JOHNSON CITY — It’s been said that Bristol Motor Speedway features 10 pounds of racing in a 5-pound bag.
By the time NASCAR’s biggest names roll into town for the Food City 500 next month, they’re going to find themselves stuffed into a slightly smaller bag.
Speedway officials announced on Wednesday that more than 160 feet worth of SAFER barriers are being added to the exits of turns two and four, shrinking the racing groove by about 3 feet in the process.
“We believe with these modifications, we will not only increase driver safety, but will also create a different transition at the exit of the turns,” said Jeff Byrd, president and general manager of BMS.
“While we don’t know exactly how this will impact the racing, the more confined racing area should create less elbow room and tighten up the racing groove at those points.”
Kevin Triplett, vice president of public affairs at the track, said the move was made in part because of feedback gleaned by talking to fans who chose not to renew their season tickets. While 62 percent of these fans cited economic reasons for not renewing, a large percentage were not happy with the racing.
“We’ve talked to a lot of people since August, and there is a percentage that said you’re giving the best drivers in the world a whole lot of room,” he said.
So the decision was made to take some of that racing room away. Triplett compared it to the USGA narrowing the fairways for the U.S. Open in order to test the world’s best golfers.
By forcing the field to race in closer quarters, the folks at BMS are hoping to bring back some of the beating and banging that fans have been missing since a resurfacing project in 2007 added extra racing room and ushered in an era of side-by-side racing at the track.
“Without question, this extra 4 feet added room and aided in creating three- and, at times, even four-wide racing,” Byrd said. “However, while it is breathtaking, many of our fans have responded that we went too far.”
The move to cater to the fans has never been more important as BMS faces the distinct possibility of seeing its streak of consecutive Sprint Cup sellouts end at 55.
Triplett said BMS is pulling out all the stops to extend that streak to 56, but the economy is making that goal hard to reach.
“We’ve had a good couple of weeks since the season started, but we’re behind where we were last year,” he said. “Our facility is so big that we could sell more tickets than any other Cup event and still have empty seats.”
An advertising blitz is under way, and Triplett said sales have taken off since the NASCAR season started a couple of weeks ago.
“The challenge is that when you have 160,000 seats, that’s a steep climb,” Triplett said. “But we don’t want to leave anything on the table.”