What Nascar has learned from three years of the Bristol Dirt Race

BlackBook Motorsport sits down with Jerry Caldwell, president of Bristol Motor Speedway, to discuss how the circuit’s transformation to a dirt layout has changed the track’s fortunes against the backdrop of Nascar’s efforts to attract new audiences.

Dirt racing is not a new phenomenon in the world of Nascar.

The first ever Nascar race in 1949 was held on dirt and seven of the eight tracks that season were made of the same surface. Seven-time Nascar champion Richard Petty claimed his first win back in 1960 on a dirt track in Charlotte. Synonymous with success it may be, but the return of dirt racing in 2021 at Tennessee’s Bristol Motor Speedway was the first event of its kind in more than 50 years.

That event culminated in Team Penske’s Joey Logano becoming the first Cup Series winner on a dirt track since 1970, but Bristol Motor Speedway’s first steps towards hosting a dirt race were taken long before it became a reality for Nascar.

“It happened over 20 years ago,” Jerry Caldwell, president of Bristol Motor Speedway, tells BlackBook Motorsport. “We put dirt on Bristol, [but] we never ran a Nascar race. We ran a World of Outlaws [dirt track racing series] race and some other series along with that and found some success.

“I don’t know what it is here, because it was going on long before my time, but Bristol has always been one of those facilities that pushes the envelope a bit. If you look way back in the history of Bristol, the banking that was applied [to the circuit] was something new and unique.”

Innovation first

As a 27-year veteran of the circuit, it’s notable that Caldwell believes that Bristol Motor Speedway’s history of innovation can be traced back long before his time. He initially joined as an intern while studying as a business student at nearby King University, and has now served as president of the historic track since January 2022.

The venue’s pillar of innovation was pioneered by Bruton Smith, who founded Speedway Motorsports, the company that owns and manages Bristol Motor Speedway, along with numerous others.

Bristol Motor Speedway is the fourth-largest sports venue in the United States and tenth largest in the world, with capacity for up to 153,000 fans

“Our founder, Bruton Smith, who passed away last year, was always on that cutting edge,” says Caldwell. “[He was always looking at] what can we do to innovate and push our sports to greater heights, whether it’s lighting at Charlotte Motor Speedway or adding condominiums to racetracks and creating first class facilities that rival other sports leagues.”

Lessons can always be learned from the past, and it was in the spirit of its founder’s inability to stand still that led Bristol Motor Speedway to push forward with the idea of a dirt race.

“We led that conversation [and] brought it up with Nascar,” explains Caldwell. “Obviously it had to be a collaborative effort. But we were the ones that said: ‘What if?’. Our CEO Marcus Smith really led the charge on that to say, ‘what if we tried something different here?’

“We need to innovate, we need to be progressive. This is a way to innovate and be progressive, but really go back to the roots of the sport.”

A road well travelled

Acknowledging the origins of the sport is important given that Nascar has been accused of abandoning its roots in recent times, especially in the years following its heyday in the 1990s. But now, the stock car racing series has been heading back to its heartland, with circuits like the North Wilkesboro Speedway returning to the calendar this season to host the All-Star Race.

There was also the unconventional move last year to sponsor the University of Alabama’s collegiate athletics department, not only targeting a traditional stronghold for the stock car racing series, but also a younger audience.  

Indeed, Nascar has been struggling to attract the demographic aged 18 to 49, with the rise in popularity of Formula One in the US seeing the global motorsport series start to edge out the traditional American favourite in TV viewing figures.

Bristol’s decision to introduce a dirt track came with these challenges in mind, especially as the race was struggling to break three million viewers in the lead up to the surface switch. Last season, the race peaked at 4.52 million viewers, with the average viewership up 20 per cent compared to the equivalent race the year before.

“We were able to run on Sunday and had great attendance and great viewership,” outlines Caldwell. “So it was a nice response from the fans, and a nice response from our television partners, which is another important piece. Overall, it was successful.”

It’s worth noting that the very first Bristol Dirt Race was hit by inclement weather, which meant the inaugural running of the event had to be pushed back to a Monday.

Caldwell expands: “We’re an outdoor event, weather can’t be controlled, but that first year we had some challenges and ended up having to move it to a Monday, which is not what we want.”

Crucially, the circuit has no long-term commitments to host a dirt race, which is an extensive operation logistically for a venue that also holds another Nascar event on a more conventional surface later in the year. But as long as the race is successful then Bristol is likely to remain the home of dirt racing in Nascar.

“It’s quite the undertaking – 2,300 truckloads of dirt come in to Bristol to transform this place into the dirt track that it is,” Caldwell explains. “Not to mention the number of workers we have on property after the race with pressure washers trying to clean all this dirt up and make sure that we’re ready to go.

“It’s about six weeks prior to the race that we have to start setting up and then it takes another four to six weeks for us to get everything cleaned up. So you’re taking the facility offline for about three months.”

Despite that, Caldwell acknowledges that the dirt race gives the circuit in a unique positioning.

“We were honoured to have been able to host this and continue to host it,” he says.

Securing the right partners

In order to keep running the dirt race, Bristol Motor Speedway needs to ensure it has the backing of sponsors to support the event. In supermarket chain Food City, the circuit has a long-term partner that understands the ebbs and flows of the motorsport industry.

“When you have a really good partner and you have a great relationship with that partner, I think it’s always important to be invested in that,” explains Caldwell. “I think we’re unique in that we’re in a smaller market where Bristol Motor Speedway is a big fish in a smaller pond, and Food City is in a very similar spot.

“They’re a regional grocery chain in this market but they’re a big part of this market. I think our goals and objectives and ways of doing business align, which is very important to a long-term partnership.”

With capacity for up to 153,000 fans, Bristol Motor Speedway is the fourth-largest sports venue in the United States and tenth largest in the world, so Caldwell is not exaggerating when he refers to the facility as a big fish.

Food City is now in its 31st year supporting Bristol Motor Speedway, predating Caldwell’s time as an intern at the circuit. When the idea of the dirt race was broached, Caldwell says the company was “extremely supportive” of trying new things.

“They’re passionate about bringing people to this region, showing people the Appalachian Highlands region that we have here in Tennessee,” he continues. “If it’s something that’s going to bring more people and keep people interested in things that are going on in Bristol, they’ve always been supportive.”

This long-standing partnership is also pertinent at a time when Nascar is trying out new race formats. The Chicago Street Race is pursuing a founding partner model, with the likes of McDonald’s and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois already signing on.

“It’s a smart way to do it for a new venue,” explains Caldwell. “I’m not sure if it works for a 67-year old facility, [unless we] did a redo like they did in Daytona years ago. But we’re very blessed with great long-time partners here, and that’s the model that works for us.”

What it ensures is that the foundations are in place for Bristol Motor Speedway to pursue innovation while staying true to its roots. With the third race now concluded, does Caldwell believe the experiment has been a success?

“Yes, it’s been a success,” he answers, before wryly adding: “So far.”


Related content