The History of Bristol Motor Speedway
Sometimes, history has a mind of its own and fate is just along for the ride.
1960s - The Beginning
When Bristol Motor Speedway opened in 1961, it could easily have a different name and in a different location.
The first proposed site for the speedway was in Piney Flats, Tenn., seven miles south of the current location.
But, according to Carl Moore, who built the track along with Larry Carrier and R.G. Pope, the idea met local opposition. The entrepreneurs were on record stating if anyone not in favor of the construction and existence of such a facility in the small community came forward to express their opposition, they would find another location. Some local citizens did, so, the track that could have been called Piney Flats International Speedway eventually was built on a diary farm less than 10 miles to the north Hwy. 11-E in Bristol.
Carrier and Moore had gotten the motivation after traveling to North Carolina in 1960 to attend the first event at Charlotte Motor Speedway – built by Charlotte businessman race promoter O. Bruton Smith (remember that name) and legendary driver Curtis Turner. It was from that trip the idea was spawned to build a speedway in Northeast Tennessee.
However, they wanted a smaller model of CMS, something with a more intimate setting and opted to erect a half-mile facility instead of mirroring the 1.5-mile track in Charlotte. It would reduce the amount of real estate needed for the project as well.
Work began on what was then called Bristol International Speedway in 1960 and it took approximately one year to finish. Carrier, Moore and Pope scratched many of their ideas for the track on envelopes and brown paper bags.
Purchase of the land on which BMS now sits, as well as construction of the track, cost approximately $600,000. The entire layout for BMS covered 100 acres and provided parking for more than 12,000 cars. The track itself was a perfect half-mile, measuring 60 feet wide on the straightaways, 75 feet wide in the turns, which were banked at 22 degrees.
Seating capacity for the very first NASCAR race at BMS, held on July 30, 1961, was 18,000. Prior to this race the speedway hosted weekly races.
Just hours before a full moon lit up the Northeast Tennessee hills, the first driver on the track for practice on July 27, 1961 was Tiny Lund in his Pontiac. Next was David Pearson.
Fred Lorenzen won the pole for the first race at BMS – the Volunteer 500 -- with a speed of 79.225 mph. The field was set with 42 starters, including defending series champion and most popular driver Rex White of Spartanburg, S.C. Also in the field, the first driver to drive No. 3 at Bristol, was 1960 rookie-of-the-year David Pearson.
How good was the Volunteer 500 field, July 30, 1961? When the drivers took the green, 11 of the 42 in the lineup, more than 25 percent, would be on the list when NASCAR named its 50 greatest drivers in 1998. In addition, three members of the local Utsman family, from just five miles down the road in Bluff City were in the field. A member of that family would play a role in one of the most memorable wins in Bristol history.
Country music star Brenda Lee, who was 17 at the time, sang the national anthem for the first race at BMS. The night before the event, July 29, she and the band The Casuals, entertained a group of dignitaries.
When the Volunteer 500 was over, Jack Smith of Spartanburg, S.C., would be forever written in the history books as the first winner. However, Smith wasn't in the driver's seat of the Pontiac when the race ended. The burly driver made the first 290 laps but then, with the extreme heat blistering his feet, turned over the duties to Johnny Allen, of Atlanta, to take over as relief driver. It was a scene that would play out for years at Bristol until better insulation in the cars, power steering and other things made the heat of the summer races easier to manage.
Allen never gave up the lead and, in fact, finished two ahead of second-place finisher Fireball Roberts. Ned Jarrett, Richard Petty and Buddy Baker completed the top five running order. The total purse for the race was $16,625 with the winner’s share a whopping $3,225. Of the 42 cars that started only 19 finished the brutal event.
For the next eight years, from the summer of 1961 through the middle of 1969, Bristol established itself as a place where drivers wanted to win because it mattered. One didn’t luck into a win at Bristol. One earned it.
