NASCAR Bristol Dirt and the Weight of Expectations

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Bristol Motor Speedway’s transformation into a dirt track is no longer unique to NASCAR. This weekend marked the second time the track has hosted races for the NASCAR Cup and Camping World Truck Series on a temporary dirt surface. In fact, NASCAR has taken the event one step further in 2022. This season’s Bristol Dirt Race has moved to Easter, taking place on Sunday evening. This is the first time the Cup Series has held a race on Easter Sunday in over 30 years.

Given the schedule change, it feels like the dirt race has all the trappings of a major event. Much like Memorial Day and the Coca-Cola 600, or the Daytona International Speedway summer race held on or around Independence Day for decades, NASCAR is trying to create another weekend race of holidays. The new date on the schedule, the late night vibe and of course the dirt certainly changed the profile of what was once Bristol’s spring race. But behind all the fanfare and hype to see NASCAR racing on dirt, losing the traditional spring race in Bristol was a prize too many in the industry have overlooked.

Bristol’s spring race was a valuable part of the Cup Series calendar. It was one of six short track races and one of two stops at a truly unique venue on the NASCAR calendar. Obviously, the late summer night race was always going to be the showpiece event at the track. But when you remove the trappings of night racing, the type of racing that takes place at this event is no different than what Bristol offered in the spring. You could even say that the Bristol spring race was actually better than the night race because the sun warmed the track and made the running surface smoother.

Unfortunately, the Bristol Spring Race has gotten a bad reputation. The quality of the world’s fastest half-mile race has always seemed to be overshadowed by the cold, rainy weather, empty grandstands and laments over the track’s many reconfigurations over the past 15 years. As a result, fans expected the worst from Bristol’s spring race, even though the racing product was generally very good.

From this vantage point, it’s easy to see why Speedway Motorsports Inc. and NASCAR wanted to try something new last year. Hosting the return of the Cup Series to earth instantly made Bristol’s spring race something new and unique. It also gave NASCAR a familiar venue with the infrastructure required to support a Cup Series dirt race. As a bonus, Bristol got another high profile event that was different enough to avoid stealing the night racing thunder. In theory, it was a total victory.

But in practice, adding soil hasn’t quite solved the old problems of Bristol’s spring run. Last year’s event was delayed a day by rain, which reduced both track attendance and TV ratings. NASCAR also struggled to handle track conditions during the race. Recall that the dust got so bad that NASCAR decided mid-race to switch to single-file restarts to improve driver visibility. While competitor safety is paramount, it was pretty ridiculous to change the restart procedure in the middle of the event. Even though last year’s race looked like something fun and unique, it revealed that NASCAR has a lot to learn about dirt racing.

A year later, dirt racing still doesn’t have everyone’s approval in the NASCAR garage. Even Kyle Larson, the defending champion and an accomplished dirt racer outside of NASCAR, looked disappointed earlier this week. Larson’s frustrations stemmed from NASCAR’s decision to continue using windshields for dirt racing, but his ensuing comments raised a provocative question. Can NASCAR run a “real” dirt race using vehicles built to race on paved surfaces in a facility with a temporary dirt surface? The answer will depend on how far you can stretch the parameters of what constitutes a “real” dirt run. If all you need are cars racing on a dirt oval, you’re in luck. But Larson’s requirements, along with many others in the off-road racing world, are going to be more stringent.

Personally, I don’t mind seeing the Cup Series run on dirt. If they really are the best stock car drivers in the world, let them compete on as many types of tracks as possible. However, I’m not convinced that Bristol is the best place for a dirt race. I would much rather see Bristol’s traditional spring race restored and the dirt race moved to another venue.

Once the novelty wears off, who is the Bristol Dirt Race for? Dirt racing purists who share Larson’s mindset won’t get on board unless NASCAR makes significant modifications to the Gen 7 car to produce “real” dirt racing. Fans of more traditional stock cars will likely be tired of seeing their favorite drivers awkwardly gliding around Bristol. NASCAR can dress up Bristol dirt racing all they want, but the sanctioning body hasn’t proven that Bristol dirt can produce a better racing product than Bristol concrete. If the dirt can’t deliver, the event will be crushed under the weight of its own expectations, much like the old spring race.

A better long-term solution would be to upgrade a current dirt track to standards that can host the Cup Series. Sure, it’s always easier to spend someone else’s money, but at least that money isn’t used to haul tons of dirt in and out of Thunder Valley every year. Bristol can then go back to doing what it does best, showcasing a racing style once compared to “fighter jets flying in a gym”. NASCAR could even schedule the race at another time of the year with more favorable weather conditions.

Bristol’s second date may never have the cachet of night racing, but it didn’t deserve the bad reputation it has developed over the past decade. Should racing ever return, hopefully the stigma of the past will be gone and fans will be able to appreciate Bristol for the excellent racing it offers. Maybe absence really makes the heart grow fonder.

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