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Does Better Racing Make for a Worse Race?

“They’ve messed around and ‘ruint’ Bristol.”

“Ruint” might be a phrase used more commonly in the hills of northeastern Tennessee than in the populace at-large, but the sentiment that racing at Bristol Motor Speedway isn’t what it used to be is common.

It isn’t what it used to be. It’s fairly common these days for one car to pass another without having to either “rub” or “wreck.” If that means that the racing is ruint, well then maybe it is.

And, oh, by the way, thank God.

NASCAR wanted to make Bristol a track where they could really race. They wanted to make it a bit less governed by the Law North of the Holston (that’s both a river near Bristol and a reference to Judge Roy Bean) and more governed by good, clean racing and a sense of fair play.

Fair play? At Bristol? Hah! Take your chances on the south side of Chicago. Bristol has long been NASCAR’s “baddest” part of town.

The changes made at the track a few years back have transformed it. The banking in the turns has been tapered – by the way, it was never as high as the 37 degrees alleged for years – so that the fast way around the .533-mile oval isn’t necessarily the bottom of the track anymore.

Those changes created a certain division of opinion. Insiders – drivers, crew chiefs, and owners – love the changes. The fans? Not so much.

Trevor Bayne, the 20-year-old native of nearby Knoxville who won the Daytona 500, has been attending races at Bristol since he was five.

“To me, it feels like home, so it’s not like that intimidating beast that everybody else thinks of it as,” he said. “It doesn’t have that bad of an effect, but it’s still the coolest place we race.

“It’s like a gladiator arena is what I always call it, or a bullfighting stadium, because it’s crazy. The fans are everywhere, and the sound of it almost gives you the feeling of being in a dome, so it’s a really neat place.”

Bayne is right. Bristol is one of the coolest places on the Sprint Cup schedule. It has 160,000 seats, which makes it the only NASCAR track where the grandstands dwarf the actual track. Only Darlington and Indianapolis rival it in terms of degree of difficulty, at least among the ovals. A competitive lap takes slightly over 15 seconds. To put that in perspective, a lap takes nearly 50 seconds at Indy and a fast lap at Darlington is under 28.

Bud Moore, who will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame later this spring, once said of Bristol, “It ought to be against the law to race more than two dozen cars around that pinball machine.” Moore didn’t much care for the track because of the number of No. 15 Fords that used to be predictably crumpled there.

The fans who say Bristol has been “ruint” are often the same ones who say they want to see “a good, clean race.” If you ask, most will tell you they don’t go to the races to see wrecks.

They can’t have Bristol both ways.

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