As a result, success bred success. Of the 13 drivers won at Bristol in the first eight-and-a-half years, only two had less than 14 career wins and those two had 11 between them. All told, those drivers who made it to Victory Lane at Bristol in those early years won 645 NASCAR Cup races among them. Four of the 11, Bobby Allison, Junior Johnson, Pearson and Richard Petty, now have grandstand sections named in their honor at BMS.
After Allison’s Southeastern 500 win in the spring of 1969, track owners Carrier and Moore decided to make a change.
Between the March 23 Southeastern 500 and the July 20 Volunteer 500, Carrier and Moore had the track surface dug up and reshaped – with much steeper banking in the turns.
Carrier advertised the new turns to be banked at 36 degrees, the highest of most race tracks, regardless of size, in the country. It also added, somewhat, to the length of the track, moving it from a half-mile or 2,640 feet around where measured to .533 miles or 2,814 feet at the marks.
The results were immediately obvious, if nowhere else, than in the speed at which the hulking machines were getting around the new layout.
In the 17 NASCAR Cup races run at BMS since the 1961 opening, the official track record was the 88.669 mph lap that Bobby Isaac used to earn the pole for the Southeastern 500 in March of 1969. That was a tick more than nine miles per hour faster --- or about a mile per hour a year --- than the 79.225 mph posted by Fred Lorenzen in winning the first pole.
When the tour returned in July for the Volunteer 500, Cale Yarborough shattered the record by nearly 15 miles per hour with a pole-winning speed of 103.432.
David Pearson won first race on the new layout, leading 317 of the 500 laps and beating Bobby Isaac to the line by three laps.
The 1970s were ushered in with a sweep, not by one driver, but by a family. Brothers Donnie (Southeastern 500) and Bobby Allison (Volunteer 500) won the first two races of the new decade at Bristol.
A year later, July 11, 1971 to be exact, Charlie Glotzbach made history in more ways than one.
In a Junior Johnson-prepared machine, Glotzbach started second and finished first, capturing the fourth, and last, win of his career.
He got some help in pulling off the feat. Still suffering the effects of an accident in Charlotte earlier in the year, Glotzbach turned to Friday Hassler for relief driving duties. Hassler lost the lead three times to Bobby Allison, but held on the final 144 laps for a three-lap win
The car had led 411 of 500 laps. Allison (46) and Richard Petty (43) were the only other drivers who managed to take the point that day. Aided by the absence of cautions (that’s right, no cautions), Glotzbach/Hassler took the checkered flag in a race that lasted just two hours, 38 minutes and 12 seconds at a speed of 101.074 mph -- a race record that stands today.
It was the first model win for the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and the first manufacturer win for Chevrolet since 1967.
In 1973, Benny Parsons won the Volunteer 500, his only win of the season on the way to winning the Cup Championship.
He did not lead all 500 laps, but Parsons was so dominant that he even was able to call in a relief driver.
Knowing the tough conditions of Bristol, Parsons asked local driver John A. Utsman (Bluff City, Tenn.) to take some practice laps in the car earlier in the weekend just in case. That foresight paid dividends. With just a few less than 200 laps remaining Parsons turned over the wheel to Utsman to keep it out of trouble and in the lead. With around 80 laps left and a huge distance on the rest of the field, Utsman returned to the pits, again swapped positions with Parsons who then took the L.G. DeWitt-owned machine to victory lane, seven laps ahead of second-place L.D. Ottinger.
Yarborough and Bobby Allison, the only other drivers to lead laps, finished 19 th and 20 th after being involved in an accident.
The conditions were so challenging, only five drivers went the distance without relief help.
Despite two of the biggest stars in racing sweeping the 1974 (Cale Yarborough) and 1975 (Richard Petty) seasons at Bristol, making of go of the 15-year-old facility was a challenge to say the least.
As a result, the speedway was sold after the 1976 season to businessmen Lanny Hester and Gary Baker. In the spring of 1978 the track name was changed to Bristol International Raceway.
April 2, 1978, in the first race under the new moniker, Darrell Waltrip earned the first of his 12 career wins at Bristol.
