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Stop Trying to Make Spring Bristol Happen

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Joshua Lipowski

Joshua Lipowski

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What’s Happening?

The NASCAR circuit heads to Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend for the traditional Bristol spring race. Over the years, this race date has encountered significant scrutiny, prompting NASCAR, SMI, and the track itself to exhaust all efforts in revitalizing the event. What led to the decline of the Bristol Spring race, and is there hope for its resurgence to reclaim its former glory?

  • Bristol Motor Speedway has hosted 2 NASCAR Cup Series races per year since it opened in 1961. Since the second season of the track, one of the track’s races has been held in the springtime between mid-March and mid-April. The one outlier was the 2020 race, which was postponed to May 31st due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Since the early 2010s, the Bristol spring race has declined dramatically. What went into the decline?
  • NASCAR fans have an interesting relationship with the Bristol spring date. While Bristol is a track that many fans love, the spring race is not as heavily supported as the fall date.

The Decline

For decades, Bristol Motor Speedway was one of the hottest tickets in NASCAR. From 1982 until 2009, the track had 55 consecutive sellouts, and that was for both the daytime spring race and the nighttime summer race. Look at the 2007 spring race at Bristol below, for example, not a seat to be had on that Sunday afternoon.

That streak ended in the spring of 2010, and it coincided with two events. First was the overall decline of NASCAR, and second was the reconfiguration of Bristol. The reconfiguration was retconned in 2012, but the decline of the spring race continued.

During the 2010s, Bristol Motor Speedway continued to bring in crowds north of 100,000 for the summertime night race, but the spring race struggled. Massive swaths of empty metal grandstands met the drivers every spring, and BMS ended up closing down grandstands in the turns for the spring 2019 race weekend. The front stretch and back stretch still had empty seats.

In 2021, NASCAR tried to give the event a new life by converting Bristol to a dirt track. The races were not bad, and the crowds seemed to improve somewhat. However, not every fan loved the dirt track races, and NASCAR moved back to the concrete for 2024.

Now, Bristol is giving the 2024 Food City 500 a throwback theme. Throwing it back to a race that everyone claimed was dead just 4 years ago is…a choice…to say the least. Given the apathy surrounding the Bristol spring race, what happened?

Reasons for This Decline

Multiple factors go into the decline of the spring race, and they all play into what keeps this race in NASCAR’s version of purgatory. The race was once one of the most highly attended of the year, so, what happened?

The Weather

In recent years, Bristol’s spring race has been consistently marred by weather-related challenges. Out of the last 10 spring races at Bristol, 5 (50%) have either been delayed by rain, postponed due to rain, or experienced both. From the fans’ standpoint, it raises the question: why attend a race where the conditions are likely to be cold and drizzly throughout the day?

The predicament with this is that Bristol has held this date since the 1960s. What makes it so different now compared to the 1990s and 2000s when this race was an annual sellout? The frequency of weather delays has increased in recent years, but, other factors play into this.

The Night Race

Bristol Motor Speedway’s night race has always been a hot ticket, and many would argue it is one of NASCAR’s “Crown Jewel” races. While that second part is up for debate, the race still routinely pulls in over 100,000 people, even in the Next-Gen era where the short track package has been shaky at best. With the night race having the brand it does and being in the early fall, a much more comfortable time of the year, why would fans go to the spring race?

The problem with this theory is that Bristol Motor Speedway sold out both the spring and the fall races annually between the 1980s and 2000s. Yes, the spring race does not have nearly the glitz and glamour that the night race does, but, it’s still the same cars on the same track. The race used to sell, but, it no longer does.

The Racing Product

When Bristol Motor Speedway was reconfigured in 2007, fan sentiment towards the track turned sour. Bristol’s sellout streak ended in 2012, so, a poor racing product may have played a role in the early decline of the spring race. However, the racing product was far from bad afterward.

When Bristol shaved off the variable banking in 2012, the racing became better. Evidence of that can be seen in the Jeff Gluck “Was it a Good Race” poll, where the lowest score for a Bristol spring race between 2017 and 2020 was 86%. Fans generally enjoyed the racing at Bristol Motor Speedway, so, what gives?

Can the Race Be Revitalized?

The Bristol spring race is a strange one. It’s a race that has been well-received by fans for the racing product, but, the crowds at the track have dwindled in recent years. The track still pulls in crowds most tracks dream about during the night race weekend, but, they moved the spring race to dirt because the event was just that dead.

Now, Bristol is relying on a throwback theme to bring the race back to its former glory. It feels like BMS has tried just about everything, and, with a lackluster short-track package, could the future of this event be dark?

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Joshua Lipowski

Joshua Lipowski

All Posts