Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Irwin Tools Night Race Will Add to Bristol’s Rich History


Bristol Motor Speedway is known to NASCAR fans everywhere as the World’s Fastest Half-Mile. It is a track known for its high banks and exciting racing action. “Rubbin’ is racin’” could almost pass as the track’s motto. Since 1961, Bristol Motor Speedway has hosted NASCAR races. The running of the Food City 500 in March 2007 marked the 50th consecutive Cup race sellout for the track — a feat not easily accomplished by most tracks. It was a streak that had begun in August 1982. However, it’s the night race at Bristol in the fall that has become one of the most anticipated short-track races on the schedule. This year, however, it’s not just another night race for Bristol. The track is passing a historic miletsone once again. But just how did Bristol get to where it is today?

The half-mile speedway was the idea of Larry Carrier and Carl Moore. The two attended a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1960, and decided they wanted a similar track to Charlotte to be built in northeast Tennessee. Many people don’t know that Bristol was not the first choice as the building site. Piney Flats was actually the first choice, but according to Moore, the idea of the speedway wasn’t exactly welcomed by the locals.

The track, known as Bristol International Speedway then, is built on what used to be a dairy farm. Work began on the track in 1960, and approximately one year later it was open and ready for business. Moore, Carrier and R.G. Pope wrote many of their ideas for the track on envelopes and paper bags.

The land the track occupies and the track’s construction cost a total of $600,000. The track’s layout covered 100 acres and provided parking for more than 12,000 cars. The track was exactly half a mile wide. The straight-aways measured 60 feet wide and the turns were 75 feet wide, banked 22 degrees.

In the fall of 1969, Bristol underwent its first transformation. The track was reshaped and re-measured. The turns were banked steeper, making it the .533-mile oval that’s so recognizable today.

Lanny Hester and Gary Baker bought the track after the 1976 season. They renamed the track Bristol International Raceway in the spring of 1978. Hester sold his half of the speedway to Warner Hodgdon on April 1, 1982. Hodgdon purchased the other half of Bristol, along with Nashville Speedway, in a buy-sell agreement with Baker. Hodgdon made Larry Carrier the track’s general manager. However, just two years later, Hodgdon filed for bankruptcy. Carrier took over possession of the speedway, covering all outstanding debts.

Since then, the track has seen many changes. The speedway became the first track to host a Winston Cup event on a racing surface that was all concrete. Bruton Smith purchased the track from Carrier on Jan. 22, 1996 for $26 million.

About four months later, on May 28, 1996, Bristol International Raceway was given the name all fans recognize today — Bristol Motor Speedway. When Smith first purchased the track, the seating capacity was 71,000. Work was soon done to add 15,000 seats by August 1996 to bring the seating capacity up to 86,000.

As Bristol’s popularity began to grow, more seating was added. By April 1997, it was the largest sports arena in Tennessee, seating 118,000. Twenty-two new skyboxes had also been built. By the time the Goody’s 500 was ready to be run in August 1998, the speedway’s grandstands could seat more than 131,000 fans and had 100 skyboxes. The improvements Smith had made to the track since taking possession are in excess of $50 million.

In March 2000, seating was up to 147,000 once the Kulwicki Terrace and Kulwicki Tower were completed.

The 2002 season saw the speedway undergoing yet another major change. The infield pedestrian tunnel was added, which allows access into and out of the infield during on-track activity. A new building was built in the infield to host driver meetings. A new Victory Lane was constructed atop the new building. Aug. 26, 2002 saw Bristol Motor Speedway making yet another big change. The entire backstretch, along with the remaining concrete seating, was demolished to make room for new grandstand seating that would increase the track’s seating capacity to approximately 160,000. The backstretch now boasts three levels of seating, featuring 52 skybox suites.

NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow made its debut in March 2007. The following Monday, work began on resurfacing the track. It was a move that needed to be done due to the wear and age of the track’s surface. And just this year, the track has gone through another transformation. Many of the older building occupying the infield were torn down and replaced.

The track has undergone so many changes it is almost unrecognizable to the track that was first completed in 1961.

However, changes to the track aren’t the only things that have enriched Bristol’s history. The half-mile track nestled in what’s known as “Thunder Valley” has been home to some memorable moments in Cup history.

