Commentary

Smith announces Bristol changes

Updated: April 26, 2012, 12:30 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Bruton Smith hopes grinding Bristol Motor Speedway will lead to more grinding on "The World's Fastest Half Mile."

He better be right.

If it doesn't, fans who already have spoken loudly about the lack of bumping and grinding since the 2007 reconfiguration may create an even bigger public relations nightmare for the chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc.

To his credit, Smith is making changes by grinding the upper groove in the corners to -- hopefully -- eliminate 500 laps of side-by-side racing and passing without playing bumper cars. He's doing what he and engineers believe is the right way to return Bristol to a one-groove track.

As signs around BMS say, "Fans spoke … we listened."

But what Smith is doing is a far cry from what he seemed to be suggesting after the March 18 race, which was tearing up the progressive banking and building Bristol back to the way it was when it was the toughest ticket in NASCAR. To some, it may just look like a Band-Aid.

It's an expensive risk if it doesn't work out.

It's also the right move when you understand all the facts.

First, according to BMS, the original polls that showed 75 percent of the fans wanted a change are outdated. After Smith announced on March 28 that he'd make changes, the negativity turned drastically.

[+] EnlargeBruton Smith
Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCARBruton Smith has a lot riding on improving the racing at Bristol.

By the time a final decision was made, only 40 percent wanted a change. So to rip the track up and go back to the way it was could have turned into a bigger disaster, although it's hard to imagine a bigger disaster than having about half the 160,000 seats full in March.

We also need to remember that the racing since Bristol hasn't been what it once was, either. There were more than 200 consecutive green-flag laps at Martinsville Speedway, NASCAR's other event on a half-mile track.

There hasn't been a caution for a multicar wreck the past two weeks at Texas and Kansas.

So it's not just Bristol that has changed.

Racing has changed.

Maybe it's a cycle. Maybe all hell will break loose the next three weeks at Richmond, Talladega and Darlington. Or maybe this is the way it's going to be until the new car gets on the track in 2013.

Or maybe this is the way it'll be for a long time.

At least Smith is trying to change things. Besides grinding Bristol, he also will personally ask Goodyear to bring a softer tire here for the August race. Drivers have been saying for a while that a softer tire will create more wear, creating a wider variance of speed and ultimately better racing.

One could argue Smith might have tried the softer tire before going to the expense of grinding Bristol. But he backed himself into a corner when he first said he would make changes, so changes he made.

"I didn't want to create a train wreck here of what we're doing," Smith said. "I guess the best way to say it is we're modifying what we had. It's going to be a lot better than what it was. We do think we'll win all these race fans over to our side.

"We do believe we're doing the right thing, so we've got to go with that."

Hall of Fame driver Darrell Waltrip, who won 12 times at Bristol, summed up best what has happened at Bristol since the repave.

"It truly reminds me of a restaurant," Waltrip said. "This place was a 'meat and three.' It's where you knew what you were going to get and you were happy. You left there full.

"Then somebody decided to turn it into a gourmet restaurant. The gourmet restaurant, it's beautiful. It's perfect. It couldn't be any better … except it's just not what you're used to."

And let's be honest, racing hasn't been what we're used to since NASCAR introduced the new car. Sometimes, like last year's Chase, it's been better than ever. The last month it has lacked the excitement -- wrecks and cautions -- that many fans associate with a great race.

Drivers will argue differently. They'll tell you there's been great racing, particularly at Bristol. The majority of them didn't want any change here.

But what's good for the driver isn't necessarily good for the fans, so Smith made changes. He understands what fans want. That's why he joked about bringing a certain coach from the New Orleans Saints to Bristol to create a bounty system.

Double the bounty over the last 30 laps, he added.

"With all that we'll create a lot of excitement here and the ticket again will be $500 apiece," Smith said.

Drivers probably won't like any of this, but Smith didn't talk to a driver outside of Waltrip when considering his plans. He didn't talk to Dale Earnhardt Jr., who suggested blacktopping the track would suffice. He didn't talk to those who said to do nothing.

"I have never consulted race drivers," Smith said. "I have built more speedways than anybody in the world. I do not consult race drivers when I am building a speedway. It will drive you nuts."

And at least one driver is in favor of Smith's changes.

"I like what Bruton is doing to Bristol," Kasey Kahne wrote on Twitter.

Smith's right. And if he listened to drivers, Bristol would have been more like it has been since 2007 a long time ago.

"The fine line is knee-jerk reaction," Waltrip said.

There have been a lot of knee-jerk reactions to the racing lately. Fans forget there have been great stories, such as Greg Biffle ending his 49-race losing streak at Texas and Martin Truex Jr. almost winning for Michael Waltrip Racing at Kansas.

They are so focused on being entertained for three to four hours that they forget the day that only one or two cars were on the lead lap. They forget all the football and baseball games that have bored them to death.

"A lot of times we have selective memory," said Jerry Caldwell, the executive vice president of BMS. "If you remember, the last few races on the old track were not very entertaining."

To Smith's credit, he's trying to do something about entertaining the fans at Bristol. He may be taking a risk by not returning the track to the way it was, but he didn't become one of the richest people in NASCAR by playing it safe.

I'll admit, I was looking for more when coming through the gate and down the steep banking to the infield. But if grinding takes away the groove that took away much of the aggression -- that made Bristol a gourmet restaurant instead of a greasy spoon -- Smith will have accomplished his mission.

"You're asking me to project the future," Smith said when asked what he would do if this doesn't work. "I can't project the future. We believe in what we're doing."

Doing is the key word. It's probably why, as Smith said, ticket sales have tripled since it was announced changes would be made.

"I don't know if it will make it better," Waltrip said. "I don't know if it will fix it. But he's doing something."

And if this doesn't work, Smith will probably do something again.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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