Bristol a formula for success

Updated: March 25, 2004, 4:53 PM ET
By Jerry Bonkowski | Special to ESPN.com

I can't count the number of times over the years I've heard a NASCAR driver say something like "I wish we had more tracks like Bristol."

Old-timers like Rusty Wallace, Sterling Marlin, Ricky Rudd and others have uttered similar comments. Even a young old-timer like Jeff Gordon, who has won five times at Bristol Motor Speedway, absolutely raves about the place.

"I wouldn't mind if we had a couple more races a year at Bristol," Gordon says. "You can't help but love that place."

Some of the newest crop of drivers -- young guns like Kurt Busch, who won both races there last season and has visited Victory Lane there a total of three times in the last four races, as well as counterparts like Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson -- also express similar affection for the staid half-mile bullring in eastern Tennessee.

And don't forget about fans who converge in droves there, 160,000 strong for every Cup event, making races at Bristol among the best-attended on the entire circuit. Sure, many of them are forced to sit way up high in the stands, but what other place gives you such a great view and an up-close feel as BMS? Even if you're at the top row of the nosebleed section, you're still closer to the action than at many other tracks on the circuit.

In fact, hard as it may seem to believe, Bristol holds more people than its Speedway Motorsports Inc. counterpart, Texas Motor Speedway (which seats roughly 155,000), which plays host to the traveling NASCAR road show next weekend.

As BMS enters its 44th year of hosting NASCAR events with this Sunday's Food City 500, it's hard not to think about all the colorful history, close racing and joy and heartbreak that Bristol has provided to the NASCAR world since it hosted its first race in 1961.

Bristol Motor Speedway
Bristol is among the most popular tracks on the NASCAR schedule.

Guys like Darrell Waltrip, who practically owns the place with 12 career wins. Or how Wallace, a nine-time winner there, considers BMS his favorite racetrack, and the one he measures all others against.

Suffice it to say, Bristol tops many lists of favorite tracks. But if so many drivers really do wish there were more tracks like Bristol, well then, why aren't there?

There's nothing wrong with some of the newer tracks that have been built in the last decade -- places such as Texas, Las Vegas, Chicago, Homestead and Kansas -- but there's no disputing the fact that they're all very similar in size (1.5 miles) and look. And, quite frankly, the only other two relatively new tracks that are of different lengths -- the one-mile flat-track speedway at New Hampshire and the two-mile facility at California -- aren't all that much different in the whole scheme of things, either.

Call them cookie-cutter racetracks if you want, but it's pretty much a fact that they are kind of the same in look, atmosphere and feel -- not to mention style of racing.

So, really, why can't NASCAR build another track like Bristol? It's simple: go to track owner Bruton Smith, ask him for the blueprints, find a nice-sized piece of land and put the construction crews to work.

But seriously, why couldn't we add another short track to the circuit, a place that could pack in well over 100,000 rabid and loyal NASCAR fans? Or, what about dramatically expanding two of the other smallest tracks in Cup racing today, namely Martinsville Speedway, which at .526-miles is actually even slightly smaller than Bristol, and the three-quarter mile Richmond International Raceway?

Prior to the start of the 2003 season, now-retired NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. laid down the gauntlet, specifically naming Rockingham, Darlington, Martinsville and Richmond as tracks that were in jeopardy of losing some or all of their annual races if they didn't improve attendance and the overall quality of their racing facilities.

A year later, we've seen some of the fallout from France's threat: Rockingham lost one of its two races (to California) and is in jeopardy of losing its sole remaining event (it failed to sell out last month's race, which certainly didn't help its cause). As for Darlington, it was forced to move its trademark Labor Day race to mid-November. Martinsville and Richmond remained unscathed -- at least for now.

To their credit, track owners at both Darlington and Richmond have poured millions of dollars into rehabbing their old facilities, not only to modernize them but more important, to do whatever it takes to keep NASCAR coming back twice a year and keep those cash registers ringing.

I recall a conversation I had with Wallace last November at Rockingham. He was lamenting some of the changes that have taken place in NASCAR in recent years. He sighed when he said NASCAR has gotten away from some of its most loyal longtime fans, especially those from its Southern roots, or as Wallace put it, "the country and western-style fans. We need to get them back."

Wallace went on to talk about Bristol and why he loves that place so much that he calls it his home away from home. It takes him back to the early days of his racing career in and around his native Missouri, when he would race on short-track bullrings throughout the Midwest.

If so many drivers really do wish there were more tracks like Bristol, well then, why aren't there?

"You know, I'm not slighting places like Chicago and Kansas City, which have really become great racetracks for us, but why can't we have another short track or two in NASCAR, just like Bristol and Martinsville," Wallace said. "I think people would love it, and I know most of the drivers would, too."

Martinsville expanded its seating capacity a couple of years ago to 91,000. I'm not an architect or engineer by any stretch, but if that southern Virginia racetrack wants to take itself to the next level, it would be the most logical place to become another Bristol. It's got a great racetrack surface, fans come from all over the East Coast, and becoming a fully enclosed bowl-like stadium like Bristol could be the one thing that fends off any attempt by NASCAR to take away one or both of its current events.

For, if you look at which track is potentially next on the chopping block -- that is, other than Rockingham having its lone remaining event totally taken away -- it most likely would be Martinsville. Richmond has undergone millions of dollars in improvements, especially since France's edict early last year, and has potentially averted any action by NASCAR for at least the short term, much like Darlington.

That leaves Martinsville out there, fully exposed. Granted, track owner W. Clay Campbell has made some improvements and expanded the seating capacity in recent years, but at this juncture -- and with tracks like Texas, Las Vegas, Kansas City and Chicago clamoring for second events each year, not to mention new racetracks in Nashville, Kentucky, St. Louis and Colorado all wanting Cup events -- the onus to make Martinsville Speedway much bigger and better is at hand.

Why not another Bristol? And why not at Martinsville? It already has almost everything it needs to replicate its bullring cousin in Tennessee: Fans love the close-in intimacy it offers; the racing surface is one of the great equalizers on the circuit, not offering any type of advantage to anyone; and most drivers love the racing and ambience there.

Martinsville already has been nicknamed "Bristol East" by some. Maybe now is the time it lives up to that name -- before someone else comes along, builds another Bristol from scratch and becomes a bijillionaire in the process.

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.

Jerry Bonkowski | email

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.