Raniel Diaz from Corona del Mar, United States, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
NASCAR's Cup Series to race on dirt for the first time in 50 years
Richard Petty won the last dirt race in a NASCAR top-flight class round track. That was in 1970. We call it Cup race now, back then they knew it as the Grand Nationals. The big boys are bringing dirt racing back to the oval this year. It allows the world's best stock car drivers a real chance to prove themselves. Who will be your favorite "gladiator" at the Last Great Colosseum?
Bristol Motor Speedway (BMS) is once again changing it up for the fans. The concrete track is being packed with a layer of sawdust and 15,000 truckloads of local dirt. It's not the first time BMS has hosted dirt racing in the modern age, though it's been 20 years since BMS hosted the World of Outlaws and dirt modified in the dust bowl.
“Bristol Motor Speedway has hosted many historic events over the years and we will be adding to that resume ... We can’t wait to see how the stars of NASCAR take to the dirt.” - Jerry Caldwell, general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway
The fun begins on March 28th. Bristol's dirt racing will be a fan favorite. It's a lot of work for the track, but hopefully, it will stay on the schedule for years.
NASCAR steps away from the crowd
NASCAR has been waging huge bets in 2021 after the COVID plagued 2020 schedule killed many events. We are going to see an action-packed season with great tracks, more road courses, and sliding the night away. Personally, I'm really excited to see the action this year. NASCAR is taking a different approach as many racing series have curtailed their 2021 schedules further because of the pandemic.
With a second date at Darlington this year and the All-Star race moving to Texas, it was a no-brainer that a road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would be picked up. But why BMS and why now?
Back to the future
Bristol's spring race needed something. The timing isn't the best with March and April having many weather-related issues. Mountain weather in Tennessee is finicky that way. Attendance has been falling for the BMS spring events and Fox Sports inquired about a novelty event with NASCAR.
It wasn't realistic for NASCAR to sanction one of the smaller dirt tracks, as it couldn't handle the logistics required for the major leagues and their media entourage. There hasn't been a Cup event like this since September 30th, 1970 in Raleigh. The two truck series races at Eldora Speedway are completely different than a cup race. We are talking about serious horsepower.
Bristol's seating capacity of 160,000 will give enough room for a socially distanced crowd for this spring race. Though ticket sales have been slim (relatively speaking) for the last several years, the Spring race has actually sold out for all General Admission seating.
Fox found BMS willing to cover their track in dirt, as they'd done it before. They have even converted the infield to a regulation football field to host the Battle of Bristol with the University of Tennessee and Virginia Tech facing off in front of a sell-out crowd.
"If you look at where we've been from a capacity standpoint for that event, the track wanted to look at reinventing ... could we do for that weekend (and) keep some momentum going for the sport? When we talked to our television partners about it, that was the number one thing they wanted to see if we could make happen, so we all got together, worked with the race teams, and said let's give this a try." - Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Executive Vice President, and Chief Development Officer
Is this just the beginning
While dirt racing at Bristol is popular among traditional fans, should NASCAR have looked to a regular dirt track instead of experimenting with an existing paved track? We get it, BMS officials want to give fans a sense of novelty and energize their spring racing weekend. The fall night race at BMS remains the coveted ticket in the area for 2021. Only time will tell how this works.
One issue Matt Weaver at Autoweek.com points out - track operators own individual race dates. Each date is held by a combination of NASCAR, Speedway Motorsports Inc., Dover Motorsports, Mattco Inc., or the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. These dates are fiscally valuable because they generate revenue from the Cup Series TV contract each season. New venues can't appear unless a date is leased or sold.
Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI), the owner of Bristol Motor Speedway, has entered into a lease agreement with Circuit of the Americas.
BMS General Manager & Executive Vice President, Jerry Caldwell, said the decision on dirt was a result of fan feedback. He goes on to say the topic has routinely come up since the World of Outlaws event over 20 years ago. Our fans want another dirt race and another college football game.
An average of 85,000+ attended the World of Outlaws races. BMS is hoping the novelty can generate a spark of excitement for NASCAR. , and Bristol Motor Speedway hopes the uniqueness could generate a similar spark for NASCAR.
Currently, all Cup Series charter holders are guaranteed a starting spot in every race. That being said, dirt racing is about shorter heats and eliminations that lead to a shorter main event. I think the fans are going to be excited. Officials will have to get everyone into the mix to work out the rules. Dirt racing is different than Cup racing. They will undoubtedly have to get everyone into a room and duke it out until they come out with a viable set of rules that everyone can live with.
Would Dale Earnhardt Junior say - "It's Dirty in Bristol Baby!"?