Lately there has been much discussion about short tracks, namely; perhaps NASCAR’s sagging attendance and diminishing interest might be cured if it bothered to put more half-mile tracks on the schedule.
The argument is that the sanctioning body’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series is composed predominantly of superspeedways and, especially, tracks of a mile-and-one half in length.
There are three short tracks on the MENCS circuit, Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond, which means that of the xx races conducted each season only six are on short tracks.
It has become so after decades of NASCAR evolution. During the 1950s – the pioneer era – virtually every race (as many as 50 per season) was held on a short track in such far-flung places as Macon, Ga., and Ona, WVa.
But starting in 1959 things began to change. Daytona International Speedway was built and was followed in the early and late 1960s by Charlotte, Atlanta, Rockingham, Michigan, Talladega, Dover and Pocono.
The big-track phenomenon became so large it was suggested NASCAR become a “superspeedway” environment only. In other words, do away with the short tracks that existed at the time.
Bill France Jr., NASCAR’s president would have none of it.
Still the larger tracks gained a strong foothold with venue expansion in the 1980s. On board came Las Vegas, Kentucky, Kansas, Texas, Fontana, Phoenix, and Homestead – the majority of which were one and one-half miles in length.
They became known as “cookie cutter” tracks.
There were other additions not of the same mold. They were the road courses at Watkins Glen and Sonoma and the venerated two-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Still the new NASCAR landscape did not include any new short tracks. Long gone were Nashville and North Wilkesboro – one of the first tracks to become a part of the circuit – closed its doors in 1996.
Today, I believe the six short-track races are among the most anticipated of every season. One reason is rather obvious: They offer a different style of racing entertainment than we see on the larger tracks.
Raw speed is the selling point at the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega, where the draft rules supreme.
None of the “cookie cutter” tracks is exactly the same. Each has nuances that provide for competition variety. But to observers that’s hard to determine. The racing looks the same and, they claim, it is predictably routine.
There are a couple things about racing on short tracks that have made them unique. Speed, for example, is not that prevalent except on the high banks at Bristol.
Instead it’s the inevitable jostling, the often-prevalent metal-to-metal contact – and the prevailing strategy that to gain position one driver has to unceremoniously shove another out of the way- that create short-track appeal.
It is a throwback to the way it used to be. And it is the reason why fans and competitors urge NASCAR never to drop its short tracks and even promote those whose weekly shows are not part of the MENCS circuit.
There are many examples of the style of racing fans enjoy at short-track events. Bristol, which just completed its first event of the season, has had more than its share.
So does Richmond, which is the site of this weekend’s MENCS event.
Richmond is perhaps the most unique speedway in NASCAR. It’s a handsome facility and is the only one three-quarters of a mile in distance.
It didn’t used to be that way. It was once a half-mile track surrounded by guardrails and wooden grandstands nestled in the Virginia State Fairgrounds.
But, like its short-track cousins, it could produce some wild competition.
A good example came in February of 1986. That year, in one of the most improbable finishes in NASCAR history, Kyle Petty won the first race of his career with the Wood Brothers.
He shouldn’t have. He was a distant fifth as the race came to its conclusion. With three laps to go, Darrell Waltrip, who had battled back from a lap down, shot past leader Dale Earnhardt.
Earnhardt, who by this time was establishing himself as a no-quarter driver, responded by clipping Waltrip’s right rear.
Waltrip crashed headfirst into the third turn steel guardrail – a potentially dangerous situation – that set off a chain reaction that gathered up nearly all the leading cars.
Only Petty survived and he went on to take the checkered flag.
As you might expect, there was bad blood.
“I like to win as much as the next guy,” Waltrip said, “but I’ve never tried hurt someone to do it.”
Said his team owner Junior Johnson: “It was like Dale put a gun to Darrell’s head and pulled the trigger.”
To be honest, every track has a story like that. But there are more of them – far more – that emerge from short tracks.
They should remain a part of NASCAR and I think they will.
And then … perhaps, as many desire, there may be more of them.
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