing instead of peripheral issues.

  13. Anonymous6:05 AM

    thanks for sharing..