Bristol Faces Huge Challenge for NASCAR on Dirt

Matt Weaver
·8 min read
Photo credit: Bristol Motor Speedway
Photo credit: Bristol Motor Speedway

From Autoweek

Unlike 20 years ago when Bristol Motor Speedway’s concrete surface was first covered with clay, there are all sorts of simulation programs designed to make ambitious projects like this one all the more tenable.

It will need to be, because this time it’s more than just the World of Outlaws at Thunder Valley, with this iteration of the Bristol Dirt Track needing to consider the requirements of a 250-lap NASCAR Cup Series race.

Tall task.

For the next two months, the iconic Tennessee half-mile will host numerous marquee events following its transformation into a temporary clay dirt course with 19-degree banking. The conversion began in January and required over 23,000 yards of dirt from three different sites within a 30-mile radius of the speedway.

Veteran racer and promoter Mike Van Genderen will serve as groundskeeper for the Bristol Dirt Late Model Nationals. He will also be on-site for the NASCAR event. The entire project has been overseen by Steve Swift -- SVP of operations and development for Speedway Motorsports Inc.

As an overseer, that has meant identifying and recruiting experts of the discipline.

"Visited a lot of dirt tracks," Swift said. "Went to a lot of dirt races to educate ourselves a little bit more on all the nuances behind dirt.

"The Cup Series has not been on dirt in a long time, so (there was) nothing to go watch (to) see how that reacts, what that does. So, a lot of dirt racing (and) a lot of late model races, sprint car races (and) local tracks to get a feel for the type of dirt we'd be experiencing here in Bristol without having to haul it from Iowa and getting some of that good black dirt.

"We're dealing with nice, good red dirt that we have in northeast Tennessee."

The base clay came from a parking lot across the street and was the foundation for the temporary dirt track constructed 20 years ago. For the remaining layers, the speedway sent samples to an expert in California who told them the two other locations best suitable for the project.

"We had to do a lot of filling in the turns to get it away from 30 degrees," Swift said. "To get the track where we could use a motor grader to place it, keep equipment up on the track, because dirt doesn't allow or like 30-degree embankments

"With that, we used the old dirt as a base and the good dirt as a surface."

A new crossover gate that cleared the height of the new surface, while also meeting NASCAR safety standards, was also installed.

The project was completed ahead of schedule in mid-March and Late Models began testing immediately afterwards in advance of the Bristol Dirt Nationals.

The biggest hurdles to clear will come in the form of the 150-lap NASCAR Truck Series and 250-lap Cup Series events.

Both races will start 40 entries and will race for hundreds of laps and that doesn’t even include the 15-lap heats that determine the starting lineups for the feature. There is a great risk of the track taking so much rubber that it becomes a single-groove, follow-the-leader affair.

That’s especially true for the Cup Series race, which will take place during daytime conditions, with the Sun drawing out moisture quicker than a nighttime event.

"The truck race on Saturday night, under the lights, it’s just so much easier to keep moisture in the track," Swift said. "That's a lot of laps on the track or with a very heavy car. You know, normally, you’d have time between dirt races where you can get in and work the track."

Consider a race like the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals that requires over an hour to prepare the track between the B-Mains and Feature.

The Cup race will not have such a luxury.

"I think it comes down to making sure we've got enough moisture that'll hold on, and that the dust stays mitigated," Swift said. "Again, I want to iterate we'll have dust but should be able to mitigate it to where it’s not unbearable to see, and the duration is really good.

"Currently we have a traditional plan where you work the track and NASCAR has given us time to work prior to the races. Once the races start, there's not a lot of time or things to do. We feel like we can put enough moisture in the track."

But that doesn’t compensate for a potentially locked-down track after 100 laps.

Kyle Larson is the most successful dirt racer in the field and has no idea what to expect on March 27-28.

"We’ve all been to Bristol that time of year and it rains all the time, so I have no clue how the track is going to be," Larson said. "It could be hard and slick or rubbered-down and one lane.

"It could rain, and it could be heavy and rough, and we’re ripping the noses off the car. Honestly, I hope it does get a little bit rough because I think that will add some characteristics to the track (and) open up some different things."

"Having all those races prior to the NASCAR weekend, it will teach us a lot about how the track is going to react (and) what it's going to do, which (will) help us build a better game plan going into that weekend."

Larson will headline a litany of NASCAR stars expected to enter the Bristol Dirt Nationals from March 15-20. That event will feature Super Late Models and Open Modifieds.

Kyle Busch will join Larson in a Super Late Model. Joey Logano and Truck Series champion Matt Crafton will enter the Modified portion of the event. Brad Keselowski has signaled an intent to enter one of the two races. Chris Buescher, Cole Custer and Austin Dillon have also expressed an interest in getting seat time in advance of the NASCAR weekend.

"I think the best way is to race dirt when you can," Dillon said. "Obviously, there’s a week of racing beforehand and I’m trying to get in a car and be able to race that the week before when we’re racing in Atlanta – try to put that together just to see what the track does."

Another concern is the slightly narrower radius of Turns 1 and 2 stifling passing opportunities even before the track dries out. Turns 1 and 2 have a turn radius of 242’ while 3 and 4 has a turn radius of 256’.

Swift and his team took that into consideration when building the dirt layout but daytime conditions could complicate matters there as well.

"Turns 1 and 2 should be capable of passing from what our sim data has kind of shown," Swift said. "I’m not saying that it will be, because anything could happen that weekend. We don’t know. It’s the unknown, but from the simulation and design, it shows that they should be able to pass.

"A lot of that will bear down on the cushion. I know from a sun perspective, Turns 1 and 2 catches the Sun quickest during the day, so it’s going to want to dry out quicker than 3 and 4."

Ultimately, no matter how it plays out, NASCAR was presented an opportunity to try something new in the final year of the current generation car. Based on the Truck Series races at Eldora, there is a great likelihood that the chassis from Bristol won’t be usable in any capacity after that weekend.

There’s also industry speculation that this could be a one-and-done event for the Cup Series as teams will switch over to the next-generation car next season.

NASCAR Cup Series director Scott Miller says they’ll bring it back if it’s an overwhelming success.

"That’s the question, right," Miller says. "If we have an event that is as fantastic as we hope it will be, that we believe will be, we’ll figure out a way to make it continue on. If we have problems, we’ll have to look at it for what the future is.

"It’s safe to say if we have an overwhelmingly successful event, we’ll figure out a way to carry on with it."

All told, the Bristol Dirt Race is an opportunity to attract new fans, or present the sport in a different light.

FOX Sports analyst Clint Bowyer graduated to NASCAR from Dirt Late Models and even owns a full-time team. He believes this an event with this type of novelty factor has been needed for a long time.

"I've been on this old road for a while," Bowyer said. "Man, I'm ready for something new. That new is here. This whole schedule this year is full of new and exciting things. In my opinion, we've longed for it. We've needed to do this for a long time. That time is now. …

"I know that the fans are pumped up. I see it on social media. I am. … There's a lot of racing that's going to happen on this racetrack even before we get there for our NASCAR weekend. I think that's beneficial for a lot of things. …

"I think it's paramount that we make sure that the track is ready for our heavy vehicles. I love that the approach that the track is taking of making sure that they have that."