BRISTOL — You change it, they will come.
Bristol Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith ordered changes to the track’s racing surface after a disappointing turnout at the Food City 500 in March. If you look at the crowds which showed up for the August race week, the decision to make the changes was an overwhelming success.
While Saturday’s IRWIN Tools Night Race wasn’t a sellout, the attendance estimated at 145,000 well eclipsed the estimate of 102,000 in March.
It wasn’t just the track where the impact was felt. The surrounding campgrounds were near capacity and area hotels had a huge increase in business from the March race.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of excitement around the track, around the campgrounds,” said Jerry Caldwell, BMS executive vice president and general manager. “The fans spoke, Bruton listened and they responded by coming out.”
The larger crowds weren’t exclusive to the Sprint Cup Series race.
There was a NASCAR estimate of 85,000 for the Food City 250 Nationwide Series race on Friday. According to NASCAR’s numbers, it was 35,000 more than showed up for the Ford EcoBoost 300 in March, an event which featured Dale Earnhardt Jr. racing in the Nationwide Series.
The NASCAR estimate was a crowd of 53,000 for the UNOH 200 Camping World Truck Series race. By any measure, it’s quite an impressive number for a Wednesday night sporting event.
“We’ve had very impressive crowds,” Caldwell said. “We’re very happy with the turnout. This August race week is a pilgrimage that fans want to make. We’re very encouraged.”
Time will tell if the fans were happy with the on-track product and if the decision to grind down the top groove of the track quieted their complaints.
Without the progressive banking, the top groove was still the fast way to race around the track. In both races leading up to the Sprint Cup race, drivers had an extremely difficult time passing on the inside.
There was no passes for the lead for the Camping World Truck Series race, but the Food City 250 was much more action-packed than the Nationwide Series race in March.
The Food City 250 featured seven lead changes among four drivers and nine cautions for 59 laps. Joey Logano, running the slower bottom lane, used lapped cars as a pick to get around Kevin Harvick for the winning pass.
There was also contact between Austin Dillon, driving the black No. 3 Chevrolet, and local favorite Trevor Bayne, to set up a green-white-checkered finish.
The numbers stacked up favorably to March when the Ford 300 had four cautions for 30 laps and just five lead changes. That race, Elliott Sadler won by simply staying out on the track and getting track position.
Still, the first step today and in the days that follow are an extensive evaluation process. It includes fans’ reactions, an analysis of the races and the overall impression from the BMS staff.
“We’re all taking notes, taking pictures, thinking about what adjustments can be made,” he said. “Following race week, we get together evaluating all the information we’ve gathered.”
In several fan polls, BMS has been picked the fans’ favorite track and the night race has been chosen as their favorite race.
This week, more of NASCAR’s top personalities, like former champions Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett as well as current drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, made comments about the Bristol night race being ranked alongside the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 as the most prestigious events in NASCAR.
Caldwell said it’s easy to understand why the drivers feel that way, with the Bristol night race the biggest short-track race in the world.
“It’s the history of this place, the atmosphere when you’re here,” Caldwell said. “They want to win in front of huge crowds. This really is a special place and the drivers want that big trophy from such a big race on their mantle.”