NASCAR returns to dirt in a risky but rewarding experiment
By: Isaac Donsky, Staff Writer
Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Last weekend, NASCAR decided to try something that hadn’t been done in 51 years: a race was held on dirt, and it was amazing.
NASCAR and dirt racing are intertwined at the hip, but the relationship has been a broken one for decades. When NASCAR first began back in the 1940s, almost all races were held on tiny dirt tracks across the south.
Dirt racing was cheap for both fans and competitors alike, and races could be held any day of the week as they didn’t require entire weekends of practice and qualifying. So, for the first two decades of NASCAR’s existence, dirt tracks made up much of the calendar.
As the 1970s began, NASCAR began looking to expand into larger markets. Unfortunately, dirt tracks didn’t have the capacity or amenities that this rapidly growing sport required. Thus, they were cast away, left to fend for themselves in an ever-changing world.
Legendary venues such as Occoneechee Speedway, Asheville-Weaverville Speedway and Greenville-Pickens Speedway either paved their surfaces or shut down entirely. On Sept. 30, 1970, the final NASCAR race on dirt was held at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, bringing an end to an era.
51 years later, some genius in NASCAR’s top brass had an idea: what if we go back to the dirt?
It sounds crazy, but there was some evidence to suggest that returning to the dirt could be a good idea. NASCAR had been running dirt races in the lower divisions since 2013, with the Truck Series making an annual pilgrimage to Eldora Speedway in the heart of Ohio.
Fans were thrilled with the Eldora races and came out in droves. However, if the Cup Series was to return to dirt, they would need a venue capable of holding the massive crowds that NASCAR now attracts. Any old dirt track from the 1950s or 1960s wouldn’t suffice, as they have neither the amenities or the seating capacity.
So instead, NASCAR decided to take 23,000 cubic yards of dirt and dump it onto Bristol Motor Speedway. Now, this idea isn’t new. Back in 2000 and 2001, Bristol had hosted dirt races for the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series. While the races were a hit, with speeds hitting around 185 miles per hour, the idea of a regularly scheduled Bristol dirt race was discarded. Bristol is, after all, one of NASCAR’s crown jewels.
A massive concrete canyon where man and machine become one, Bristol is an old-style track, where the banking is high, speeds are higher, and the only way to get past a competitor is to bump them out of the way. They don’t call it “The Last Great Colosseum” for nothing.
So why would NASCAR dare desecrate this hallowed ground with filthy Tennessee clay? Why sacrifice one of the two dates Bristol gets for what essentially boils down to an experiment?
The answer is simple: why not? NASCAR needs fresh ideas to remain relevant in a world that has largely forgotten it exists, and doing something radical like bringing dirt to Bristol is just what the organization needs to do to keep fans interested.
Besides, the race itself was fantastic. I think it went off without a hitch, with some drivers and fans responding positively to heavy, out-of-control stock-cars drifting through the corners, slinging mud and kicking up loose stones.
The only cons of the event were an unfortunate rain delay that pushed the race back to Monday, and a concerning build up of dust that resulted in a delay late in the race.
What makes this all the more rewarding is that it proves NASCAR needs to take more risks and do things that seem out of the box. Before the race, many within the industry doubted if NASCAR could pull this off. NASCAR’s all-time leader in wins, Richard Petty, even said that it seemed unprofessional.
Well, it definitely seemed professional to me at least, and I hope NASCAR will continue to experiment with new ideas well into the future.