When it comes to the most thrilling and anticipated races of the NASCAR Winston Cup season, both the fans and competitors point to the mountains of east Tennessee, to a track named Bristol Motor Speedway.

When the drivers look up into the massive structure, they see close to 150,000 fans going wild. Beach balls bounce around the grandstands, fans join to send “the wave” around the track. It’s a rock concert, and the main attraction is venting drivers and bent sheetmetal.

Drivers may have a love/hate relationship with the place, but fans just love it. They drive from all points of the country to settle into their Thunder Valley seats, making tickets more precious than a first win. It’s enough of a draw that twice each year, Joe Beleskey makes an 800-mile trip to Bristol from his home in Ontario, Canada.

“The competition is so close, and the drivers have shown they can win from pretty much anywhere they start from,” Beleskey says. “When you’re at Bristol, you’re so close to everything it makes you feel like you are a part of what’s going on. I wish there were more tracks like Bristol on the schedule.”

Beleskey is not alone. Many fans would love to see the track, and its guaranteed action, cloned. Certainly, the racing would be better than the latest 1.5-mile venues that have been added to the Winston Cup schedule. But don’t bet your paycheck that something similar to this highly banked bad boy will show up near you.

Bare Knuckles Racing

Drivers know why fans keep coming back to Bristol. Whether a driver likes the place depends heavily on what kind of luck he’s had there over the years. Some drivers, tired of walking away with crumpled fenders and frayed nerves, have suggested that the best use of the place would be to fill it with water and stock it with fish.

Terry Labonte, on the other hand, looks forward to Bristol. The driver of the No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet has two wins at the track. “If they were to race anywhere more than two times a year, I’d want Bristol to have a third date,” he says. “I just love Bristol, and I have always seemed to perform pretty well there. I like the atmosphere, with all the fans being so close to the action. Heck, I love everything about Bristol. It’s just an incredible facility and for them to hold as many fans as they do is unreal. Plus, there’s never an empty seat at the track.”

Jeremy Mayfield, driver of the No. 19 Dodge, is also fond of Bristol, especially the summer night race. “It reminds all of us drivers of the Saturday-night short tracks we grew up racing on and where racing started for most of us. There’s just something about night racing that gives it that little extra bit of excitement. It’s probably the best race of the year for the fans, but I’d hate to know we had to race at Bristol every weekend, too.”

Few—if any—race cars leave Bristol unscathed. After 500 miles of pure torture, the cars receive a bump-and-run facelift that makes fabricators grimace. Despite that fact, even crew chiefs look forward to the challenge.

“It keeps the fans on the edge of their seat the entire race because they just know something is going to happen,” says Robbie Loomis, crew chief of Jeff Gordon’s DuPont Chevrolet. “You can walk into a restaurant a month after a race at Bristol and the fans are still talking about who wrecked who and which driver is going to get into it with another driver. That’s what racing is all about.”

Gordon admits to being on both the giving and receiving end at Bristol. “Rarely do the competitors leave Bristol happy, except for the guy who wins, and he probably has a few people mad at him,” he says.

Tough Ticket

Randy Gammon, of Greenup, Kentucky, is one of the fortunate thousands able to purchase a ticket to the track. “I go to a lot of the short track races around home and this is the same type of good close racing,” he says. “All the arguing between the manufacturers about the aerodynamics goes out the window at Bristol. It’s all about who has the best car when they drop the green flag.”

Tickets are literally worth their weight in gold. While almost any fan can go to any track on the Winston Cup tour and find a ticket for sale, it’s not a good idea to head to Bristol without a ticket in hand.

There are 147,000 permanent seats at Bristol, and following this summer’s race, construction crews will go to work tearing down the backstretch grandstands in order to build more seats and suites. So the big will only get bigger. The folks at Bristol could have 250,000 seats and they still wouldn’t be able to satisfy all the requests they get from fans who want tickets.

