How can NASCAR improve the dirt experience for drivers and fans in 2022?
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
Bristol Motor Speedway labels itself "The Last Great Coliseum."
Which brings the next question after what NASCAR put on this weekend: Why does something so great need to be covered in dirt?
Many will grapple with that query after watching NASCAR's experiment of having 23,000 cubic yards of dirt put on the half-mile concrete track to totally change the complexion of the event.
Instead of a high-speed whirlwind of 500 laps — in which at times there are long, green-flag runs but also hefty fireworks between drivers after contact when struggling to pass — Bristol provided 250 laps of intrigue with its Cup race Monday.
The racing was more unique than spectacular. The Cup cars are not designed for dirt racing, so they didn’t have the speed or the pizzazz of high-performance race cars. They appeared groggy, going five seconds per lap slower than usual, and it seemed to be a struggle.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun. It was so different and unique — and a nod to NASCAR’s roots — maintaining the cool factor amid some of the frustration.
No one should have expected NASCAR and Bristol to get it perfect the first time out. They totally fumbled on Saturday by starting a truck heat race before the track was ready and then having to stop it after one lap because of the amount of mud covering the windshields.
With a doubleheader created on Monday because of the rains Saturday and Sunday, 400 laps (150 for trucks, 250 for Cup) in one afternoon would be a challenge for any dirt track. They aren’t designed to have races that long — certainly not in the afternoon when dust tends to be heavier than at night.
The folks at Bristol did as much as they could, but dealing with an unknown surface creates, well, unknowns.
What does NASCAR do now? It had tires that couldn’t last much more than 50 laps and couldn’t get a second groove in the dirt.
To be fair, no dirt track is perfect 100 percent of the time. Many a dirt track promoter has been frustrated by dirt at some point during a racing season. These are anticipated problems, and for that reason, some will argue this should have been done at a permanent dirt track. But permanent dirt tracks don’t have seating for more than 30,000 people (most seat barely half that), and the broadcast infrastructure for network television is already in place at a venue such as Bristol.
"They prepped the track to the best of their ability," said NASCAR driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., whose roots are in dirt racing. "Obviously, all the rain didn't help. They reacted, did stuff as best they could. ... I think they did a great job."
The biggest issue was the one most talked about prior to the event: dust. All dirt tracks tend to lose moisture because of the downforce and heat of the cars, but most dirt tracks run cars at least 500 to 1,000 pounds lighter than the 3,400-pound Cup cars.
"You could not get out of the groove, or else you were just running on dust," Denny Hamlin said. "I don't know if there's different dirt that doesn't produce as much dust as this one.
"I know they really did a lot of research on the dirt itself. A couple of them said if you didn't run during the daylight, dust wouldn't be as bad. I thought the racing was good. It really was. ... For fans' sake, for visibility of the drivers' sake, I think a lot of the wrecks happened because of the dust, and we couldn't see anything."
Given that NASCAR has already announced it will pile dirt on Bristol again next year, there are a few ideas floating about how to improve the race.
For one, NASCAR could have the race at night. This is something virtually all the people with experience in dirt racing suggested. A 4 p.m. E.T. start isn’t exactly the heat of the day, but the race probably needs to start later.
"Racing at night is the key to this," race winner Joey Logano said. "I think that brings some of the moisture up from the dirt. I think that would help.
"Plus, you don't have the sun glaring through the dust. That's what made it really hard through Turns 1 and 2. You couldn't see. You're talking to someone that ran in third or fourth place, so I didn't really get the real worst of it."
A second idea is to do a tire test. NASCAR and Goodyear probably will have to do a tire test with the Next Gen car anyway, but it should be a priority.
Lastly, NASCAR could research removing the windshields. It would be a lot of work for teams, especially with the electronics in the car, but removing windshields could at least help with some of the vision issues. Dirt late models don’t have them, and if NASCAR can incorporate what those drivers use as far as helmet tear-offs and protective gear, let’s try.
NASCAR doesn’t want to make the cars too different than normal Cup cars. But if the track is different, why not make the cars different, too?
As NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell indicated, they want this race to be an annual event.
"Our hope was this would be a success, something we could repeat and have it become really a staple of the schedule going forward," O’Donnell said. "Certainly [there are] a number of things we learned throughout the weekend that will apply to 2022's event weekend.
"Some of those things are how much you race in a single day, and are there other racing series that can be part of this in terms of late models as well? We fully intend to be back in '22 and beyond and continue to apply those learnings and put on some great races."
Hamlin said he thought the dirt race had potential to be like the "old Bristol" before some of the grinding that has happened at the track created a tendency for single-file racing, which NASCAR has tried to change by adding traction compound in the turns.
"It was almost like the old Bristol," Hamlin said. "If you got out of the lane, you got shuffled. That part of it was really encouraging."
Hamlin did voice a concern about the Next Gen car if the surface is similar next year. He said the underbody of the car might not be able to handle the roughness of the surface.
"When we get the new car, those things have a pan on the bottom of them," Hamlin said. "These holes – somebody better get a tape measure, some of them are at least, like, a foot deep. They are super deep.
"I don't know if that new car can stand that."
The final word here goes to race winner Logano. Obviously, he was happy he won, but even so, he looked at the race as a roaring success.
"It’s an event," he said. "It's a crazy, amazing event that they're able to put on. They should be proud of themselves.
"This is a big risk, really big risk, that I know not many teams were behind. It worked out well."
Thinking out loud
The one thing NASCAR should have communicated better for the weekend was the possibility of going to single-file restarts if it got dusty.
In this age of limited chatter among NASCAR, teams and media — because of little interaction amid the pandemic — it seemed to be a surprise when NASCAR went to single-file restarts. It wasn’t a bad decision, but it was one that seemed to come out of left field.
NASCAR obviously had been thinking about it, and that should have communicated to fans and teams so they could be aware that it might happen. Drivers shouldn’t have been shocked when they heard they were doing it to help visibility, and they should have been given the opportunity to prepare for the situation.
Neither should the fans have been surprised — they deserve to know how a race rule could alter an event.
NASCAR gets accused of making up rules as it goes along. Its rulebook allows for it. But in this case, a little communication could have gone a long way.
Stat of note
With his win in the truck race Monday, Martin Truex Jr. became the 36th driver to win a race in all three national series.
They said it
"The guys were joking with me – I'm going to change my name to Joe Dirt now." – Joey Logano after winning the Bristol dirt race