While Hester and Baker quickly realized there were challenges in running a facility the size of Bristol with a desire to grow, they pledged to press on.
But press on they did and with the challenges of selling tickets in the heat of the summer continuing to mount, Hester and Baker decided that night time was the right time and August 26, 1978, the Volunteer 500 was run under the lights for the first “Night Race” in Bristol history.
It seemed only fitting that under less-than-blinding lights, Cale Yarborough, who had dominated so much of the 1970s at Bristol, led 327 of 500 laps to win in front of an estimated crowd of 30,000 – more than double the 12,000 estimated to have witnessed the Volunteer 400 (100 laps shaved because of the energy crisis) the year before.
Historic things continue to happen the next spring when an estimated crowd of 26,000 saw a rookie from Kannapolis, N.C., named Dale Earnhardt earn the first win of his Cup career and the first of nine at Bristol.
The decade of the 1980s was ushered in with wins by Earnhardt (March 30, 1980) and Cale Yarborough (August 23). It was Yarborough’s ninth and final win at Bristol – in the last race he would run on the high banks.
Waltrip took the track by the throat in 1981 and would hold on for years.
March 13, 1982, Bristol International Speedway hosted its first NASCAR Grand National (NASCAR Nationwide Series) event. Despite being dominated by David Pearson (90 laps led) and Dale Earnhardt (40 laps led), Phil Parsons led 11 including the most important one – the last one – to win the Southeastern 500.
But while things were going pretty well on the track and crowds progressively increased in size, changes continued to come.
Less than a month after the NASCAR teams left town, on April 1, 1982 Lanny Hester sold his half of the speedway to Warner Hodgdon. Barely a year later, July 6, 1983, Hodgdon completed 100 percent purchase of Bristol, as well as Nashville Speedway, in a buy-sell agreement with Baker.
Hodgdon named one of the original owners of the facility, Larry Carrier, as the track's general manager. Less than three years later, on January 11, 1985, as a result of many of his other businesses hitting hard times, Hodgdon filed for bankruptcy.
Following Hodgdon’s application for bankruptcy, Larry Carrier formally took possession of the speedway and covered all outstanding debts.
Meanwhile, Waltrip’s domination of Bristol continued as he won seven Cup races in a row from March 29, 1981 through April 1, 1984. The longest such streak in Bristol history and a mark that still stands today.
Other 1980s Milestones
- April 6, 1986, Russell William “Rusty” Wallace led 174 laps, including the final 101, to win the Valleydale 500, the first Cup victory of his career and the first of nine at Bristol.
- April 10, 1988, Bill Elliott earned the first short-track win of his NASCAR Cup career which helped propel him to the series title that season.
Young star Davey Allison started the 1990s with a bang at Bristol. The 29-year-old son of Bobby and the next generation of the famed Alabama Gang clipped Mark Martin by eight inches at the finish line to win the Valleydale Meats 500, April 8, 1990.
The drama did not stop there. When NASCAR returned to Bristol in August, Ernie Irvan, driver of the local, Abingdon, Va.-based Morgan-McClure Motorsports became the third driver to earn his first career win on the high banks.
Irvan and Dale Earnhardt led 470 of the 500 laps (with Earnhardt leading 350) but Irvan fought hard in the closing laps to earn the elusive win for MMM who had been so close for so long.
The win came in front of an estimated crowd of more than 58,000 fans as Carrier continued with his plans to expand the size of the facility, which had increased by nearly 25,000 in the five years since Carrier had re-assumed ownership.
A year after Irvan’s dramatic victory, Alan Kulwicki came back from two laps down to earn the first of two consecutive wins at Bristol in the 1991 Bud 500.
April 5, 1992 was significant on several levels. It was the first Food City 500, a sponsorship that continues today. Kulwicki dominated, winning at Bristol for the second consecutive race, the final one on an asphalt surface as well as the last one to be run on bias-ply tires.
Struggling with the increasing traction of the tires and the speed of the cars, Carrier was faced with patching or applying a new coating to the track every couple of races as those factors combined with the high banks of the track created almost continuous challenges of keeping the racing surface intact.
