Thousands of truckloads of dirt, carefully layered. Concerns about whether windscreens would hold up. Drivers practicing in virtual reality.
NASCAR’s return to it’s dirt track roots was an expensive, wonderful, spectacular success.
Why Bristol? Why Dirt?
On September 30, 1970, NASCAR held what was to be its last dirt race. The race took place at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh on a half mile track.
This was the end of a gradual shift…in 1949, seven of the eight tracks competed on were dirt, with Daytona the only exception.
The truck series returned to dirt from 2013 to 2019, with a single race at Eldora Speedway.
But NASCAR’s premiere series has run entirely on concrete and asphalt for longer than I have been alive.
So, why did Bristol Motor Speedway suddenly decide to throw a dirt race?
The answer is, as with so many things in the sporting world: Attendance.
While the Bristol fall race remains popular, the spring engagement was marked by falling numbers of fans. The stadium can seat 162,000, and was getting maybe 40,000 fans…not good for their bottom line.
And when they asked fans what would bring them back, a surprising number said “Dirt.” Fox Sports was also on board with doing something different, and the experiment with televised iRacing (which has continued in various forms) showed that the fans would watch something new.
So, Bristol went to NASCAR and NASCAR talked to the teams and got everyone on board.
Would It Work?
This fan’s reaction to the announcement was that this would either be hugely cool…or a disastrous demolition derby. NASCAR drivers no longer routinely come up through the dirt tracks the way they once did, and although iRacing training helps…
Furthermore, most dirt racers don’t have windshields. Just saying.
And this was an expensive gamble. 23,000 cubic yards of dirt had to be trucked in and used to reshape the track. They could not just cover the track, because Bristol’s extreme banking would have caused it all to slip off, but instead built it up to reduce the banking from 30 degrees to 19 degrees. They tested 15 different types of dirt to find the best kind. Also, they used sawdust under it to make it easier to clean the track afterwards. Oh, and dirt tracks have to be a perfect degree of wetness. This led to issues…torrential rains forced the cancellation of heat races which would have set the starting lineup and also given the drivers a chance to practice, and a one day delay in the race itself.
They had to work out the format. One decision was not to allow traditional pit stops, but rather let crews work on the cars between stages. This was due to concerns over the pit road becoming a hazardous surface for both vehicles and the crews themselves.
They had to make some changes to the cars. Specifically, the front splitter overhang was gone, replaced with a debris deflector. A different rear spoiler had to be used, and duct screens were allowed along with reinforcement to various parts of the car. And, of course, they used different tires.
Finally, the race was shortened to 250 laps because of the likely extra wear on the vehicles.
Many of the drivers got in prep time by driving in truck or modified/late model races (if they were going to dirt up the track, they wanted to run a bunch of events).
An expensive gamble that might not have worked. In fact, some people thought the race should be an exhibition, with no points, because…
…well, it could have been carnage with the winner being one of the few cars that finished the race.
Did It Work?
The answer to this is a resounding yes.
Were there wrecks? Absolutely, but there were no dangerous wrecks, and only seven cars failed to finish the race, mostly from two pileups. The slower speed meant nobody ended up airborne.
Only one driver had a mechanical DNF, showing that the alterations to the cars worked to protect the engines from overheating (A very real concern on dirt).
There were spectacular passes and red clay flying up so high I swear some of it hit the camera blimp.
The race was won by Joey Logano, but it was also won by NASCAR and the fans.
NASCAR will return to the dirt at Bristol in 2022, when hopefully they will be able to fill the stadium with fans.
Furthermore, the changes to the NASCAR schedule that are developing are moving away from the heavy dependence on mile and a half ovals…and that can only be a good thing. (For example, both Chicagoland and Kentucky are gone from the 2021 schedule, being replaced by Circuit of the Americas and Road America).
NASCAR should run on the dirt. Even if it’s only once a year. Just to remind everyone of where the sport came from.