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Action, action, where's all the action in NASCAR-country? Bruton Smith hopes to refire fans with his Bristol remodel

Action, action, where's all the action in NASCAR-country? Bruton Smith hopes to refire fans with his Bristol remodel



     By Mike Mulhern

     BRISTOL, Tenn.
     Remember 'Shut up and drive'?
     The edict that one NASCAR promoter issued to drivers who were complaining so much about his track.
     Well, no promoter is going to tell fans 'Shut up and watch.'
     And NASCAR fans have been voting with their feet and eyeballs lately, not all that pleased with too much boring racing on the Sprint Cup tour.
     Race crowds are noticeably down, and TV ratings are noticeably down too. According to ratings NASCAR's Cup races, over the years' first two months, have lost on average more than a million TV fans each Sunday.
    The drastic cut in caution flags for incidents on the track (and not just 'debris' cautions) lately has raised the debate to fever pitch.
    And that was the backdrop to Bruton Smith's announcement here Wednesday that he had started grinding down the top groove of what has been a three-groove track, to try to tighten up things and make drivers fight harder for position when the Sprint Cup tour returns here in August.
     Marcus Smith, Bruton's son and the man who runs Charlotte Motor Speedway and handles day-to-day work for the family's Speedway Motorsports operation, says talk about the change in racing at this track has been going on among fans ever since the 2007 repave….so the decision to make the changes now planned wasn't taken just overnight.
    "The talk has been more significant this year," Smith said. "But what we're doing now is the culmination of several years of thinking."
   "The drivers have been able to fan out three-wide….and what we're trying to do is narrow that prime real estate," Jerry Caldwell, the track boss here, says.
   "Fans say they want change."
   And Caldwell appears to be leaving open the possibility that more changes may be coming after the August race, if that action isn't to everyone's liking.
   "But the one thing we have to remember in all this is that the elephant in the room is still there – and that's the economy," Caldwell points out.
   "Look at every sporting event across the country. Look at The Masters pushing tickets…
   "It's a challenge for people to go to events now. Because it's more than just the tickets, it's more than just filling up your car with gas, it's more than just the hotels….You may have to take time off work to make it to an event, and the last thing you want to do is lose your job.
   "That is all a huge factor.
   "But we realized here that we had to listen to the fans and make this change."
   Before deciding what to do, Bruton Smith said he didn't bother talking to any of the tour's regulars, though he would have listened to Jeff Gordon if he could have found him.
   However Smith did talk to one driver, Darrell Waltrip. And Waltrip is certainly a good one to discuss Bristol with– he's got 12 wins at this high-banked half-mile.
     Now the principal topic at hand Wednesday afternoon was Smith's just-underway project of 'modifying' this track by taking several degrees of banking out of the top groove, to pack in the racing a bit tighter for the August night race.
     However the official announcement, and ensuing discussion, came against a backdrop of less-than-thrilling NASCAR races, at Kansas and Texas and California.
     Fans were up in arms enough after last month's Bristol 500 to prompt Smith to make some big, expensive changes.
     Are fans angry enough about boring racing at these other tracks to, to force NASCAR to do something too?
    That's a good debate.
    Waltrip agrees that there is something odd going on out on the track this season, with so little real action. As if drivers just aren't interested in getting all that fired up with each other anymore….or right now.
    So what is going on? And how to fix things?
   "You could say it's the aerodynamics of the car, or the tires," Waltrip begins. "But listen guys, don't buy into 'the tire are too good.' My legs hurt when people say the tires are too good," Waltrip says with a grimace, referring to the numerous crashes drivers over the years have had because of blowouts. "The last thing you want is a tire that is questionable."
    Goodyear hasn't had such problems in any depth for several years now, knock on wood.
    But Goodyear's erring on the safety side, some may say comes at the expense of good racing. Drivers wanted a softer left side at Kansas, but Goodyear declined. Goodyear tried a softer setup here last year, only to have that backfired, forcing the company to bring in backup tires.
    "Right now I think Goodyear has the best tires it's ever had," Waltrip said.
   "You can stop for two tires, or stop for four tires. You've got options. It's not like every time the yellow comes out you come in for four tires – then all the racing is in the pits.
   "You have to eliminate the tires; I don't think that's the problem.
    "The car? The car is indestructible. You can knock the wall down with this thing and keep on going. Look at Kyle Busch at Daytona; he wrecked that car twice, not only saved it but won the darned race in it.
    "The guys? They just don't seem to be quite as aggressive. There's something about this point system…that seems to play into this, in my mind.
   "If you stop and think, when they went to this new point system, first it was an unknown. But now I think everybody has figured out how to play the game. And they've figured out how to use it to their advantage.
    "I was talking to Jeff Burton not so long ago. He asked 'What's wrong with our racing?' I said 'This.' (And Waltrip here used the signal drivers give for an overtaking driver to pass them.)
   "He said 'What do you mean?'
   "I said 'I never saw a driver wave me by on the inside. You had to work to get around him.
   "So it could be the track, it could the tires, it could be the cars, it could be the point system, it could be the drivers. It could be a lot of things.
   "But it's probably a little bit of all of them."
   How to fix things?
   "Everybody has ideas," Waltrip responds. "Bruton says to soften up the tires, change the track.
   "But me, I wake up in the morning confused about which way everybody's coming from on all this.
   "We must have it too good. The tires are 'too good.' Or the cars are 'too good.' Or the engines are 'too good.' Or the drivers are 'too good.'
   "All those things are 'too good,' so we need to screw those things up (to make better racing).
    "Driver don't want to repave a track? But you can see the cars bouncing up and down like a horse….and yet they say they like it, because the track 'has character.'
   "Why would you not want a track that's smoother and nicer?
   "They hated California for years, and then we have a pretty decent race (last year), and 'Don't touch it.'
   "If you follow all this for very long, you'll get confused about what people really want or don't want."

