Perception And Reality Crash At Bristol

The final race rundown for Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway won’t show it, but the biggest incident of the NASCAR Sprint Cup race came when perception and reality came crashing together.

The fact is these two interlopers – and not the drivers – have been the stars of the show at Bristol since 2007. That’s when the track reconfigured its racing surface and completed its most recent round of grandstand expansion boosting the seating capacity to 165,000.

Bristol has never been the same since.

Soon after the repaving, the perception quickly came up that the racing wasn’t as good on the new surface which was wider, smoother and easier to pass on than the old racetrack. The reality – as Sunday’s winner Brad Keselowski pointed out in Victory Lane – is that the racing is better than it’s ever been at Bristol.

The reality is that there is more racing – more laps of side-by-side competition – than ever before at Bristol. There’s even enough room to race three-wide at times. Yup, that’s right, three-wide at Bristol. We saw that multiple times Sunday.

In our book, Sunday’s Food City 500 was great short-track racing.

Now, if your perception of racing is wrecking, then you are right – the racing at Bristol isn’t as good as it used to be. Bristol used to be a place where rooting and gouging someone was the only way to pass. It was a track where a strong front bumper was the most important thing on your racecar.

Not anymore.

Not at Bristol anyway, where there were only five caution flags all day Sunday. Bristol isn’t about carnage anymore. If you want that kind of ‘racing is wrecking’ action, think Daytona. That’s where more than 100 vehicles were mangled beyond repair in the six NASCAR events (Budweiser Shootout, Gatorade Duels, Truck, Nationwide and Daytona 500) this past ‘Speedweeks.’

Another current perception about Bristol revolves around the lack of fans attending the events.

Certainly, it was sobering to see the number of empty seats at Sunday’s Cup event. A slow economy – combined with an overpriced season-ticket package that requires fans to pony up their cash more than a half a year in advance – and a stadium overbuilt to a capacity the size of the ego of track owner O. Bruton Smith will create that kind of picture.

Despite those conditions, the reality of Bristol’s announced attendance of 102,000 was the size of that crowd made it the largest confluence of humanity in any one spot on earth Sunday.

Think about that for just one second.

Not a single event on our planet Sunday drew a bigger crowd than the NASCAR race at Bristol, TN.

Not one.

And just so we’re clear, few events this year – other sporting matches, religious meetings, political conclaves – will not match the attendance at Bristol Sunday.

Bottom line – our reality is we like seeing 451 laps of green-flag action at Bristol, especially if it’s the side-by-side kind of racing witnessed Sunday.

Additionally, our perception is when you can drag together more than 100,000 folks for a stock car race, the reality is things aren’t quite as bad as some folks might make them out to be.

Is Bristol different than it used to be?

You bet.

Then again, what isn’t?

Not all change is bad and if you look close enough, you can see that things aren’t always as dire as it initially may seem. You may want to keep those things in mind today when you read a host of other perceptions about how the sky is falling at Bristol.

Last Call –

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mark the passing of Wisconsin racing photographer Al Graf.

Graf – a regular photographer at midwestern raceways for more than 30 years – died on March 5.

Graf took time to show me the ‘ropes’ of race photography when I started in this business in the early 1980’s. Graf and I got to know each other well spending countless hours together shooting photos at tracks like Slinger, Madison International and The Milwaukee Mile.

He was a patient teacher and I’d like to think that there is a little bit of Al in every racing photo I have taken or will ever shoot in the future.

While Graf was a good friend to and will be missed by many, his greatest legacy will be the thousands of images he took that chronicle Wisconsin racing history. While it wasn’t his goal, Graf’s photos will live on as a tribute to his life and love of auto racing.

That’s very cool.

Happy trails, Al. Thanks for the friendship and the great memories.

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