“Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!” Bristol Motor Speedway
Living in East Tennessee, Bristol Motor Speedway (BMS) has become a highly recognizable map marker for identifying the area, and that means NASCAR. Now, I have never professed to know anything about the sport of racing. In fact, years ago, I actually believed that the “pace car” was sponsored by Pace® Picante Sauce!
With that in mind, following the untimely death of our beloved 10-year-old Lab, Buoy, earlier this summer, a friend of mine lent me a copy of the novel “The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein. He told me that when I was ready, the novel would help my grief.
Narrated by a dog, Enzo, the book takes a look at life through analogies that actually parallel life experiences with racing, and although often sad, it is a great read. The book references a different racing series, yet throughout the New York Times bestselling novel, I was reminded of the late BMS President and General Manager, Jeff Byrd.
Ironically, Byrd passed away in 2010, following a valiant fight with the same type of cancer that also plagues the wife in Stein’s novel. This past May, Byrd was inducted posthumously into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, and his legacy, especially among the fans, certainly lives on at BMS.
If Byrd were alive, certainly, he would revel in the excitement of the upcoming NASCAR races at Bristol and smile at his legacy. Not only was Byrd a role model and a mentor to Executive Vice-President and General Manager of BMS, Jerry Caldwell, but the late great was also his father-in-law.
“I think we all become defined by influential people in our lives,” said Caldwell. “And, they partly make up who we are and what we are, and I was so blessed to have the experience of having one of those individuals be Jeff Byrd. For me, he was not only a mentor and a boss but also a father-in-law. So, I got to know him very well, and quite frankly, for the current job that I’m in, I learned from the best!”
According to Caldwell, Byrd was an excellent racetrack promoter, and he always listened to the fans. He also knew that it was very important to build a great team that shares your vision for the long-term.
“That’s what Jeff did,” explained Caldwell. “Outside of his family, his greatest legacy is the team that he assembled here at Bristol Motor Speedway, and I am so blessed to have them still with me here as we all, together, lead Bristol Motor Speedway into the future.”
Deemed “one of the 10 events to see before you die,” by Car and Driver Magazine, the BMS night race has always been synonymous with excitement. Surely, Byrd is smiling in heaven, especially this month, as his legacy and BMS team, under Caldwell’s leadership, embarks on changes at the track with what is being referred to as “history” with the August NASCAR race series.
“There’s no other place like Bristol Motor Speedway on this planet,” said Caldwell. “It depends on who you ask, but with no question, it’s structural. You’re not going to see anything else like it. It’s a motorsport coliseum with a 160,000 people, the second largest spectator facility in the United States, and one of the largest in the world.”
With all of that said, Caldwell still declares that the best asset for BMS is its history and the people of this region that truly make it a special and unique experience.
Over the years, BMS has always listened to and respected the fans’ wishes in regard to the facility and the experience.
“When Jeff was here, he coined a motto, ‘exceed expectations,’” said Caldwell. “The thing that we do every day when we step foot on this property is to live that out… Ultimately, when the fans show up and walk through that gate, that’s who’s paying our check. Those are our bosses sitting in the stands, so we’ve gotta listen to ‘em.”
In 2007, BMS changed the racing surface. The track was in dire need of improvements due to age, but this also allowed the opportunity to change the design of the track. Caldwell noted that the actual cars of NASCAR also changed during this time, along with other things.
However, after several years, fans became discouraged with the “lack of action on the track.” After listening to the fans through a fan advisory board, correspondence, and a plethora of communication tools to obtain feedback, ideas were generated, and the prevailing fan requests related to the track.
“There were lots of different variables going into the action on the track. The one that we controlled was the track surface,” explained Caldwell. “Bruton Smith, our chairman and CEO, said, ‘Well, let’s let the fans speak. If they want us to change the racetrack, we’ll make some changes to the racetrack,’” said Caldwell.
Earlier this summer, the top groove was eliminated, and the expectation is that the drivers will stay around the middle and the bottom of the track, which means that they will all be closer together. Although a few drivers, including Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton, and Clint Bowyer, did experience a trial Goodyear Tire test on the track in June, according to Caldwell, they have only said that it has definitely changed.
“They will not be going up there on that high groove, so it’s narrowed our racing surface,” said Caldwell. “There’s an old saying that goes, ‘if the drivers love it, the fans probably aren’t going to, and if the fans love it, the drivers probably aren’t going to,’ so, I don’t know that the drivers are overly excited about the changes to the racetrack, but they understand why we were making them.”
The August series with the 20th anniversary of the Food City 250 on Friday evening, August 24th, and the IRWIN Tools Night Race on Saturday, August 25, 2012, will give fans their first look. Caldwell explained that this August represents history at BMS, as it is only the 4th time there has been a major change to the track.
“It’s going to be an historic event, and we’ll see how it plays out,” said Caldwell. “We’ve gotta focus on the things that we can control, and you leave the rest of it up to the good Lord.”
For information about tickets, visit www.bristolmotorspeedway.com