Commentary

Bruton Smith ponders Bristol's future

Updated: March 28, 2012, 5:59 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Funny how life works sometimes.

Bristol Motor Speedway officials thought they had the perfect plan when they repaved and reconfigured the track's worn surface in 2007. It has been a public relations nightmare ever since, culminated by an embarrassing half-filled facility two weeks ago at a venue once known for being the toughest ticket in NASCAR.

A seemingly perfect plan to grind the entire surface of Martinsville Speedway in 2002 went awry when only the lower groove was completed before the fall race. That, and a complete repave in 2005 without any configuration changes, has turned into a public relations bonanza with better racing than ever and growing attendance.

Many of you have questioned whether Speedway Motorsports Inc. president Bruton Smith was blowing smoke last week when he said an engineer added progressive banking to Bristol without telling him.

[+] EnlargeMartin Truex Jr.
Jared C. Tilton/Getty ImagesRusty Wallace on the track surface at Bristol Motor Speedway after progressive banking was added in 2007: "Now everybody is running along the top. Fans are mad."

The tale of whether he knew depends on who's talking, and Smith remains adamant that he didn't know.

But there is no questioning that the mistake of adding progressive banking has turned many fans off to the half-mile track in Tennessee and turned many on to the half-mile track in Virginia.

Yes, Martinsville Speedway has passed Bristol as the best half-mile racetrack in NASCAR, yet another reason Smith is strongly considering returning Bristol to the way it was.

In an informal Twitter poll, the vote was almost 5-1 in favor of Martinsville over Bristol. Many of you said Martinsville won hands down.

Rusty Wallace, who won nine times at Bristol and seven times at Martinsville, thinks he knows why.

"Drivers and owners can say, 'Oh, my God, we don't want the beating and banging. It's going to hurt our cars. It's going to cost us money. That's not the right way to do it,'" Wallace said. "The race fans? They get them a six-pack of beer and sit up in the grandstands, and they want to see some s--- happen.

"They don't want to see, 'There they come, there they go.' They want to see some beating and banging, some controversy in the pit area. Perfect is boring. Follow the leader is boring."

Wallace didn't feel that way six years ago when, he says, Smith called on him for advice on resurfacing Bristol. The 1989 Cup champion believed then that progressive banking would make Thunder Valley the perfect track, and he says he shared those thoughts with Smith.

Smith says Wallace didn't.

Bottom line: Wallace admits he was wrong to think progressive banking would make Bristol into the perfect track the way he believes it did 7/8th-mile Iowa Speedway, which he helped design.

"All it did was widen the track out and give everybody a lot more room," Wallace said. "Now everybody is running along the top. Fans are mad.

"From a racer's standpoint, it's so easy to drive this track now it's ridiculous. It's still tough, but nothing like it used to be, and the fans loved it the way it used to be."

Now the fans are turning to Martinsville for their beating&banging fix. The numbers tell you why.

Since Bristol was reconfigured with progressive banking, there have been an average of 8.5 cautions per race and a total of 24 multicar wrecks. Martinsville has averaged 15.0 cautions with 51 multicar wrecks, including 12 in October.

[+] EnlargeMartinsville Speedway
John Harrelson/Getty ImagesHas Martinsville Speedway surpassed Bristol Motor Speedway as the best short track in NASCAR?

In the 10 races before Bristol's reconfiguration, Bristol had an average of 14.5 cautions per race and had 48 multicar wrecks. Martinsville averaged 14.8 cautions and had 37 multicar wrecks.

So if you like slam-bang racing, Martinsville is the place for you.

"Bristol used to be the dominating guy out there, pounding its chest and saying, 'I'm the best short track in the world,'" Wallace said. "It can't do that any longer. Martinsville and Richmond -- I can't talk about short tracks without mentioning Richmond (three-quarters of a mile) -- might have pulled ahead of Bristol just a little bit."

Many drivers will disagree. Many love the side-by-side racing at Bristol. Brad Keselowski said after winning there on March 18 that the racing never has been better.

Many also despise that you still have to push somebody out of the way to pass at Martinsville.

"I think Bristol," Kasey Kahne said when asked which half-mile track he preferred. "I enjoy the speed, being able to move around from top to bottom. There's more contact at Martinsville than Bristol anymore. I can see that being good."

But drivers don't buy tickets, so their opinions don't really matter, even though Smith is consulting them in his decision.

"First, you have to sell tickets, and race fans want action," former Charlotte Motor Speedway president and promoter extraordinaire H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler said.

At Martinsville, there is plenty more traditional short-track action. At the most recent Bristol race, there were more than 200 consecutive green-flag laps -- which isn't typical of short-track action.

But the folks at Martinsville aren't pounding their chests over this. Even if they sell every ticket for Sunday's Sprint Cup race, which they're getting close to doing, their capacity of 55,000 will fall well short of the 80,000-plus who were at Bristol's 160,000-person stadium.

They also know that, had the 2002 project been completed, they could have had a similar disaster.

"Catastrophic," track president Clay Campbell said. "It was just by chance it turned out the way it did. If you remember, on Friday, drivers were raising Cain, saying we ruined the track because they couldn't get down on the bottom groove.

"But by Sunday, I went from zero to hero because they found out they could use the outside line. It was pure luck."

Grinding the lower groove created less grip because of less contact between the tires and surface. That, drivers eventually discovered, forced them to go up and use a lane that wasn't advantageous before.

"If we had finished it on the outside lane, it would have been a mess," Campbell said of the grinding.

When the track was resurfaced completely in 2005 -- necessary after a chunk came up and took out leader Jeff Gordon in the October race -- Campbell made sure the integrity of the hairpin turns was maintained.

The only change? Some of the concrete was taken out of the corners and replaced by asphalt for more durability.

"How you feel about the racing depends on what side of the fence you're on," Campbell said. "What is good racing to the competitors usually is not to the fans.

"The people who come to Martinsville love this style of racing."

That's why Smith is considering spending approximately $1 million to return his crown jewel to the way it was when people loved the style of racing there. That he is looking at the change is the important factor here, not whether an engineer OK'd the changes without telling him in 2007.

That's simply a "he said, she said" argument. Goodyear tire officials say it was common knowledge the banking would be changed. Wallace contends that Smith knew because they discussed it.

"I did not talk to him about it," Smith countered. "Sometimes an employee makes a decision, maybe doesn't realize it is as big as it is."

In Smith's defense, the original news releases mentioned nothing about progressive banking. One stated the "famous Bristol banking will remain the same." Wheeler, who had an ugly split with Smith in 2008, said "Bruton could well have not known about it.

"He was not a big advocate of progressive banking, but our engineers were," Wheeler said.

Smith is headed to Bristol on Wednesday to evaluate the situation further before making a final decision. Although Wheeler and several drivers believe the situation could be resolved with softer tires that wear faster, odds are Smith will spend the money to bring back old Bristol.

He doesn't like being second in anything, and, for the moment, Bristol is the second-best half-mile track in NASCAR.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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