The great NASCAR experiment is close at hand.
Forty cars on the 0.533-mile concrete oval of the Bristol Motor Speedway is always a treat. The 'Last Great Coliseum' was built in 1960, and before the pandemic hit, it was not uncommon to see it jammed with 160,000 fans.
Bristol has many relatives like Knoxville Raceway, Martinsville Speedway, or the largest of the small tracks, Richmond Raceway, on the NASCAR Cup Series yearly slate. They might be called first cousins, but there are plenty of second and thirds around the country. Short-track racing is woven into the fabric of American motorsports; some in towns whose names are hard to pronounce. Each of these give fans the feeling of being inside the cars.
This weekend, Thunder Valley will once again be rattling windows in this Tennessee town, but with one significant difference. NASCAR has asked Cup Series drivers to beat and bang as they usually do, but with something more challenging under their stock cars – dirt.
Could NASCAR's first be its last?
This Sunday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern, the green flag will drop on the Food City Dirt Race, the first time the NASCAR Cup Series has attempted to do this since 1970. The Camping World Truck Series is no stranger to dirt, running at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, as late as 2019. Cup drivers Austin Dillon, Bubba Wallace, Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson and Chase Briscoe all won on that half-miler. But Bristol? That’s a different kettle of fish, as the old saying goes.
Twenty-three thousand yards of dirt shrank the 30-degree-banked concrete track to a 19-degree red clay oval. Drivers will have the luxury of having several events run before NASCAR gets there, so it could be like any other surface at a local track, only with dirt experts grooming it.
There is a chance NASCAR could have a hit on its hands. Television ratings are sure to be high early on for curiosity seekers and race enthusiasts alike. What happens next is anyone’s guess. It could be one of the most exciting NASCAR races ever or an unmitigated disaster with piles of mangled cars. The latter is a nightmare scenario.
A dirt track tradition of time trials replaces traditional qualifying, similar to Eldora’s. There will be four heats of 15 laps each, with only green flag laps counted. A random draw will determine heat assignments, and the finishing order of qualifying heats will select the starting lineups. With that out of the way, there could be something else to consider.
Weather.com’s ten-day forecast shows Sunday to be cloudy with periods of rain. Thunder possible. High 63F. Winds WSW at 10 to 15 mph. Chance of rain 100%.
NASCAR has not given any indication of how it will handle the race if weather forecasts are correct.
Every now and again, a show you are watching gets the audio interrupted by a public service announcement for a potential emergency with the following words, “This is a test.” NASCAR could paraphrase that with, “This race was only a test. We apologize for taking three hours of your time that you will never get back.”
Or, “Let’s do it again next year!”