His solution came in the spring and summer of that year and with the Aug. 29, 1992 Bud 500, Bristol became the first speedway to host a NASCAR Cup event that boasted a track surface of all concrete.
Darrell Waltrip led 247 of 500 laps to earn his 12 th and final win at Bristol – a mark that still stands today.
Other 1990s Milestones:
- Hearts were heavy April 4, 1993 as Rusty Wallace led 376 of 500 laps to win the Food City 500. Wallace dedicated the win to fallen friend and defending Cup Series Champion Alan Kulwicki who perished along with three others in a plane crash as they traveled to Bristol three days earlier.
- April 2, 1995 -- Jeff Gordon won the first of four consecutive Food City 500s
- Aug. 26, 1995 – Terry Labonte and Dale Earnhardt got together on the final lap of the August night race, sending Labonte spinning – but winning – and to Victory Lane.
On Jan. 22, 1996, Larry Carrier sold the speedway to Bruton Smith and Speedway Motorsports, Inc., at a purchase price of $26 million. At the time of the sale, the facility seated approximately 71,000.
One of the first moves Smith made was name long-time R.J. Reynolds Sports Marketing Executive Jeff Byrd as General Manager of the Bristol facility.
It was a decision that would benefit not only Speedway Motorsports, Inc., and the facility, but the entire Tri-Cities region as well.
On May 28, 1996 the track's name was officially changed to Bristol Motor Speedway. By August of 1996, 15,000 seats had been added bringing the seating capacity to 86,000.
Under Byrd’s leadership BMS continued to grow and by April of 1997 was the largest sports arena in Tennessee and one of the largest in the country, seating 118,000. The speedway also boasted 22 new skyboxes.
For the August 1998 Goody's 500 the speedway featured more than 131,000 grandstand seats and 100 skyboxes. Improvements to the speedway since Smith took possession were in excess of $50 million.
With the explosive growth of the Bristol Motor Speedway outside the racing surface, the decade of the 90s ended with an explosion of its own on the track.
In a near duplication of the end of the 1995 August race, Terry Labonte and Dale Earnhardt again were battling each other on the final lap for the win. When Earnhardt tapped Labonte to send him spinning and Earnhardt to Victory Lane for his ninth and final Bristol win, it sent the crowd spinning as well in the finish voted more than once as the most memorable in BMS history.
A New Decade
The seating capacity for the Food City 500 in March of 2000 was 147,000 as the Kulwicki Terrace and Kulwicki Tower were completed.
It was a big weekend for the increasingly expanding track as Rusty Wallace, who 14 years earlier earned his first career in on the high banks of Bristol, picked up his 50 th career win in the Food City 500 March 26, 2000.
A year later, in the Food City 500 (March 25, 2001) Elliott Sadler, driving for the famed Wood Brothers, battled John Andretti, driving for Richard Petty, and earned his first career Cup win. It kicked off a string of first-time Bristol winners as he was followed, in order, by Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch.
Busch’s win in the 2002 Food City 500 put him in elite company with Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Ernie Irvan and Elliott Sadler in earning their first career win at Bristol.
Off the track, as has been the case since the SMI purchase of BMS, improvements continued in and around the Speedway. The 2002 season saw the addition of a long-awaited infield pedestrian tunnel, allowing access into and out of the infield during on-track activity. Also in 2002, a new building was constructed in the infield to house driver meetings.
The 2002 season also witnessed the christening of a new BMS Victory Lane atop the newly constructed building. Busch’s win made him the first NASCAR Winston Cup driver to take the checkered flag and celebrate in the new BMS winner's circle.
Additional improvements in 2002 included new scoreboards located on the facing of the suites in Turns 2 and 3.
On Monday, August, 26, 2002, work began on an ambitious project that would see the entire backstretch, including the Speedway’s remaining concrete seating, demolished in favor of a new backstretch grandstand that would increase the track’s seating capacity to an estimated 155,000. The backstretch now includes three levels of seating and features 52 luxury skybox suites.
