Will Return To ‘Old’ Bristol Pack The House?

Charlotte, NC (August 21, 2012) – It’s Bristol Baby!

At least we hope it will be.

For decades, the August ‘Night Race’ at Bristol Motor Speedway has been one of the most anticipated events on the NASCAR circuit. The race recalls the traditions of what many racers and fans grew up on – a good, old-fashioned slugfest on a half-mile track held under the lights on a Saturday night.

This weekend, the races at Bristol will have an extra element of intrigue thanks to a track reconfiguration courtesy of BMS owner O. Bruton Smith.

Responding to fan criticism in March after the Food City 500 Cup event produced just four caution periods totaling only 26 laps, Smith vowed to spend millions of dollars to return Bristol to it’s pre-2007 days. That’s when the track was completely repaved with an ultra-fast, uber-smooth ribbon of concrete.

Unlike the concrete racing surface Smith installed in 1992, the 2007 layout provided something new at Bristol – three-wide racing. That was a far cry from the old configuration that was in racing terms a ‘bottom feeder’ – where there was only one racing groove on the bottom of the track.

Competitors immediately fell in love with the 2007 Bristol layout. Now, instead of having to root and gouge their way past someone, drivers could actually pass, rocketing off the smoother, top-groove corner transitions to get by a slower car. No more pushing, hooking, center-punching someone to pass – just great two- and even three-wide racing.

Three-wide on a half-mile racetrack.

It was breathtaking.

But the new three-wide Bristol surface also had a second consequence – a drastic drop in the number of caution periods and laps run under the yellow flag. In the 10 Cup events prior to the 2007 Bristol repaving, the races averaged a whopping 14.5 bouts of yellow-flag fever and an average of 95 caution laps per race. In the 10 races since laying down the new concrete at Bristol, the yellow flag has flown an average of just 7.8 times totaling 56.9 laps per event.

A third consequence – and here’s where you need a leap of faith – is that fan attendance dropped drastically because of the lack of ‘action’ on the new surface. According to some fans, fewer crashes meant the racing was no longer exciting at Bristol. More green-flag laps may have produced more passing, but it was the mayhem of the old track that was what fans wanted.

As such, long-time sellout crowds estimated at 160,000 prior to the 2007 repaving started to dwindle. Forget that the economy totally tanked and gas prices began their upward spiral in 2007 – the track’s racing surface took the brunt of the blame. When attendance shrunk to ‘just’ 102,000 for the race at Bristol this past March, Smith vowed to return Bristol to its past sheet metal bashing glory. Wasting little time, Smith had construction crews grind down the banking in the top groove in May essentially narrowing the racetrack.

At a June Goodyear Tire test, the results were predictable.

“Well, you’ve definitely lost the top groove,” stated Tony Stewart after the test. “Guys who run up there aren’t going to be able to do that because it’s pretty slick up there. There’s going to be less room to race, that’s for sure. We’ve gone from a three-groove track to two grooves and any time you’ve got less room to get around it can get pretty interesting.”

Whether it will be interesting enough to sell out Bristol remains to be seen. As of Sunday, the track was still running television commercials to sell tickets. Back in Bristol’s heyday, you couldn’t sniff a ticket for the August race. Now, they’re a dime a dozen as evidenced by the thousands of tickets available in the 457 different listings posted on E-Bay this morning.

If you believe the fan social media tweets and message boards, those who do show up will be looking for a return to form at Bristol where the race is slowed by a wreck every 30 laps or so. If not, Smith’s concession to the fans – a grandstand play if there ever was one – may blow up in his face.

After all, if the new track doesn’t live up to expectation and fans don’t like a return to the ‘old Bristol,’ what do you do next?

Ville ‘Nuff

It seems like every time Jacques Villeneuve climbs into a NASCAR stock car, he proves he doesn’t belong there.

The former Formula One ace again showed that to be true this weekend when he unceremoniously dumped leader Alex Tagliani during the NASCAR Nationwide Series event at Montreal.

In-car video of the incident revels Villeneuve hooking Tagliani coming off the corner and then staying in the gas powering through and spinning Tagliani’s machine. Villeneuve never gave Tagliani a chance to recover by backing off the gas – a total no-no in NASCAR – or any other form of professional racing that we’re aware of.

Frankly, NASCAR – especially given the video evidence – should have immediately black-flagged Villeneuve, but when you’re the leader racing in front of your hometown crowd on a track named after your father, that’s not going to happen.

Fortunately, the racing gods were on the job even if NASCAR wasn’t and Villeneuve got muscled out of the victory on the last lap.

Call it racing karma if you like.

To be sure, Villeneuve has his supporters. He is indeed a skilled driver and runs up front when he’s employed as a ‘road course ringer’ for NNS events. Given there are few road course experts racing in the Nationwide Series these days, that’s to be expected.

Meanwhile, you’ll notice Villeneuve isn’t getting any calls to wheel a Cup car at road course events. His kind of dump-and-run antics aren’t welcome there.

After this weekend – and considering his sponsor Discount Tire wound up issuing an ‘apology’ for his actions after his other NNS start earlier this season at Road America – Villeneuve’s days in NASCAR may be over.

Let’s hope so.

Ville ‘Nuff is enough.

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