NASCAR: Track Facing Empty Seats and the Ghost of Bristol Past
Bristol Motor Speedway...the hardest ticket in NASCAR.
For decades, getting a ticket to this event was reserved for the rich or the lucky...all 160,000 of them.
The racing was brutal. Five hundred laps around a high-banked, half-mile bull ring which left friendships dented and fenders destroyed.
Protecting the bottom lane was key. If you were not fast enough, the bump and run was coming (See Jeff Gordon vs. Rusty Wallace) or if you were not careful enough, the dump and run was coming (see Terry Labonte vs. Dale Earnhardt...twice).
It was a track of legends, with grandstands named after those who found success where so many only found the wall.
Now...it is just another racetrack.
Sunday's race at Bristol reportedly sold only 120,000 tickets. If you looked at the grandstands, the crowd seemed smaller than that.
Some blame the economy, but the three previous races of the 2011 saw improved attendance.
How did this once hallowed ground go from being the hottest ticket in NASCAR to just a smaller version of Dover?
All it took to destroy the grandeur that was Bristol Motor Speedway was one bad decision.
Which Bristol did you prefer?
They changed the racetrack.
In 2007, after over 50 consecutive sellouts, track management decided to change the configuration of the racetrack to produce more side-by-side racing. The complaint, in their mind, was that the only way to pass at Bristol was to "knock the guy in front of you out of the way."
What the track owners failed to realize is that hard-nosed, bump-and-run racing made Bristol special. You can go to any number of racetracks and see side-by-side racing and yes, for the most part, that is what NASCAR fans want.
However in this case, Bristol gave the fans something they could only find in one place and they flocked to that one place twice a year to see it.
Where else can we see Jeff Gordon nudge Rusty Wallace out of the way to steal a win? Where else can we see Jimmy Spencer on his way to his first win in eight years get roughed up by Kurt Busch and finish second? Where else can Dale Earnhardt get penalized to the end of the longest line and charge his way through the field to wreck the leader on the last lap?
Before 2007, the answer to these questions would, in any NASCAR fan's mind, always be Bristol.
But now, the answer is simply, "Nowhere."
If the owners of Bristol Motor Speedway are smart, they will realize their mistake and correct it. Mistakes can be expensive and correcting this one would be, but what will be harder for track management?
Tearing up four-year-old concrete or seeing 60,000 empty seats in August?
Reconfigure the track back to where it was in 2007, and you will have a full house once again.
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