   Waltrip then raised another issue, the general equality of cars. Most of the top 20 cars on the track at any given time are running pretty much the same lap speeds, making track position crucial.
    "The problem is – look at the scoring monitors: everyone is running the same speed," Waltrip says. "How are you going to catch anybody?
   "That's the restarts are so crazy.
    "That's why not pitting is so advantageous.
    "So how do we change the cars…..
    "Bill France told me when I first started this that you've got to have slow cars for the fast ones to pass. And right now we don't have any slow cars.
    "I guess I'm a purist; I don't want anything orchestrated, I don't want a competition yellow, to close up the field so we can have some drama.
    "But we all know we've got to put on a show. If we don't put on a show, nobody goes. So how do we get that?
    "I don't have the answer.
    "You have to track things over a period of time. And maybe we're just in one of those periods where we're not having any good racing and not having any cautions.
    "Maybe all of a sudden the tide will turn and we'll go to running all over each other and wrecking.
    "And remember, we're getting ready to go to some places where you know there is going to be some action: Richmond, Darlington, Talladega….
    "A lot of it has to do with where we are. When you have to rough a guy up to pass him, you have to be on one of these smaller race tracks…."
    "California: drivers, up till this last race drivers were raving about the surface. 'We like this old surface.'
    "And once there was even talk about running restrictor plates at California (to make the racing more exciting); that was a stupid idea. What did Forrest Gump say…..
    "You just can't have knee-jerk reactions. You can't just go off one or two races; you have to let it run its course.
    "The biggest thing wrong with all these race tracks is the economy.
    "Listen, we're not a football team – if the Tennessee Titans are playing at home, the majority of fans come from Nashville. We don't draw that many fans locally; we draw our fans from all over the country, and they have to drive. If you want to blame something, blame the high gas prices….and what it costs to do a weekend at any race track.
    "Now I know the other argument is 'If they're not coming, then why aren't they watching (on TV)?'
   "But a lot of people don't have cable any more. A lot of my friends at home have said 'We just can't afford that package.'"
   Then again maybe all this sport needs is some nice, hot action at Richmond this weekend, and then at Talladega, and Darlington.
   And typically those three tracks do not disappoint.





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