The history of Bristol Motor Speedway is one of American motorsport’s great success stories. This was a place where Joe Leonard, a carpenter from Connecticut, dreamed of bringing auto racing to the masses. He saved up money, laid down a chunk of land, and started building what would become the home of the famous NASCAR race. At first, the track was nothing more than a dirt oval, built on a shoestring budget and in the middle of nowhere, but with the help of some committed individuals, it became a place that racing fans from all over the world would travel to each year.
Early Years (1952-1962)
The first official race was held at the speedway on July 4, 1952. It was called the Daytona Beach Road Racing Series and it consisted of a single car race, where owners from all over the United States came to compete. The first NASCAR race was held at the speedway a year later and it was a huge success, attracting more than 50,000 people, which is more than the capacity of the track at the time. Many credit it with saving NASCAR as we know it today. The first Daytona 500 was an immediate hit and it became an annual event, with fans traveling to see it from all over the country. It was also the first ever “one-make” race, where all the cars were homogeneous, painted in the same livery and driven by amateurs.
The speedway’s second major milestone was the building of its current grandstands. The first ones were built in the early 1950s and they consisted of temporary wooden grandstands with no roof. These grandstands had a capacity of around 12,000 people and they were used until the late 1960s. The final piece of the puzzle was Bobby Johns’ creation of the modern restroom. He was the head groundskeeper at the speedway and he built the first port-a-potty for professional racing in 1960. This was the first of its kind in sports and it revolutionized stadium and motorsport restroom design, going on to become the gold standard for the profession.
The Glory Years (1963-1972)
This was the golden age of NASCAR, with its most successful decade being the 1960s. During this time, the speedway underwent massive expansion and it became the center of a motorsport industry, attracting many new faces and new roles, for both men and women. One of the most significant events was the integration of NASCAR in 1964. It was during this decade that the first real women’s roles were introduced to the sport, with more and more people wanting to get involved. For decades, fans had only seen female roles, such as nurses and secretaries, but they were given a presence at the races, dressed in colorful dresses and getting involved in the action. The most recognizable female role from this time is almost certainly Cady Ruggles, who competed in 18 NASCAR races, between 1964 and 1969, and whose face can be seen on the side of many early American-made cars. Ruggles would go on to found the Cady Ruggles Foundation, dedicated to protecting children from abuse. She is often remembered for having once driven across the country in a hot air balloon with her dog, Phyllis, above a cloud of smoke—an experience she described as “both exhilarating and terrifying.”
The most significant event of the 1960s was unquestionably the creation of the Grand National Championship. Before this point, NASCAR had been split into two separate championships: the Grand American and the American Auto Racing Series. These series were contested separately, with no interaction between the two. The creation of the Grand National Championship was a result of the Civil Rights movement, with the hope that one day, all races would be open to all comers, free of any form of discrimination. This series was the brainchild of Joe Tiller, who was the track’s promoter at the time. The first Grand National Championship was held in 1966 and it was won by Tiny Lund, who went on to win the next three championships, before his retirement in 1970. The first three-time Grand National Champion was Bobby Isaac, whose career spanned from 1950 to 1969 and who was credited with saving the sport, during its infancy, by bringing it to the masses. The last three-time champion was Lee Petty.
The Expansion Years (1973-1987)
The expansion years of the 1970s were tough for Bristol Motor Speedway, as revenue declined and the track struggled to keep up with construction costs. This was compounded by rising feed prices, which decreased the amount of cash available for things such as promotion and advertising. The race track’s biggest problem during this time was finding enough people to work there, as an increasing number of tradespeople began skipping work, due to the high demand for skilled labor, during this period of time. This was addressed by the hiring of more people, in a bid to reduce reliance on outsiders for major construction projects.
The early part of the decade was dominated by the automobile industry, with demand for large vehicles increasing during a rise in gas prices, which was a direct result of an oil crisis in the Middle East. This was the cause of significant concern for the NASCAR establishment, who were worried that the gas crisis would damage the sport, due to the large number of large vehicles used in the sport. The fears of the sport’s rulers were realized, when gas prices increased by over 80% between 1974 and 1978. This was also the era where inflation was at its highest, with prices rising by nearly 150% during the decade. The cost of living also went up during this time, with steady increases in the price of housing and food, which had a significant impact on working class families, whose wages did not increase in line with prices, so inflation was an issue for everyone.
In 1978, the Winston Million Dollar Prize was introduced, as a result of NASCAR’s ongoing concerns over drug use, amongst drivers, which was a reflection of society at large, in its concern around substance abuse. This was an effort, by the sport’s administration, to introduce a new type of revenue stream and it coincided with a rise in popularity amongst young people, who were more likely to win prizes, as a result of the widespread availability of the home computer, which made it easier for parents to keep track of all their children’s activities. The million dollar prize was initially won by Richard Petty, in 1979, before going on to be won by Danny Sullivan, in 1980 and 1981. This was the start of a new, more lucrative period for the track, which lasted until the early part of the next decade, when another major problem arose: environmentalism. The emergence of an awareness of the impact of excessive motor vehicle use on the environment, coupled with the advent of compact disc led to the eventual banning of all automotive vehicles, from racing at the track. This was a significant blow to a sport, which was wholly dependent on the automobile industry for revenue and, as a result of the increased costs and inconvenience, caused by the absence of cars, led to the decline of motor racing, at the track, for a time. The last race, a stock car exhibition, was held in 1982.
The Revival (1988-Present)
The revival of motor racing at the speedway came about, as a result of several factors, including the reduced cost of fuel, due to the Energy Crisis of the early 1980s and also the fact that the building interiors at the track, had been removed, along with the cars, in their entirety. This had allowed for far more flexibility, for those responsible for the day-to-day operations of the track, in terms of layout and configuration, which made it much more suitable for motorsport. The reduced costs and increased revenue, resulting from motorsport, gave the track the ability to expand and improve its facilities. This included a complete overhaul of the seating area and the introduction of a luxury suites section. To cater to the new, younger audience, who were used to enjoying live music and large festivals, on their phones, the race track introduced wireless internet access, for those in the grandstands and also for those in the paddock, during the race. Several major sponsorship deals were also sealed as a result of the revived interest in motorsport, with many big-name brands, such as Nike, Monster, and Subway sponsoring races at the track. In addition, the track’s biggest fundraiser, the Cradle of Aviation Fly-In & Fly-Around, introduced many new elements of entertainment, including an air show, where vintage aircraft would give an aerial display above the track. This added an extra dimension to what had previously been an afternoon of racing, which had, for decades, been the main draw for fans. The revived interest in motorsport also saw the creation of the Global Sports Championship, which was contested between 1995 and 1998 and which saw world champions in both motorsport and MMA fighting, Bjorn Bjornson and Bas Rutten, respectively. The last major renovation project at the speedway was the installation of a video screen, on the banking near the start/finish line, which was one of the first tracks in the world to have one.