“Over and over, we hear that Bristol is the favorite track for the race fans,” says Wayne Estes, director of events and communications at Bristol. “It has certainly earned that distinction. If you don’t believe me all you’ve got to do is sit in the ticket office because we get calls every single day from people looking to buy tickets. They ask what they have to do, some have even joked that they’ll give away their kids for tickets to the night race.”

Estes has seen divorcing couples fight over who gets the Bristol season tickets. “I’ve had wives call me and ask what they have to do to get tickets again because losing their Bristol tickets was the thing they hated to give up the most.”

No one gets complimentary tickets, especially for the night race. “You don’t see complimentary tickets to The Masters or the Final Four, and you won’t see one for the night race at Bristol,” Estes says.

Why Not Clone It?

The success and growth of Bristol presents an interesting question because of the last six new tracks to be awarded Winston Cup race dates since 1997, all but one are 1.5-mile in length. Many considered Lowe’s Motor Speedway as the perfect track length, as far as the arrangement of grandstand seats, and did their best to copy that success.

When Bruton Smith purchased Bristol in 1996, the seating capacity was less than 70,000. For this year’s night race, nearly 150,000 fans will cram into the bullring. So why in the world doesn’t somebody try to build another Bristol?

“That’s a good question, and one I don’t really know the answer to,” Gordon says. “Maybe it’s because there are more challenges with the amount of space the track owners have to operate with and trying to accommodate all the things they want to have. I think a track like Richmond is perfect because there is a little more room, plus you can get a lot of fans in there and have a good race. Passing is extremely tough at Bristol, but it’s a little bit easier at a place like Richmond. Then again, all the crashes we have at Bristol is what draws a lot of the excitement because it is so hard to pass.”

Loomis says short tracks provide the excitement fans want. “I’ve said this for a long time, but if we want to have better races, we need to start building more tracks that are like a Bristol or a Richmond,” he says. “I’d say, if you look at the bottom line financially, the short tracks probably make more money than a lot of the mile-and-a-half tracks. I think the perfect track would be a three-quarter-mile, high-banked track because Bristol has shown you can put up enough seats while also having a great race.”

Lowe’s Motor Speedway President H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler says that if he had to build another track, he’d look at something similar to Bristol. “If I were building a new track today, I really don’t think I’d build another track a mile-and-a-half in length,” Wheeler says. “I’d look at building a ¾-mile, high-banked track.”

Winston Cup rookie sensation Ryan Newman thinks the perfect new track would be three-quarters of a mile up to a mile. “I don’t think it’s bad to have tracks like Las Vegas that are known as cookie-cutter tracks, but I still like the tracks like Darlington where you really have to race the track as well as the other drivers,” Newman says.

As a team owner, Ray Evernham insists there are positives to running at tracks that are so similar in size. “Everybody is building these mile-and-a-half tracks because that’s really the perfect size venue for the fans and the teams,” Evernham says. “It’s tough to race at a place like Bristol or Martinsville because those tracks are so tough on the cars. So if you look at it like that, the more tracks that are a mile-and-a-half will ultimately help the amount of different cars we need to build.”

NASCAR President Mike Helton believes the current schedule and mix of tracks is where the series needs to be. “I feel like we’re fortunate to have a pretty wide range of different types of tracks like the road courses or the short tracks,” Helton says. “We’ve got a lot of races on the schedule, but Bristol is no doubt one of the most unique tracks.”

While the debate continues over the merit of building another short track, fans are counting down to August 24, when the lights will come on at Bristol for what many believe is the best race of the year.

“There’s no other feeling on the circuit like the night race at Bristol,” Gordon says. “The drivers get pretty jazzed up about it when we look around and see how cool the atmosphere is.”

“The nighttime just brings something out in pro sports that you simply can’t get during the daytime,” Wheeler says. “The night somehow seems to bring about an extra charge in the crowd. You can’t argue about the success of racing at night and you most certainly can’t argue about the success of Bristol. When you throw those two elements together, you’ve got something pretty special.”