Bristol Motor Speedway (BMS) is an American Race Track in Northeastern Pennsylvania, about an hour outside of the city of Philadelphia. It is widely regarded as the “Northeast’s Premier Speedway” and was famously used as the setting for the 1970 movie, “Billy Jack.”
The track gets its name from the Bristol Township, which is where it is located. It is owned and operated by International Speedway Corporation (ISC), which also owns and operates the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For decades, Bristol was the “little engine that could,” winning back-to-back championship titles in the 1960s and early ‘70s. Since then, the track has struggled with declining attendance and revenue, as well as changing marketing ideas from ISC. Nevertheless, the speedway remains a vital part of the NASCAR racing circuit.
The Track’s Layout And History
BMS is a 3/4-mile short-oval track that has been around since the 1800s. Like other NASCAR tracks, Bristol is very flat, with no major hills or obstructions that might force the driver to make an unwanted move. The track has 11 corners and one mile of concrete wall on three sides, with the turns being somewhat wide and slow compared to other speedways.
The wall surrounding the track was originally built in 1911 as a protection against wild animals and, in particular, the local bears. After the Great Depression, the wall was extended and resurfaced, significantly increasing its length. Since then, the bears have not returned, but the wall still serves as an impenetrable defense against the ever-present threat of wild animals.
Bristol Motor Speedway opened in 1914 and was originally built for bikes and motorcycles. The track ran on a Wednesday and Saturday night in the fall, with live jazz concerts and open-air motocross races being the major draws. After World War II, the track became a NASCAR “B” league venue and, in the 1960s, was one of the first tracks to promote itself as a “family” track, complete with little league events and a playground for the kids.
During this time, the track underwent a major expansion, adding more turn configurations and a section of concrete wall. The wall was extended to include the inside of the track, creating a “no-mans-land” between lanes five and six. These additions doubled the capacity of the race track. Unfortunately, with the exception of the open-air motocross events and the occasional football game, the track now hosts mostly low-paying “fans-only” events.
The Facilities Aren’t Great
BMS has been around for over a century and has established itself as one of the great American race tracks, but it still has not fully recovered from the financial problems that nearly ruined it. The track is owned and operated by International Speedway Corporation (ISC), so most of the revenue streams—Ticket sales, food/drink sales, and corporate partnerships with local businesses—depend on the attendance at the track. In order to maintain its place on the NASCAR schedule, BMS needs to attract crowds of between 30,000 and 50,000 people per night.
It should come as no surprise that BMS hasn’t been able to draw the crowds it needs, given what the track is trying to achieve. Its location in northeastern Pennsylvania means that it gets a lot of snow and rain throughout the year. While some of these events might attract people from further away, the weather mostly keeps sports fans at home.
If you happen to be at BMS during a race weekend, then you will experience a lot of cold weather. The stands are usually half-empty on Sunday afternoons, as it’s not uncommon to have snow falling on the track at any time. While it is a great track for fans of American motorsport, it is not really designed for fans from the southern part of the country. During the offseason, you can typically find yourself rubbing shoulders with snowboarders, as there is no other kind of sports that BMS promotes.
Where Do The Fans Come From?
There is an important distinction to be made between the ticketing and the arena portion of BMS. The majority of the fans who attend the track’s concerts and games come from Northeast Pennsylvania and nearby New Jersey. There is also a small contingent of fans that come from further away areas of the country, like Boston and New York City. This might be due to the track’s historical connections with those areas or the fact that there is something about the weather that brings out the Yankee in everyone.
The people who live in the area are generous and passionate sports fans who attend the track mostly on a Wednesday or Saturday night in the fall. It is not uncommon to see men in suits congregating outside of the track’s entrances as soon as the gates open, having lined up in the chilly pre-dawn air to secure the best seats. You will see families with kids, empty nesters, and even a few “bucket list” type of travelers coming together for a few hours of some harmless high-school-type competition, with the food and drink prices keeping even the locals relatively happy.
On a Tuesday night in the spring, you will find a different crowd. Typically, these are the “families” who attended the previous night’s concert or game and are now returning for another round. The kids are in school and the women are starting to relax after a long day of work. It is not uncommon to see them congregating outside of the track’s entrances, having fun and sharing stories about the game they just saw.
What About The Rest Of The Week?
During the rest of the week, the track is relatively empty. There are some concerts and sporting events that the track might host, but it mainly depends on the schedules of the school districts and the colleges in the area. In the winter, there is not much else going on other than the occasional college basketball game or an “open-air” concert in the park. In the summer, kids are out of school and having fun in the streets, so it is possible that even more people show up for those games and concerts than during the rest of the year. The one event that you might see on the schedule for the entire year is the Tony Stewart Foundation US Grand Prix, which is a car race that Tony Stewart, a local entrepreneur and philanthropist, sponsors.
If you happen to be at BMS during the week, then it’s probably going to be cold. It frequently snows or rains at the track, so you will definitely have to wear some type of outerwear. Even when the weather is fine, the wind can be brutal. If you go outside, you will feel as though you are in a wintery climate. The only time when it’s not cold at BMS is during the summertime, when the days are long and the temperatures are high. It is also one of the few NASCAR tracks that does not have fog machines, so you will always be able to see the whole track. This is important for the drivers, as they don’t want to be hit by a flying drink cart or hot dog stand due to a momentary lapse in vision. Keep in mind that it can get pretty humid as well during the summertime.
The Entertainment Is Mainly For the Fans
Although there are some corporate sponsorships and television shows that the track might be associated with, the main purpose of the website, the newsletters, and the food carts at BMS is to entertain the fans. While the fans might have different reasons for attending the track, whether it is for the jazz or for the food, the fact remains that the entertainment is mostly for the fans.
The fans are what make the track special. The historical connections with the area and the sport are what make it unique. Even then, it still has not fully recovered from the financial problems that nearly destroyed it. Nevertheless, the track remains one of the great American race tracks, drawing fans from all over the country and around the world. If you get the chance to go there, take advantage of the opportunity. You will not be disappointed.