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?