History of the Food City 500: First BMS Spring Race was technically held in October and Ned Jarrett claimed his 1961 Cup Series crown
Team BMS also works to earn the famed title "World's Fastest Half-Mile" in the 1960s
When one takes a quick glance at the NASCAR Cup Series winners' list from Bristol Motor Speedway, there are a couple of side notes attached to the track's first two seasons - 1961 and 1962.
For all of you serious stat geeks and track history buffs, your mind is about to be blown.
Technically, in 1961 and 1962, NASCAR's second stop in East Tennessee during each of those seasons was actually to conduct the race that we now refer to as the Spring Race - the Southeastern 500 -- or better known today as the Food City 500.
Yes, most people think Jack Smith, with assistance from Johnny Allen, was the inaugural winner of the first ever Spring Race. That event, known as the Volunteer 500 at the time, was held in July of 1961 and it is technically what BMS officials commonly refer to these days as America's Night Race.
The 1961 Southeastern 500 was actually held in late October that year. The race was won by popular Virginia driver Joe Weatherly and it was surrounded by championship implications. The championship points structure was somewhat complicated back in those days as a few races paid quite a bit more points than others.
You can put your calculator away. The main thing you need to know is that to successfully defend his title from the year before, Rex White needed a victory that afternoon and also needed rival Ned Jarrett to have a bad race. Well, White did all he could do by finishing second to the super-fast Weatherly, but Jarrett managed a sixth place finish and in doing so locked away the season long championship crown.
So it wasn't officially the stock car racing post-season as we know it now, or like we will see in mid-September when BMS hosts the first cut off race of the 2020 NASCAR Playoffs, but that was Bristol Motor Speedway's first and only true taste of NASCAR season-long championship drama unfolding on its high-banked half-mile speedway.
You see, shortly after that race BMS ownership decided for a variety of reasons that the Southeastern 500 would actually be a better fit if it was held in the spring. NASCAR gave track president Larry Carrier and his group of associates its blessing and the race moved to the Spring in 1963 and has been held in March, April or May ever since.
So, in a nutshell, that's how the famed BMS Spring Race was born - in grand championship style. In October.
As the NASCAR Cup Series prepares for its return to Bristol Motor Speedway on May 31st for the milestone 60th running of the Food City 500, the modern day relative of the Southeastern 500, race teams will be working hard to earn victories and gain valuable regular season points in the new era of NASCAR, which includes three stages during the event, with stage breaks at 125 laps, 250 laps and then onto 500 in the winner-take-all 250-lap final stage.
No matter the era or the NASCAR rules, one thing remains constant. Bristol Motor Speedway is still the tough old hombre that it has always been, challenging the best stock car racers in the world and bringing out their best as they try to navigate the .533-mile high-banked all-concrete bullring for a grueling 500 laps.
Speaking of the ultra-fast half-mile oval, one of the most interesting tidbits from those early years of the Food City 500 was the beginning of the battle behind the scenes among racing's top short track promoters to officially claim the moniker of the "World's Fastest Half-Mile."
Carrier and his team made it well know that they were after the title and even promoted it during their pre-race ticket pushes.
"Being the fastest was very important to Larry," said Speedway ownership partner Carl Moore, as told by noted racing historian David McGee in his popular book, Tales of Bristol Motor Speedway. "He made getting that title a priority."
Bristol's main rival for the title was a high-banked half-mile paved track just over the mountain in North Carolina called Asheville-Weaverville Speedway. The two tracks traded speed records in the 80-mph range over several years, but Carrier was determined to leave absolutely no doubt that Bristol Motor Speedway was indeed the world's fastest half-mile short track.
In a press conference in 1969, Carrier announced his plan to totally reconfigure the track and give the banking a lift to the 30-degree range. In the next race, Cale Yarborough powered to a pole-winning speed of 103.432 mph, which was 13 mph faster than Asheville-Weaverville and 15 mph faster than any other half-mile track. In fact, seven cars topped 100 mph in that weekend's qualifying, solidifying the claim even more.
Asheville-Weaverville hosted only one more NASCAR Cup Series race after that and didn't threaten the new BMS mark. The N.C.-track became a victim of urban sprawl as the site where the racetrack once stood is now the location of the North Buncombe High School.
Carrier could officially proclaim BMS as "The World's Fastest Half-Mile" and the moniker remains proudly displayed today affixed in bright red letters on the suites overlooking the backstretch.
"It's the perfect designation for a short track that races like a superspeedway," McGee said. "It remains an integral part of the track's identity, marketing, and fan appeal."
Today the track qualifying record for the Cup Series is a jaw-dropping 131.668 mph, set by two-time Bristol winner Denny Hamlin in August 2016.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Food City 500 will be held for the first time in history without fans in the grandstands. Everyone is encouraged to tune in to coverage of the race on FS1 or PRN at 3:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, May 31st. Many of the greatest stock car racers in the world will compete, including BMS dominator Kyle Busch, who is going for his third Food City 500 win in a row and sixth overall, Chase Elliott, three-time Bristol winner Matt Kenseth, 2019 Night Race winner Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Blaney, among others.
NASCAR and Bristol Motor Speedway have developed a comprehensive plan reviewed by state and local health agencies to protect the health and safety of the competitors, crew members, employees and broadcast crews that will produce the race. The plan includes limiting overall personnel, pre-event screening, social distancing on site, using personal protection equipment and sanitizing areas of the facility both before and during the event.
Also included on NASCAR's revised race event schedule without spectators is the Cheddar's 300 presented by Alsco NASCAR Xfinity Series Race, rescheduled for Saturday, May 30 at 3:30 p.m. That race also will be broadcast on both FS1 and PRN.
"As America fights its way back from the pandemic and the economic shutdown, we're proud to be one of the first major sports back on television," said Jerry Caldwell, BMS executive vice president and general manager. "The 60th running of the Food City 500 will be history making as NASCAR is uniquely positioned to return to competition for its dedicated fan base and we're proud to do our part at Bristol Motor Speedway. We ask every race fan to please tune in to FS1 and PRN for Saturday's Cheddar's 300 presented by Alsco and the milestone 60th running of the Food City 500 Sunday from the comfort of their homes."
Food City 500 weekend ticketholders on file may choose to receive an event credit for the full amount paid plus an additional 20 percent, or choose to receive a full refund of their purchase price.* The event credit can be applied toward any admissions, including, but not limited to, grandstand seating, suite and premium tickets, camping, fan hospitality and pit passes. The 120-percent event credit can be used during the remaining 2020 or 2021 seasons for a NASCAR sanctioned event conducted with fans at any Speedway Motorsports owned track, subject to availability.
Fans are advised to keep their current tickets and asked to complete an exchange request form at www.bristolmotorspeedway.com to start the process. Ticket office representatives will follow up with fans within four weeks regarding the status of their request. Ticketholders should email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-866-415-4158 with further questions.
*Shipping, handling and services fees not included in event credits or refunds. Ticketholders have 30 days to request a refund; those who do not request a refund will automatically receive the 120-percent credit