BRISTOL — As one rival track promoter put it, “We try to sell races. They sell events at Bristol.”
It makes the twice a year trip to the Tennessee mountains special not only for the drivers and crews, but the national press members who cover NASCAR on a weekly basis. Even to them, no place is like the high-banked short track nicknamed, ‘The Last Great Coliseum.”
Jenna Fryer is the most influential journalist in the sport as the auto racing writer for the Associated Press. Her work is read from all corners of the world, and she covers both the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500. Like those motorsports icons, Fryer sees the Bristol night race as one of those can’t-miss events.
“Bristol, especially the night race, is an event that has an aura and mystique surrounding it that gets everyone excited,” she said. “One can’t help but get caught up in the hype of Bristol because of the uniqueness of the venue — the coliseum-style bullring, the amazing sightlines and the crowded lanes on the track.
“Pre-Chase, the night race was amazing because the drivers had nothing to lose and tempers were bound to flare early and often. It softened some once drivers were already either locked into the Chase or had to be careful of their positioning, and then the changes to the track surface altered the racing, but there’s always been an electricity in the air at Bristol that’s unlike any other venue.”
Mike Hembree with USA Today said the facility itself is special. He even tells his friends who aren’t necessarily into racing they need to drive to Bristol and check it out.
“I tell people you need to go to Bristol even if isn’t a race weekend to see the place,” Hembree said. “People who don’t know much about this place and happen upon it have to be stunned that there’s a place like this off essentially off the beaten path. I started coming here in 1975 when it was so much smaller and never could have thought about what surrounds us now.”
Like Fryer, he sees Bristol’s night race among the biggest events in NASCAR. It is without question the biggest short-track race in the world, with Hembree ranking the atmosphere only behind that at the season-opening Daytona 500.
“The Bristol night race is among the elite races in the series,” Hembree said. “I don’t think there’s anything as special as race morning at Daytona in February. Indy was really special the first five years or so when it was still a novelty. That’s obviously worn off a lot. Here, especially when it’s full on a Saturday night, it doesn’t get much more electric than that.”
Al Pearce, the veteran writer for Autoweek magazine has been coming to Bristol for 35 years. His late friend, former NASCAR champion Benny Parsons, always stressed how the sensation of speed at Bristol was more intense than anywhere else.
With drivers on the straightaway only four seconds before they’re back in a turn, the action is constant.
“I like Bristol and Martinsville to some extent as the only places we go where something is happening every lap,” he said. “It may not be up front, but every moment something is going on. There is no riding, just putting in laps. They’re racing hard every lap when they come here, and there aren’t many tracks like that.”
A resident of Norfolk, Va., Pearce loves both the speedway and the surrounding area. Accustomed to living on the coast and being surrounded by water, he loves coming to the mountains in August.
“Particularly in the late summer when the trees are green, but you’re starting to get a little feel for fall, I love it,” he said. “As often as I can, I will get here some way other than (Interstate) 81. I will drive Highway 58, come through the mountains from Hillsville. I like to ride on those nice little roads and stop at restaurants that are not chain restaurants. I also like those local places in Johnson City like Pal’s and Peerless. I’ve been coming here for 35 years and I hope to keep coming back.”
Claire B. Lang, broadcaster with Sirius XM radio, said there’s an energy at Bristol unlike any other place the NASCAR tour goes. She recalled in 2003 being in the middle of one of Bristol’s most famous conflicts after a Nationwide Series race.
“One of the biggest fights I was covering and ended up being in the middle of, happened here,” she said. “When Kevin Harvick went for the throat of Greg Biffle, I was reaching out to ask Biffle a question. Harvick comes flying across the car, over my shoulder and I went down to the ground. My microphone was still running. How can you ever forget moments like that? There’s always something happening at Bristol that’s interesting and exciting.”