You have to give NASCAR some credit for pulling off something no one had thought possible since 1970 – putting 39 Cup Series cars on a dirt track. Well, it was concrete covered with layers of sawdust and different kinds of dirt, but pulling it off was no easy task nonetheless.
It was the Bristol Motor Speedway Weekend on Dirt, but no one would have argued had it changed to Murphy’s Law Weekend, Plus One. If something could go wrong, it would. Even when things went as planned, they really didn’t.
Here's a look at what happened in NASCAR’s first attempt at Bristol Motor Speedway's dirt racing.
The Good: NASCAR and the Bristol track crew
Before anyone throws virtual darts at NASCAR, consider this. If this were a typical trip to Bristol, everyone would have been back in their motorhomes and hotels regardless. Mother Nature was going to have the last word, and she did. Irrespective of the surface at Bristol, there would be no racing on Saturday or Sunday.
NASCAR should also get props for wasting no time in calling off Sunday's action. The heavy overnight rains, plus the forecast for more rain for most of the day, made the decision easy. Race fans at home were allowed to seek other forms of entertainment instead of endless reruns of old races, or Dale Jr. Downloads.
The Bristol track crew gets two thumbs up for their tireless work in not only getting the track ready for Monday but the constant grooming of the dirt during the race despite fighting an uphill battle all afternoon.
The Bad: Rain and Mud and Dust and Ratings. Oh My!
NASCAR’s attempt at doing something it hasn’t done in more than a half-century might have been a good idea on the drawing board. But in actual practice, it was, for the most part, a dud, mainly because the weather and track conditions drew more headlines than the actual race.
The Food City Dirt Race's novelty drew a 1.8 rating, meaning a shade over three million viewers tuned in. More than likely, it would have been much higher had it gone off on Sunday, but 1.8 is still an extraordinary number for a Monday event. The fact that there were a million more sets of eyeballs on it compared to either Bristol race a year ago seemed to indicate that it was driven by sheer curiousity.
NASCAR and FOX are likely celebrating a 1.8, but it needs to be put into its proper context. Atlanta drew a 2.21 (3,724,000 viewers), Phoenix 2.30 (3,857,000), Las Vegas 2.57 (4,358,000), Homestead-Miami 2.48 (4,239,000), Daytona Road Course 2.8 (4,750,000), and the Daytona 500 2.8 (4,083,000).
The first of two races held on Monday, the Camping World Truck Series Pinty’s dirt race drew a 0.14 rating with 618,000 viewers. That event started at noon on Fox Sports 1.
Bristol Motor Speedway and NASCAR should not be celebrating the telecast. It can be hard to follow a road course event in the rain, but trying to watch the Food City Dirt Race was excruciating. Trying to focus on the action through clouds of dirt was not the best way to showcase something that has been in the works for some time. Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon, and Clint Bowyer tried to put a positive spin on things, but what viewers saw was reality.
The Ugly: Let’s do this again?
When Bristol Motor Speedway announced that its 2022 spring event would also be on dirt, the first reaction was, why? Most race fans probably figured the Food City Dirt Race was a one-off because of the work and expense just to make this one happen. But after this attempt had serious drawbacks due to that dirt, a one-off was a distinct possibility.
Tennessee red clay. It became painfully evident that it wasn’t the best choice when everything was said and done. NASCAR is based in Daytona Beach, Florida, but most teams have their headquarters in North Carolina. They know all about red clay. When it's wet, it clings to everything and in chunks. When it’s dry, it can be like a rock, but its top layer can be very dusty. Anyone who mows their grass with patches of red clay knows that happens when you hit it.
It would have made no difference whether the red clay was from Tennessee, the Carolinas, or Podunk. NASCAR cannot use it if it plans to make Bristol or another venue a dirt track.
Some Cup Series drivers would love to have a dirt race on the schedule every year. Fans who have spent any time at a local dirt track would probably feel the same. But there are two things for NASCAR to consider, the first being what to use in the future. This weekend showed that red clay is not the ideal surface.
Secondly, does NASCAR work with Bristol to make it a permanent dirt track? That would mean two dirt races a year, one in the playoffs. With street courses a possibility in the future, the Cup Series will have a schedule unlike any other motorsports series.
Before any of this happens, NASCAR needs to address what it will use in 2022. If they change Bristol to what many hometown tracks use, that could determine if the Premier Series will make dirt racing a permanent part of its schedule.