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Racing Under the Lights in “The Last Great Colosseum”

Bristol Motor Speedway has long held a position enviable by other tracks: it features old-school, short-track, bump-and-grind racing under the lights. Few other tracks can make that claim, including the only other half-miler – Martinsville Speedway – which compares to Bristol in almost no way (given their respective layouts and banking) except for total track length.

Bristol is your local short track “on steroids” … to pull an expression I’ve heard on more than one occasion. “Thunder Valley” is a remote location from the hustle-and-bustle locations typical in this country to a place far removed from city life.  Bristol is a racing fan’s “mecca” – a true racing destination.

Aug 25, 2012; Bristol, TN, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Carl Edwards (99) leads Denny Hamlin (11) during the IRWIN Tools Night Race a Bristol Motor Speedway. (Credit: Andrew Weber-US Presswire)

Sure, Indianapolis has its famed Speedway (in the ‘burb of Speedway, Indiana, no less), Milwaukee has the Mile (which, unfortunately, has seen better days), and Darlington still has its “Lady in Black” … but Bristol is a special place.  It has a unique charm, with a crowd that swells the surrounding area (small in population) to the 3rd largest populace area in the state on race day (behind only Nashville and Memphis).  Bristol – with its official seating capacity at 165,000 – is the 4th largest sporting venue in America AND the 8th largest in the world.  Calling it anything short of a “spectacle” is doing the place an injustice.

Sure, NASCAR has Daytona … and Talladega … and Indy for that matter.  However, capacities at those tracks are all shrinking due to declining attendances.  At this point, Bristol NEARLY stands alone as the most-attended Sprint Cup racing event (just the Night Race, as the Spring race is another story) – debatable as a close tie or second to just a couple venues like Texas Motor Speedway or the revamped Las Vegas Motor Speedway.  There is a commonality when the discussion includes Bristol with Texas and Vegas – Bruton Smith.  Year upon year, it is Smith and his Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI) that has grown his group’s tracks into premiere events on the circuit.

Aug 25, 2012; Bristol, TN, USA; General view of the NASCAR Sprint Cup IRWIN Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. (Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports)

Bristol remains unique, however, from what have become the “mile-and-a-half cookie-cutters” that litter the Cup schedule.  It doesn’t have a date in the Chase (which drives attendance at places like Texas or Las Vegas or any of the other relevant venues that have been boosted in the “playoff” format since 2004), but it ranks favorably among both drivers AND fans alike.

While I have no vested interest in the success (or possible failure from reduced attendance) of a venue like Bristol Motor Speedway, I cannot help but wish it all means of continued racing pursuit this weekend and beyond.

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Disclaimer and Post-Script: I was a Bristol season ticket-holder for nearly a decade, from the 2002 Winston Cup fall race through the 2010 campaign.  Unfortunately, tragedy struck in that 2010 season as I lost my wife to a sudden and expected heart failure on race day, August 21, 2010, while at our hotel in Dandridge, TN, a relatively short drive down I-81 from Bristol itself.  I last attended BMS last season for the August 2012 race to see what Bruton and company had done to resurface the racing surface and bring Bristol back to “Racing the Way it Oughtta Be”.  Pleasantly, I was happy to see some grinding restored to the World’s Fastest Half-Mile, despite an early exit from my personal favorite driver, Tony Stewart.  This year, I will not be in attendance at a Bristol race for just the second year in the past dozen.  While I miss the racing (and will watch on TV like many, many others), I don’t have a personal driver interest for the first time in a long time.  There are other drivers I like (such as Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle (yes, there’s a trend to Roush-Fenway past drivers)), and I will likely be rooting for Mark Martin to take the #14 to victory lane.

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Continue the conversation with me on Twitter @JDRentz

Topics: Bristol Motor Speedway, NASCAR

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