Originally created 08/27/99

Racing at Bristol: Always loud, fast, full of excitement



BRISTOL, Tenn. -- The bulletin came a month ago from the Bristol Motor Speedway, and it will prove to be valuable information this weekend. Construction along Interstate 77 in North Carolina will have a dramatic influence on traffic heading in and out of the speedway, although the work is taking place two states away.

The little speedway with big ideas has a stranglehold on the racing community's interest. The raceway that's only twice the size of a football field has 125,000 seats, making Saturday night's Goody's 500 (7:30 p.m., ESPN) one of the greatest spectacles in all of racing.

Tickets to this week's race are the toughest in the business. Fans started posting their needs in the classified ads months ago. Only a few will be lucky enough to join the others who remain on a perpetual renewal list that's certain to last for generations.

From all directions, people want to see racing at Bristol. And for good reason. It's loud; it's fast, and there's always a lot of anger.

"It's like putting 43 cars in a blender and hitting the puree button," said rookie Tony Stewart. "You're always going in a tight circle. There's always something happening, and you never know how things are going to turn out."

It's the place where Sterling Marlin's hairpiece caught on fire in a wreck. It's the place where Terry Labonte's car was delivered to Victory Lane one year by a wrecker. It's the place where Dale Jarrett ran on the track and threw his helmet at a fellow driver. It's where traffic starts three states away.

"Spectator-wise, it's probably the best race on the circuit," said driver Wally Dallenbach. "There's a lot of crashing. There's a lot of action. There's a lot of bumping. Basically, after the race, the drivers are all angry at each other. The fans go home and have a good time, while we go home in a little different mood.

"When I retire some day, the first race I'm going to be a spectator is Bristol. I'm going to sit up there with the fans and laugh the whole 500 laps. It's a cool place for a race. It's very spectacular, but driving-wise, it's a very frustrating place."

The 36-degree banking means the speeds are fast. The qualifying speed will be quicker than 125 mph, and it will only take about 15 seconds to travel the .533 miles. And since there's really only one racing groove along the bottom of the corners, the best way to pass is with a little persuasion -- the kind that requires a tap with the front bumper.

As expected, that creates a lot of ill will, especially from those who have been "persuaded" into one of Bristol's unforgiving concrete walls.

"Ramming your way through and around the guy in front of you is usually not a real smart thing to do," said driver Kyle Petty. "First of all, you take the chance of messing up the front end of your car. Then you take the chance that he's going to go sideways, slap the wall, then slide right back down in front of you. Even if you do it and get on around, most likely he is going to be pretty upset, and he's going to see what he can do about ramming you the first chance he gets."

Three years ago, University of Georgia graduate Buckshot Jones was knocked out of the race by Randy LaJoie. Jones' crew spent the rest of the night making repairs, only to have Jones return to the track for one purpose -- to knock LaJoie out of the race. As LaJoie stormed past, Jones made a sharp right-handed turn toward LaJoine and missed. He wound up hitting the wall head on. Not only did he fail in his attempt to get revenge on LaJoie, he earned a fine from NASCAR.

"You can go to Indianapolis; you can go to Daytona, and they're great race tracks, but it's a whole different deal (at Bristol)," driver Rusty Wallace said. "You go to Bristol, and there are as many people as Daytona, but it's so dramatic and exciting. There are a lot of things you can't experience at any other race track like you can at Bristol. It's non-stop action, and people love watching it."

Bristol is so impressive, defending national college-football champion Tennessee considered moving one of its home games away from Knoxville to the raceway's infield. That would guarantee the Volunteers the biggest crowd in college football history, but Tennessee decided to keep its game at its "smallish" 100,000-seat stadium.

Raceway owner Bruton Smith is so convinced Bristol is the most-popular race track on the circuit, he's even selling seats to the drag strip about 250 yards away from the oval. Fans will pay to sit at the drag strip and watch the race on giant television screens rather than sitting at home and watching the race on ESPN for free.

The drag strip offers something a living room can't -- atmosphere. Fans sitting at the drag strip will hear every lap, every crash, every shrill of twisting metal.

And they get to enjoy a massive traffic jam as an extra bonus.