By admin | March 18, 2012
By Richard Allen
At the very moment the Fox television broadcast for the Food City 500 Sprint Cup race at the Bristol Motor Speedway came on the air on Sunday afternoon the immediate reaction of anyone who has followed racing at this track over the years was likely one of disbelief. The most glaringly obvious sight in whatever direction the cameras pointed was that of the thousands of empty seats ringing the half-mile track.
Just a few short years ago, there was a waiting list of people who hoped just for the opportunity to get tickets to the races held on what was one of the most unique tracks on the NASCAR schedule. With grandstands decked on top of grandstands filled each time the gates opened, Speedway Motorsports, Inc. chairman Bruton Smith once boasted that his company could stack the layers to the sky in order to add to the facilityâ€™s 160,000+ seating capacity.
Now, there is little need for worries of how to add to the bleacher numbers. So, what happened?
In 2007, SMI officials decided that the track was in need of repairs. The old concrete was removed and a new surface was laid down. At the same time, the steepest banking of all NASCAR tracks(36 degrees) was adjusted to a progressive angle of 24 degrees in the lowest lane up to 30 degrees at the top.
The stated purpose of the progressive banking was to allow drivers more room to race rather than drive around in a long line until one of them simply lost patience and ran over another. The result of those moves was often a great deal of mangled sheet metal and hot tempers. And the Bristol Motor Speedway management never shied away from promoting that as â€œRacinâ€™ the way it ought to beâ€ with billboards and other advertisements showing smoky scenes of cars banging into each other and drivers throwing objects at other drivers.
While that type of racing typically resulted in numerous caution flags and many laps of the field rolling around behind the pace car, it was what Bristol was supposed to be. Fans went there to see what driver was going to get into it with another driver and who would win out in the gladiatorial survival of the fittest contest.
Think of it like the two restrictor plate tracks on the circuit. The 2×2 tandem racing produced more lead changes than ever before. But the competition wasnâ€™t the same as the big pack racing fans had grown used to and they demanding that the big packs be returned.
With cars now able to race all over the track in Bristol, those sparks flying incidents do not happen nearly as often as they once did. While some may say they have a greater appreciation for the type of racing that takes place now, the scores of empty seats at the track on Sunday indicate that is not the prevailing line of thought.
One of my followers(@TheKevo23) on twitter put it like this, â€œThe racing is better, the entertainment level isn’t.â€
Essentially, Bristol has become just another track. The racing may be good, possibly even better than before. But itâ€™s no longer anything special. The passion has been lost.
Considering the limited hotel and restaurant space in the upper east Tennessee area and the price gouging that goes along with those shortages, fans from other regions of the country may just decide to stay closer to home since there is nothing particularly different about this track than those they would pass by to get to it.
On a personal note, I attended the Nationwide Series race on Saturday with my two sons and thought the racing was very good. There was a great deal of two and even three wide shuffling and some very daring moves by the leaders in traffic. I enjoyed what I saw.
However, as we were walking out of the track, my nine year old son said, â€œThere were only four cautions. It wasnâ€™t a very exciting race.â€ I believe he is not the only one who had that opinion.
Sundayâ€™s Sprint Cup event featured some great racing as well. The late race battle between eventual winner Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth was one of the best seen in some time. But thatâ€™s not necessarily why people used to spend over $100 per ticket to come to this track.
After the race, driver Aric Almirola sounded almost like my son. “There weren’t very many cautions and it probably wasn’t very exciting for the fans,â€ he said. â€œIt wasn’t very exciting for us, either.”
Obviously, Keselowski had other ideas. “I think those who don’t like the new Bristol are missing out on something great,â€ he declared â€œThey’ll figure that out 10 years from now.”
It may be too late by then.
The new Bristol may be good, but right or wrong, it isnâ€™t what itâ€™s supposed to be. Track officials, drivers and media personalities can spend as much time as they want explaining why itâ€™s now better but the empty seats say all that needs to be said.
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