When it comes to motorsport, there are a few locations that spring to mind, all of which are either dirt or asphalt tracks. These are Monza in Italy, Suzuka in Japan, and of course, our own beloved Bristol Motor Speedway in the UK.
One of the things that make these venues so special is that they are open to everyone. Whether you’re an amateur or a professional, there’s always something for you. However, the gradual decline in the popularity of NASCAR and other traditional road racing series has made room for other forms of motorsport. Is dirt track racing making a comeback? Could Bristol Motor Speedway go the way of Daytona International Race Park and become a road course? Could a 24-hour endurance race return and reclaim its place in the hearts and minds of the public?
Before we jump into the good, the bad, and the ugly of Bristol’s current status, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at where it all started. For those who grew up during the golden era of stock car racing (the 60s and 70s), it’s easy to forget how much things have changed. Back then, dirt tracks were the only option. There were no short tracks, no intermediate tracks, and certainly no mega-tracks. The only racing available was on dirt. While this may seem like an unchangeable fact, it’s not quite that simple. It takes a lot more than just removing dirt tracks to make a venue appeal to today’s audience. In fact, it often takes a complete revamp.
Let’s take a quick stroll through history, starting with the infamous Daytona International Race Park. Opened in 1960, the asphalt superspeedway held its first Grand Prix in February 1960. Over the years, it has attracted the likes of Jimmy John Smoker, Richard Peterson, and Shelby Bowman. As mentioned, it is primarily an oval track, measuring 4.022 kilometers (2.414 miles) in circumference. It features nine stadium-style turns, one lake and four bridges. This year, the track is celebrating its 50th anniversary. It is said that over 1.5 million people attended the grand opening ceremony alone. In order to mark the occasion, race organizers are holding a replica of the Daytona 500. The event will take place on February 12 and 13.
This brings us to another famous track, the Suzuka Motorsport Course. Officially opened in 1972, the 12.9km (8.4 miles) clay oval offers something a little different to the traditional dirt track experience. It features five chaotic hairpins, three restart laps, and a unique dry turf surface. To commemorate the event, organizers of the Suzuka 10 km Championship have laid out a one-of-a-kind, 24-lap indoor/outdoor segment on July 30th and 31st. This year’s edition is set for September 9th and 10th. In order to provide a smooth running surface, Suzuka has adopted the use of Tarmac, which, as the name suggests, is a form of asphalt.
Moving on, we arrive at yet another track, the legendary Bristol Motor Speedway. This 7.8km (4.7 miles) circuit opened in April 1948 and was originally conceived of as a means of showcasing the engines manufactured by Bristol Brewers. Ever since then, it has been the home of the British Bristol Team. It is widely regarded as the Mecca of motorsport. At least, it was until this year. To mark the 75th anniversary of the venue, the track organizers have laid out a retro-look retro-race. Scheduled for October 18th and 19th (two days, twelve races), this year’s event will offer fans a glimpse of the Golden Age of Automotive Racing. To keep up with the spirit of the times, organizers have even added a Bike Race to the schedule. This is set for September 29th and 30th.
So, what happened? Why has Bristol Motor Speedway’s popularity taken such a hit? As with any other form of public transport, the popularity of motor racing died a slow death over the years. In the 1930s and 40s, stock car racing was at its peak. It was a glamorous sport, attracting the best drivers and the best car manufacturers. While this was great for the racing fan, the fact that it was an obligatory sport in high school left a bad taste in the mouth of younger generations. After the Second World War, it was a case of growing up with no money for a toy, so the sphere of interest shifted to more adult companies and sports. For those who grew up before the war, dirt tracks were still popular, but it wasn’t really an option for younger entrants. It wasn’t until 1967 that another superspeedway opened in the UK, creating a rivalry between the two locations. Ever since then, Bristol Motor Speedway has been on a downward slope, eventually reaching a permenant bust point in 2017 when it was opened to the public as a tourist attraction. Since then, it has undergone a complete revamp of its facilities, adding fans hangars (for spectators), changing the surface of the track, and introducing a combination of both dirt and tarmac.
So, could Bristol Motor Speedway ever return to its former glory, or is it now more or less permanent station on the road to revival? Let’s look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of Bristol Motor Speedway’s current status:
While it is true that there are no short tracks anymore, it isn’t quite true that Bristol Motor Speedway is the only one with a dirt track anymore. Other venues have followed suit. The Revived British Motor Sport Has Created A Revival In Dirt Track Racing.
Many of the tracks that were once considered traditional are now regarded as legends in their own right. It was the combination of the baby boomer generation and the Internet that saved the day for traditional racing. Through social media and retro-racing pages, millions of people across the world discovered a new passion for stock car racing. Through rides (sponsored by some of the racing venues themselves), video games, and curious eyes, dirt track racing was brought back from the dead.