YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Bristol's Intimate Setting Sets It Apart

September 05, 2003|SHAV GLICK

Bristol Motor Speedway, a racing jewel tucked in the hills of northeast Tennessee, must be seen to be believed. Even after seeing it, it's hard to believe.

"I'm not sure you could try to build a speedway like Bristol and it would have the success that Bristol has had," owner Bruton Smith said when asked why no one else had built a track like it in recent years. "Bristol is people. Bristol is an area of the country that is unique. I think that's the thing."

Bristol also defies comparisons, but it's worth a try.

* Think of a half-mile paved oval, the size of Irwindale Speedway -- ringed by 164,000 seats. Twice a year, on Winston Cup dates, the speedway becomes the third largest city in Tennessee, behind only Memphis and Nashville.

And it keeps growing. The 4,000-seat Dale Earnhardt Terrace was dedicated last month. The community of Bristol, which straddles the Tennessee-Virginia state line, has only 24,800 residents.

"You come around a corner in an old country road and when you see it, you swear it's a flying saucer that landed," said Brian Tracy, former National Hot Rod Assn. executive.

* Think of the Bump 'Em rides at carnival Fun Zones, where the object is to whack the other guy as often as possible. With 43 high-bred stock cars on a tiny half-mile oval with only one racing line, bumping and banging are the order of the day. Often, the only way to get around a slower car is to squeeze half a fender under the car in front and bully your way past.

"It's such a tight place that everybody is hitting each other and bouncing off one another every lap," Bobby Labonte said. "It is like covering yourself in honey and jumping into a beehive."

At the Sharpie 500 on Aug. 23, there were a record 20 caution flags, nearly all caused by cars spinning and crashing in the velodrome atmosphere. With 36-degree banking in the turns, Bristol's claim to be "the world's fastest half-mile" is valid. Cars get around the track in just over 15 seconds. By contrast, Irwindale's record is 17.3 seconds.

"Racing at Bristol is like being thrown around in a wild carnival ride for four hours," said Dale Earnhardt Jr. Mark Martin, a seven-time winner there, likens it to "flying a jet fighter around the inside of a basketball arena."

Said Robby Gordon, "Bristol is a rush-hour interstate at 120 mph. It's down-and-dirty racing. It's racing at its best -- a short track with high banks."

* Think Metallica and Black Sabbath trying to outdo one another in a duel of decibel ratings. Put 43 cars blasting out 800 horsepower at 9,000 rpm and couple that with 164,000 screaming fans and it becomes absolutely impossible to hear the person sitting next to you.

Bristol is not called "Thunder Valley" without reason. It is so loud at the top of the steep grandstands that one fan said, "I'll bet Neil Armstrong could hear the noise from Bristol when he was on the moon."

* Think of a Finnish sauna, complete with steam rising up from hot rocks and you just about have Bristol in August. With temperatures in the high 90s and humidity to match, there isn't a dry piece of clothing in the stadium by the time the first lap is completed. And there are 499 more to go.

When the green flag waved for the Sharpie 500, there were so many camera flashes in the stadium that it looked like a laser show.

As a hedge against the heat, nearly everyone wears white. The effect, noted David Poole of the Charlotte Observer, is that of a football stadium where the home team's color is white. "There's more white here than there is orange at a Tennessee game," Poole said.

Inside the track, where pit stalls line both short straightaways, the scene is one of the most colorful in racing -- about 50 gigantic team haulers sitting side-by-side, inches apart. Their sides are covered with gaudy advertising of sponsors, like DuPont, Viagra, U.S. Army, Budweiser, Kellogg's and Tide, and larger-than-life pictures of drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Martin, Mike Skinner, Earnhardt, Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven -- to match names with the sponsors listed.

Bristol wasn't always so big. When it was built in 1961, by Larry Carrier, Carl Moore and R. G. Pope, it had a tidy capacity of 18,000. Total cost of the land, which had been a dairy farm, and construction, was approximately $600,000. When Carrier sold the speedway to Smith in 1996, the capacity was 71,000 and the purchase price $26 million.

Smith has continued the expansion and there now are 52 luxury skybox suites. "The first time I saw Bristol, I thought it looked like a football stadium, with all those seats all around it," driver Sterling Marlin said.

It was, in fact, a football stadium once. For one game.

Los Angeles Times Articles