NASCAR, NHRA stars look ahead to Bristol

Jeff Birchfield • Updated Mar 21, 2018 at 9:16 PM

BRISTOL — Stars from NASCAR and the NHRA representing motorsports powerhouses Richard Childress Racing and Don Schumacher Racing gathered at Bass Pro Shops on Wednesday evening for the Bristol Motor Speedway season preview.

Besides promoting upcoming events like the Food City 500 for the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series on April 15, news items were announced. One notable announcement was that Fitzgerald Glider Kits, the same company which sponsors the NASCAR Xfinity Series race in April, will now sponsor the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals in June.

There was also a ceremony for other track sponsors, Food City, Chevrolet and John Deere, celebrating their 100th anniversary, or, in the case of Bush’s Beans, 100-plus years in business.

For the drivers like Daytona 500 champion Austin Dillon, a common theme was what makes Bristol Motor Speedway a special place to race. Dillon has one Bristol victory, coming in the Food City 300 Xfinity Series race in August 2016.

“Winning at Bristol ranks way up there with my career accomplishments,” Dillon said. “Anytime you can roll up the hill to victory lane at Bristol, it’s such a special place. You walk in the place and it looks like a gladiator stadium, and you feel like a gladiator racing in front of all those people. You’re beating and banging all race long and you can never catch your breath. It’s physically demanding and mentally taxing. You keep fighting hard all race and when you come across the finish line first, it’s rewarding.”

Tony Schumacher, an eight-time NHRA Top Fuel world champion, feels the same way about Bristol Dragway, and he said it’s only in part because he’s the only driver to have five Thunder Valley Nationals wins. He has been coming to Bristol for decades, first as a driver of a jet dragster.

“I go to the starting line and then I go to the top of the hill where we do interviews,” he said. “I look at the track and it’s one of the views throughout the year that makes it awesome for me to do this. I’ve been doing this for 20-plus years and I don’t do this for the paycheck. I do it for the love of the game and this is a place when he hit the throttle and you hear those echoes, this place reminds you of why you started. This is an awesome place to race.”

Matt Hagan, a two-time NHRA Funny Car world champion, said Bristol is a special place for many reasons. He even commented that his win in the 2015 Thunder Valley Nationals outranks his win in the 2016 U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, generally considered as drag racing’s premier event, as the biggest win of his career.

“I won three years ago and then got beat the next year on a holeshot,” Hagan said. “It still kills me. The thing is we didn’t get it done for a second year in a row. Bristol is such a cool race for me. It’s more important to me to win at Bristol than to win Indy. I’m two hours up the road, and my family and everybody I grew up with comes out to support me.

“When you turn on four win lights, they can’t take that away from you, it’s special. With my dad and my kids there and it’s Father’s Day weekend, it’s what it’s made for. Everybody wants to win Indy, but at the end of the day, I was more choked up about winning Bristol than I was any other race.”

Other racers were on hand, including NASCAR Hall of Fame car owner Richard Childress, NASCAR Cup Series driver Ty Dillon, NHRA Top Fuel star Leah Pritchett and NHRA Pro Stock driver Alex Laughlin, the defending Thunder Valley Nationals race champion.

Fans got to participate in the festivities through prize drawings, question-and-answer sessions with the racers and watching the racers compete in game-show style contests. It was to promote the upcoming events, but always a time when the drivers could share just what it means to race at Bristol.

“My first season, I lost the first round, but it was still my favorite track,” Laughlin said. “The facilities are amazing, the pits are great and the views are awesome. It’s so cool to race down the valley and then winning this race on Father’s Day, it was absolutely awesome. I’m super pumped, even flying back into the airport at Tri-Cities. It brings back all those great memories.”

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