NASCAR needs to put the bull back in Bristol bull-ring

In typically grand and very public fashion, Bruton Smith has announced plans to perform a spectacular feat of public relations showmanship even the great P.T. Barnum would have been proud of. He is going to put toothpaste back into the tube.

Following fan complaints about the quality of racing at Bristol Motor Speedway, the Speedway Motorsports Inc. president recently issued a press release stating his plans to do make changes to the track, which he owns. He left out one important piece of information; namely, what those changes might consist of.

“The race fans have spoken; we had input that included a wide range of opinions,” he said. “But the majority we heard from said they wanted to see changes made.

“The question we wanted to answer as quickly as possible was, ‘Is something going to be done?’ The answer to that is ‘Yes.’ We will have the details in two weeks as to what that something is.”

In other words, Smith issued a press release announcing that in two weeks, he will issue another press release. In the circus world, this basically is the job description of a guy known as the bally, who typically would stand on a platform outside the show to deliver a spiel in hopes of attracting a crowd, hence the word “ballyhoo.”

In the case of Bristol, the crowd Smith is hoping to attract is his own. According to most reports, during the race on March 18, the 160,000-seat venue was approximately one-third empty. At a track long considered the toughest ticket in NASCAR, and voted the most popular racing facility in the country more than a half-dozen times, over than 50,000 fans simply decided to stay home.

In this age of recession and rising fuel prices, a few empty seats are not unusual; we have seen decreases in attendance at most tracks over the course of past few years, but for some reason, nothing seemed to shock us as much as the view of all those empty seats at Bristol. Bristol is so spectacular in the racing world that, according to Smith, its late-summer night race has actually been voted “one of the 10 things you need to see before you die.”

The question is, what happened? The answer is that Smith messed with success.

Circus is a word with a long and interesting history. Derived from the Latin, it means “ring” or “circle,” and became famous as a place where the ancient Romans would gather to watch games, battles and yes, races. Modern circuses move from town to town, offering an exotic experience patrons may have the opportunity to experience only once a year, showing them feats of skill and derring-do they will likely never forget. Sound familiar?

Bristol Motor Speedway is a one-ring venue, but it has never failed to amaze and delight. The narrow configuration and high banking of the half-mile Tennessee track basically ensured there simply wasn’t room for everyone to get where they wanted to go, so the time-honored solution of simply knocking everyone else out of your way became the order of the day. Bristol was the place where things flew, whether they were sparks or tempers, helmets or fists. It was a big show, to be sure.

But even racetracks need some maintenance from time to time, so when Bristol was repaved in 2007, variable banking was added to the corners. This opened up the track for two and even three-wide racing, but the absence of beating and banging during events opened up the grandstands, with a lot of empty seats.

Human seem to have the urge to improve things. We simply can’t leave well enough alone. But one of the quickest ways to break something is to fix it when it isn’t broken. With a racetrack, small changes make a very big difference, and they’re not always for the best. You can’t go home again, and Bristol can probably never turn back time and exactly duplicate its former glory.

It can, however, get pretty close. And by the time August rolls around, the melodious tones of its determined ringmaster will be heard by race fans near and far: “Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, come one, come all … and come back.”

NASCAR columnist Cathy Elliott is also the author of the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR.” Visit her online at www.mybrainonnascar.com.

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