BRISTOL — After the red flag which was raised following the Food City 500 last March, it seems Bristol Motor Speedway is back under green.
That is the green of increased revenue from early ticket sales. With two months to go until race day, BMS Executive Vice President and General Manager Jerry Caldwell is encouraged with what he’s seen so far.
“We had really encouraging renewal rates,” Caldwell said. “The excitement has picked up since August, a lot of positive momentum going. We had a great August weekend and great winter events with record crowds. I’m really encouraged with the ways things are shaping up in 2013. There are tons of storylines with the teams and the new cars and how that’s going to play out.”
The official NASCAR estimate had 102,000 fans at last March’s Food City 500, although some in the national media speculated the crowd more around 80,000 with the stadium half-full. The lack of fan support led to speedway owner Bruton Smith ordering the top of the racing surface to be ground down.
It paid off at the IRWIN Tools Night Race last August, a race highlighted by a pair of high-profile accidents. Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth crashed while battling for the lead, and it led to Stewart throwing his helmet across the hood of Kenseth’s car on pit road. Laps later, Danica Patrick crashed hard following contact from Regan Smith.
“As we talked about prior to that race, we’ve had exciting races. They were different types of races,” Caldwell said. “You didn’t have the beating and banging, but you had plenty of passes for the lead and for position. We had the side-by-side racing for the lead last March, but it wasn’t the intense beating and banging and drama which people had become accustomed to at Bristol. You had all that in August.”
There were five caution periods and 13 lead changes in the Food City 500 last March. By comparison, the August race had 13 cautions and 22 lead changes.
There are even greater unknowns coming into the March race. NASCAR will debut the new Gen 6 race car for the Sprint Cup Series at Daytona. The new machine has already caused some confusion. With the car bumpers not lining up like the old cars did, Chevrolet driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. triggered a 12-car pile-up trying to push the Ford of Marcos Ambrose at Daytona testing.
“With the modifications we made to the race track and the new car and how it’s harder to drive, like the cars prior to 2007, it’s going to be interesting how everything plays out,” Caldwell said.
Renewal time for the August race is coming up soon, while other events at the complex have gone extremely well. Caldwell describes sales for the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals in June as terrific, while the annual “Speedway in Lights” drew record crowds over the holidays.
“Everybody is so passionate about supporting Speedway Children’s Charities and everything that goes into Speedway in Lights,” Caldwell said. “Because of the success of it, it’s turned into another major event for us. We have a Speedway in Lights team that owns that event and is second to none. I was really pleased with the changes we made this year and the way they were accepted.”
On its website, Bristol Motor Speedway has also entered into a partnership with Martinsville Speedway for Race Lodging, LLC, established to find affordable lodging for race fans.
It is advertised that a fan can stay within 30 miles of BMS for $125 per night. The speedway has also a new partnership with Dollywood Cabins offering two nights during race weekend, and it includes options to add on dinner and a show at Dixie Stampede.
Most important, Bristol seemed to get its mojo back last August. The speedway was ranked No. 1 in a variety of national publications and several fan polls, with the August race picked by NASCAR.com as the best race of 2012.
“We’ve been voted No. 1 time and time again,” Caldwell said. “We have all that drama, all that action, but we have all the other things that keep Bristol, Bristol. Bill Elliott referred to how the people in this community stay so passionate about Bristol. We like to call if a family reunion and what Bill Elliott said confirmed it.”
A pair of Volunteer Speedway legends died over the past few days.
Scott Sexton, the 1991 and ‘95 Late Model champion, died Thursday, Jan. 10 after suffering from a blood clotting disorder the last few years. The Pigeon Forge driver was only 46 years old.
Famous for piloting the No. 52, Sexton ran one year as a national touring driver, but spent the majority of his career at East Tennessee tracks like Atomic Speedway, Smoky Mountain Raceway and Tazewell Speedway.
He was an eight-time World Karting Association champion, a 10-time winner on the Southern All-Star tour and a winner of over 200 features.
Buddy Vance, who raced at the track as well as many other short tracks around the region for nearly two decades, died on Saturday, Jan. 12.
Vance was the father of NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race director Brian Vance, and was the crew chief for his son’s NASCAR Blue Ridge Region Short Track Championship in 1999.