Monday, August 22, 2016

COMMENTARY: On A Soggy Weekend, A Phoenix Rises From The Ashes

On a weekend filled with story lines and plot twists, perhaps the biggest story of the annual Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway was the racing surface itself.

In an effort to recapture the competitive fervor of the “old” Bristol, NASCAR and track officials took a page out of the NHRA Drag Racing play book, laying down an 18-inch strip of resin-based traction enhancer in the lower groove of the legendary Tennessee oval. They then dragged tires to lay down rubber in the challenging low lane, further increasing grip and traction.

Drag racers have long utilized traction-boosting compounds and the aptly named “Tire Dragon” in an effort to glue their fire-breathing, nitromethane guzzling, 10,000-horsepower dragsters to the race track. It works for the straight liners, and last weekend, the unprecedented approach worked for NASCAR, producing a dramatic uptick in two and three-wide racing, despite torrential rain storms that repeatedly attempted to wash the track clean.

Once a guaranteed sellout, Bristol’s “Last Great Coliseum” had fallen out of favor with NASCAR fans in recent years, following a 2007 reconfiguration that changed the face of NASCAR’s wildest short track. Once a contentious, hot-tempered venue that featured almost as much action after the checkered flag as before it, Bristol was transformed into a genteel joint where helmets were used only as protection, rather than as projectiles.

A 2012 decision to grind away some of the track’s progressive banking backfired, as well, reducing Thunder Valley – in the minds of many -- to just another NASCAR track. Tickets that were once contested in divorce settlements and left to family members in wills suddenly became easy to come by, with empty seats all too common.

Something had to be done, and fast.

“We evaluated after the (April) Food City 500,” admitted BMS general manager Jerry Caldwell last week. “Following that evaluation and some internal conversations which involved Marcus Smith and Bruton Smith, we all said, `Let’s give it a shot and see what happens.’

“We polished the lower groove in the turns and coming out on the straightaways,” he said. “We also applied a substance that helps rubber stick to the track. And then we brought in a tire machine… to get rubber down and give drivers some grip… so they can hang with that upper groove.”

Wednesday night’s Camping World Truck Series race was the best seen at Bristol in half a decade – maybe ever – and raised expectations for the remainder of the weekend. An additional application of traction aid prior to Friday’s Xfinity Series run paid similar dividends, and a third coat in advance of Saturday night’s main event also yielded impressive results, despite repeated hosedowns from Mother Nature.

Bristol’s pumped-up lower groove generated a substantial increase in the kind of full-contact “rooting and gouging” that made Thunder Valley a can’t-miss stop on the Sprint Cup Series for so many seasons. On a weekend otherwise characterized by torrential rain, Bristol rose like a Phoenix from the ashes, giving the people what they want and raising the optimism bar, sky high.

Yes, it’s only one weekend.

And yes, it remains to be seen whether a full-blown return to glory is in the offing at Thunder Valley.

But if the events of last weekend are any indication, it appears that Bristol’s unfortunate “chardonnay era” may be over, replaced by the old school, shot-and-a-beer mentality that previously made a weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway the most anticipated event in all of NASCAR.  

Other competitively challenged tracks would do well to get Jerry Caldwell on the horn this morning, inquiring as to where they might acquire an 18-wheeled tanker or two, filled with that magical mystery liquid that brought Bristol’s bottom groove back from the dead.

And while we’re at it, can we borrow that tire machine?


  1. I missed the Cup race, so I can only go on the Xfinity race, the Truck race, and some Cup clips on U-tube. The Food City 300 looked like the true "old" Bristol - that is the Bristol of 1989-91 where "the bottom groove is gone," as Geoff Bodine angrilly put it after crashing in 1990. It was more raceable in that 1989-91 period - in large part because Cup still ran bias-ply tires there until 1992 - and the last seven years it was better than what the 1993-2009 Bristol had been, as the resin was basically erased by the Truck race. Where the Trucks were stuck on the bottom and couldn't pass a whole lot, the Xfinity race was a spirited affair for the lead because the leader had to run high and an attacking car dove low but couldn't stick; it eventually helped lead to the Busch-Keselowski melee.

    I completely disagree about the change to the corners, in that it made Bristol an actual RACING track again as opposed to the brainless demolition derby it had degenerated to with a concrete surface. While numerous fans certainly did protest that this "new" Bristol somehow lost something competitively, they seemed to be oblivious to the increased side-by-side racing for the lead that was happening, especially in 2010 when the track first truly became what it had been 1989-91.

    I certainly applaud the track for the use of this resin, as the lack of low-groove grip was a legitimate issue and sustaining more nose-to-nose racing a la the 1981 Atlanta Journal 500 is a manifest plus. A lot of tracks like Michigan should use it, but by itself it's not the longer-term solution - only part of it.

  2. That nationwide race was the best top 3 nascar series race I have seen in over a decade.