The first NASCAR race at Bristol was held on July 30, 1961. Seating capacity at the track was 18,000. Tiny Lund, in his Pontiac, was the first driver to be on the track in practice on July 27, 1961. David Pearson was the second driver out for practice.

Forty-two cars took the green flag for the first race at Bristol, but only 19 finished. While records say that Jack Smith won the inaugural race, Smith was not driving the car when it took the checkered flag. Smith actually drove the first 290 laps, before letting Johnny Allen take over as the relief driver. Allen won the race, and the two drivers split the $3, 225 purse. The total purse for the race was only $16,625.

Since that first race, it seems that the half-mile speedway has not slowed down in the great racing action among Cup drivers (or Nationwide Series or Camping World Truck Series either!). Instead of covering everything that has happened in Cup races over the years (that would just take too long!), below is a list of some highlights about past Cup winners at Bristol:

*April 1, 1978: Dale Earnhardt Sr. earns his first ever career Cup win. Earnhardt Sr. is one of several drivers who got their initial Cup career win at Bristol. That list includes such drivers as Ernie Irvan, Kurt Busch, Rusty Wallace and Elliott Sadler.
*Aug. 26, 1978: Cale Yarborough wins the first ever night race at the track.
*March 25, 2001: The Wood Brothers get their first team victory at Bristol when Elliott Sadler wins the Food City 500. It was also Sadler’s initial Cup career win.
*March 24, 2002: Kurt Busch wins the Food City 500, becoming the first Cup driver to visit Bristol’s Victory Lane that was newly built that year.
*March 21, 2003: Ryan Newman sets the track qualifying record with a time of 14.908 seconds. It was the first time a lap had ever been completed in under 15 seconds.
*Aug. 28, 2004: Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins the Sharpie 500, completing the Bristol sweep after winning the Food City 250 the night before.
*Aug. 27, 2005: The 2003 Winston Cup champion Matt Kenseth becomes a first-time Bristol winner.
*March 25, 2007: Kyle Busch holds off Jeff Burton to win the Food City 500, becoming the first winner in the Car of Tomorrow as well as the last Cup driver to win on Bristol’s original concrete racing surface.
*Aug. 23,2007: Carl Edwards becomes the first Cup driver to win on Bristol’s new concrete racing surface.
*March 21, 2010: Four-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson earns his first career win at Bristol during a race that had been dominated by Kurt Busch. It is also the last race ran with the wing on the rear of the cars. The spoiler made its return the weekend afterward.
*Darrel Waltrip has the most wins as a driver: 12 (7 consecutive)
*Junior Johnson has the most wins as a car owner: 21 (8 consecutive)
*In 21 of 40 years since Bristol opened, a driver who won a Cup race there went on to win the Cup championship later that year.

Of course, those are just a few of many highlights Bristol Motor Speedway has on its long list of Cup races.

So, just how is this weekend’s upcoming Irwin Tools Night Race adding to Bristol Motor Speedway’s history? It is the 100th Cup race to be hosted by the speedway.
On Saturday as we prepare to watch the drivers strap in and run 500 laps (266.5 miles) at the half-mile speedway, let’s not forget how Bristol Motor Speedway got to where it is today. If Larry Carrier and Carl Moore had not gone to that race in 1960 at Charlotte, Bristol Motor Speedway might not even exist today.

Just who will be Bristol’s 100th Cup race winner? Could it be a repeat winner like Kyle Busch, who’s been a dominant force almost every race he’s run at the track? Or will it be a driver who will get his name written in the record books as not only a first-time Bristol winner, but also as the 100th driver to take the checkered flag at the half-mile oval?

One thing’s for sure, whoever the winner turns out to be, he will no doubt win a race that will go down in history as one of Bristol’s most memorable races. Just like races past, the fans will, without a doubt, be on their feet for the last 20 laps to see who’s taking home the win once the smoke clears.

May the World’s Fastest Half-Mile continue to make history with “Racin’ the way it oughta be.”




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Photos courtesy of Whitney's personal collection.

Photo 1: A shot of the outside of the track
Photo 2: Jimmie Johnson takes the checkered flag for the Food City 500 on March 21, 2010.
Photo 3: Kyle Busch celebrates his victory in the Sharpie 500 on Aug. 22, 2009.
Photo 4: The field coming off turn 4 during a pace lap prior to the start the Sharpie 500 on Aug. 22, 2009

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