In March of 2004, Kurt Busch collected his third straight win on the high banks by capturing the Food City 500. In August of that year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his first trip to Bristol’s Victory Lane in the Food City 250 Busch Series race. He did not wait long to make a return visit, winning the Sharpie 500 the following night and completing the Bristol sweep.
By August of 2005, construction was complete on the last 35 luxury suites at Bristol Motor Speedway, finishing the exterior look fans still see today.
The addition of 50 extra laps could not stop Kyle Busch from taking home top honors in the 2006 Sharpie MINI 300 Busch Series event. His brother, Kurt, completed the Busch brothers’ dominating weekend by collecting his fourth Bristol Cup Series win in the Food City 500. In August, Mark Martin became the first driver to win Bristol races in each of NASCAR’s top touring series when he won the Craftsman Truck Series O’Reilly Auto Parts 200.
March 2007 brought several milestones to the World’s Fastest Half Mile. The Food City 500 marked the 50 th consecutive NEXTEL Cup Series race sellout at Bristol Motor Speedway, a streak that began in August of 1982. The Food City 500 also featured the debut of NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow. The new car, a redesign of the race vehicle used in the Cup Series, was promoted as a step forward in terms of safety and more competitive racing. Kyle Busch claimed the checkered flag by half-a-car length over Jeff Burton, and in doing so, was the last driver to win on Bristol’s original concrete surface.
On Monday, March 26, 2007, work crews began removing the racing surface, a move necessary due to the age and wear beginning to show around the tricky Tennessee track. The new surface was completed in time for Todd Bodine to make the first laps around the facility during Craftsman Truck Series testing on July 23. A series of late model events was contested throughout the summer to ready the new concrete for the August race weekend.
Johnny Benson was the first NASCAR Series driver to do a celebratory burnout on the new surface after he won the O'Reilly 200 Truck Series event. Kasey Kahne (Food City 250) and Carl Edwards (Sharpie 500) won races dominated by three-wide racing and exciting door-to-door duels.
In March of 2008, Jeff Burton led just two laps but won the Food City 500. Teammates Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer finished second and third, respectively, to give car owner Richard Childress the first 1-2-3 finish for a “team” at Bristol and the first of his organization’s career.
In the August Sharpie 500, Kyle Busch finished second despite leading 415 of the 500 laps after a late-race nudge from Carl Edwards. It did not end there as the two “got together” on the cool-down lap after the race and then continued their sparring in the post-race interviews over the BMS public address system.
In 2010, Kyle Busch became the first driver in NASCAR history to win all three of NASCAR’s major national divisions in one weekend, capturing the O’Reilly Auto Parts 200 Camping World Truck Series race, the Food City 250 Nationwide Series race and the IRWIN Tools Night Race.
On Oct. 17, 2010, after battling illness for several months, BMS President and General Manager Jeff Byrd passed away. The man who led BMS through explosive growth, garnering honor on top of honor in the process, left a huge void.
In 2011, Bristol Motor Speedway celebrated its 50th Anniversary.
Following the March 2012 Food City 500, Speedway Motorsports Chairman and CEO Bruton Smith responded to the increasing fan expression of opinions regarding they style of racing at Bristol Motor Speedway. The main focus of the reaction concentrated specifically on the races since the track resurfacing project in 2007.
After 10 days of listening to fan feeback, Mr. Smith announced changes would be made. April 25, joined by Speedway Motorsports President Marcus Smith, BMS Executive Vice President and General Manager Jerry Caldwell and all-time Bristol win leader Darrell Waltrip, Mr. Smith announced the banking in the upper groove of the race track would be reduced to the same degree as the middle of the surface. The project was designed to eliminate the third groove as a viable option and create tighter racing.
Construction, or destruction, of the surface took nearly seven weeks. June 12 and 13 Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company engineers conducted a test of the new surface with NASCAR starts Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton and Tony Stewart, former Bristol winners all.