For years, the toughest ticket in all of sports took the person fortunate enough to be holding it not to New York, not to LA, not even to Atlanta. Rather, it took them to Johnson City, Tennessee, right on the border with Virginia, and the .533-mile Bristol Motor Speedway.
The concrete colosseum was home to two annual crashfests, highlighted by bent sheet metal and bent-out-of-the-frame race drivers. The 36-degree banking and the concrete surface was to blame - or thank, if you were a fan of such action - as with the track having just a single groove to race, the only way to pass often was to knock the driver in front of you out of the way, sometimes sending him spinning into the wall. If he didn't spin, usually you ended up on the receiving end of a payback bump that left you fighting for control.
That style of racing went away during the summer of 2007, when the track's turns were repaved and re-configured into a "progressive" style of banking to promote more side-by-side racing and less "follow the leader and knock his butt out of the way when you get to him." Drivers loved the new surface and fans who enjoy watching stock car drivers duel across multiple lanes of real estate found a renewed interest in racing at BMS.
However, the most vocal of the race fans are those who clamor for carnage. They protested after every single race, demanding a return of the old "bump-and-run" style of racing that made Bristol such a big part of stock car racing's boom in the late '90s into the turn of the century. Finally, after Brad Keselowski won this spring's Food City 500, track owner Bruton Smith allowed fans to give their opinion on whether they wanted the track left alone or altered. He pledged to do what it took to bring back the old style of racing if that's what the fans craved, even if it meant bulldozing the corners and returning them to their 36-degrees.
The fans spoke, largely looking for the track to be changed, and Smith stayed true to his word. The top groove of the race track was grounded in the hopes of leaving less prime real estate for drivers to navigate. A June test with drivers Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, and Jeff Burton confirmed the success of the project.
While there are no guarantees as to what we will see come Saturday, the plan is for the narrower racing surface to make for more bumping, beating, and banging and leave drivers furious with their peers. While fans eagerly await the potential for the return of the "old Bristol," the drivers - especially those fighting to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup - likely enter this weekend with more than a trace of nervousness.