August 22, 2008 7:55 pm EDT

The Woodstock of Speed
By Bob Margolis,

BRISTOL, Tenn. – They return here every year, these dedicated disciples of speed.

Over 160,000 strong, they descend upon stock car racing's Mecca – Bristol Motor Speedway.

They arrive in RVs, some so elaborate and expensive they rival the half-million dollar models used by Cup drivers; others are so old and ramshackle you marvel how they even made it down the highway.

Some come by car, either choosing to camp under the stars or, if they're lucky enough, have scored one of the overpriced motel rooms nearby.

They park in fields and on hillsides in a crazy patchwork that defies description.

However they get here, they've come to the northeast corner of Tennessee, a hundred miles from even one town most of us have ever heard of, as the lucky ones, the fortunate few – that's right, the fortunate 160,000, because if they sold more tickets, more would come – to see one thing: the Woodstock of speed.

Year after year, fans overwhelmingly vote the August race under the lights at Bristol as the one race they want to see – the one track they have to visit.

For NASCAR fans, Bristol is Yankee Stadium – the place you have to go to before you die – or, in the case of Yankee Stadium, before it's torn down.

Tickets are always at a premium and remain so even during a year when we've seen empty seats at nearly every track. Even at Daytona in July there were empty seats – about 50,000.

That won't be the case Saturday night.

Despite its location – the closest major city is Knoxville, 111 miles away – some 160,000 people will flock to this half-mile bullring to see 43 cars bump and bang each other for 500 laps. It's the kind of racing that defines NASCAR – fast, close and side-by-side.

What it lacks in the lore of Daytona or the sheer speed of Talladega, Bristol makes up for with nail-biting intensity. Packing 43 cars on a half-mile oval, then telling them to beat each other to the finish line makes this more of a heavyweight fight than a race.

"It's very physical and very competitive," said Jeff Burton, who won here in March. "It is an emotionally draining race as well as being physically draining. There is never a chance to take a break."

Bristol brings out the best in drivers and, more often, the worst.

Who of those who saw it will ever forget Dale Earnhardt taking out Terry Labonte on the final lap to win the 1999 race?

Things have changed a bit since then. The track was resurfaced last year, which has made it easier to drive on and thus has taken away some of the need to push your opponent out of the way.

Some fans complain that the racing isn't as good – that the old Bristol is gone, replaced by a newer, more polished version that's a departure from what made the place so special in the first place.

Drivers disagree. They love the new surface.

"Guys aren't running over each other to pass each other," Tony Stewart explained. "You can go and race people instead of the normal, just-bump-people-out-of-the-way-and-go-on-by style we used to have. You aren't having to root guys out of the way."

Still, the potential for multi-car wrecks, short tempers and confrontations between drivers remains, and that's why fans go crazy for Bristol.

They went nuts when Jeff Gordon, after getting spun out by Matt Kenseth, responded by shoving Kenseth when the race was over. It's where they saw Dale Jarrett, the respected veteran, read hotshot Shane Hmiel the riot act after Hmiel tried to strong-arm Jarrett in a Nationwide race.

Bristol's entire persona reinforces every stereotype used when comparing NASCAR to professional wrestling, because more often than not it's as much a soap opera as it is a race.

And when it's over and you're leaving the track, navigating your way through the darkness driving slower than a grandmother using a walker, and as you pass the columns of smoke from the campfires, and as you hear the sound of loud music – usually 1970s Southern rock – echoing through what's come to be known as Thunder Valley, a bit of sadness rushes over you.

The party is over. Sure, there's another next weekend in California. But it's not quite the same.

Veteran motorsports writer Bob Margolis is Yahoo! Sports' NASCAR reporter.