BRISTOL, Tenn. — Flanked by billboards declaring "Fans Spoke ... We Listened," track operator Bruton Smith unveiled changes Wednesday to Bristol Motor Speedway that he believes will return the excitement to the once-beloved bullring.
"We are modifying what we have, and I really believe we are doing the right thing," Smith said. "I didn't want to create a train wreck with what we are doing, so we are just modifying what we have. I think it's going to be a lot better than what it was, it will be exciting and we do think that we'll win over all of these race fans to our side on this. They are going to love it, and chances are we'll have a complete sellout here in August."
A grinding process will remove the top lane from the concrete surface, and the progressive banking currently located in the corners will knocked down. A 2007 repaving of the 0.533-mile oval widened the track's racing groove, which gave drivers enough room to race side-by-side and avoid the constant bumping and banging fans adored.
Once one of the toughest tickets in all of professional sports, attendance has waned since the 2007 reconfiguration. The speedway says it seats 160,000, but attendance for the March 18 race appeared half full.
Frustrated by the turnout, Smith and his Speedway Motorsports Inc. officials solicited feedback from fans via social media. Although he was convinced he needed to change the track, he waited on the results of the unofficial surveys.
Initially, response was nearly unanimous that fans wanted him to tear up the track. But, after announcing he'd made up his mind to do something, opinion shifted to leave it alone.
In the end, the aggregate of public opinion was roughly 60 percent in favor of leaving the track alone. The most outspoken group was the drivers, who seemed largely in favor of Smith leaving Bristol alone.
"I've had driver after driver tell me don't touch it, talking about Bristol, and that the last race was the greatest race they've ever seen," Smith said. "We are trying to satisfy both sides, and we believe we are doing the right thing. We've got to go with that."
NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip, a 12-time Bristol winner, said there's a fine line between pleasing the drivers and the fans.
"They (the drivers) like the race track, they like the way it is," he said. "It's a more fun track than it was under the old configuration, and fun usually leads to better racing, or at least you would expect it to. But apparently, because the track is wider, smoother, and with the progressive banking, it's given the drivers too many options.
"You never had any options here in the past. The only option was to gouge and poke somebody out of the way. When that was taken it away, it made it a lot easier on the drivers."
The March race, won by Brad Keselowski, featured an uncharacteristically low five cautions and an unheard of 219-lap green-flag run. In all, 451 of the 500 laps were under green.
That's not the Bristol fans know and love, Waltrip said.
"The problem with this race track is it has a reputation," he said. "It reminds me of a restaurant. This place was a meat and three (sides), that's what this joint was. You knew what you were going to get, you left there full and you were happy. And then someone decided to turn it into a gourmet restaurant."
Bristol general manager Jerry Caldwell said the change will be just the fourth one to the surface in the track's 51-year history, and it was spurred by fan input. He thanked Smith for "listening to the race fans. That's so important, and it doesn't happen as much as it should in this day and time."