Q&A with BMS general manager Jerry Caldwell and Speedway Motorsports senior vice president of operations and development Steve Swift
BMS executive vice president and general manager Jerry Caldwell and Speedway Motorsports senior vice president of operations and development, Steve Swift answered questions from the media today as the dirt transformation process continues at Bristol Motor Speedway for the NASCAR Cup Series Food City Dirt Race on Sunday, March 28 and the Pinty’s Truck Race on Dirt on Saturday night, March 27.
Q: What’s the timeline to get all of the dirt in?
Jerry Caldwell: As you can see it is going to take a while. We haven’t done this in 20 years. We are thankful to have Steve Swift leading a tremendous team of talented folks and he has done a tremendous amount of research on how to make sure we are doing this the right way and advancements that have been made in the past 20 years. We very much appreciate our partners at Baker Construction and our friends at John Deere to help us get all this ready to roll.
Q: What has been the response from the web cam that you all put up recently?
Jerry Caldwell: It’s wonderful. We’ve seen a tremendous response from people clicking on the cam to watch from home. A number of folks in the community who haven’t come to a race in a long time but are so interested to see how this place transforms. I think it’s just a testament to the history and to this place at Bristol Motor Speedway, of whether it’s a dirt track 20 years ago, a football game, the largest NASCAR events in the country or turning it back into a dirt facility. It’s special and something people want to see and be a part of.
Q: What was the reaction in the sport and with Food City when you decided to do a dirt race?
Jerry Caldwell: People love it. You get some funny looks when it first came up. That’s OK. That’s the way all great things come together. Food City has been fabulous, they have been tremendously supportive and excited about welcoming people back to our region not only during this COVID-19 season, but to welcome people back into Bristol Motor Speedway.
Q: What has been the response for the World of Outlaws and Dirt Nationals?
Jerry Caldwell: Just blown away by the response. When we opened for the Dirt Nationals which is the weekend before the Cup race, we had a tremendous response from both fans and participants wanting to come see that. We had 1,200 cars, we filled that event in less than 12 hours from a participant standpoint. That speaks the to the excitement around that event and those folks are coming from all over the country.
Q: Will the spectators be socially-distanced at the NASCAR races?
Jerry Caldwell: We will still be socially distanced. Now that we’ve reached capacity, we know. Now we start placing the people in the stands and we will know the real numbers. It’s the new way of doing business in the sports and entertainment world right now. You sell the tickets but you can’t really have an open grandstand to let people select their tickets because we have to make sure everyone is socially distanced and then we will reach out and let people know where their seats are.
Q: Do you expect a similar crowd size like last year, around 30,000?
Jerry Caldwell: We are going to have in excess of 30,000, yeah.
Q: Are you proud of the fact that you were one of the first sports to have a large number of spectators last year?
Jerry Caldwell: It’s the staff, the region, the state and county trusting us to do it. We are blessed with a tremendous team here at Bristol Motor Speedway. And from the leadership with Bruton and Marcus of saying we know how to do this and we can do it the right way. It starts at the top and comes all the way down, but we are not able to do it without the support of the state and Sullivan county. They have been tremendous partners for us to get back. I think its been important for the country. We were proud to be one of the first. Yes, it was quite the step. We had leadership willing to do that in Bruton and Marcus, now we will go, and we will do it in a safe and responsible way and it’s an important thing for the country and for our sport. We were proud to have some of the largest crowds in the country to date during all of this.
Q: Are NASCAR drivers giving any input about the track?
Jerry Caldwell: We’ve had lots of conversations – Steve Swift and his team have had lots of conversations with industry stakeholders to make sure we get input and learn from everyone about how we can do this and make sure we do it the right way and I know we will.
Q: It’s got to be pretty wild for you to see this dirt going down right now?
Jerry Caldwell: Yes, it is. But it’s like a lot of other things Bruton and Marcus have done here, whether it’s putting down the football field or building grandstands in a few months like we’ve done in the past or hanging the largest center hung TV in the air, this is just another one of those events where you don’t believe it until you see it. Even when you hear it, and then come out and see it, it really is exciting. I can’t wait to get this place full and I know the fans are going to love it.
Q: When will you announce the format of the NASCAR races?
Jerry Caldwell: We will turn to NASCAR for that, they really call the shots on that stuff it’s their event to run. We look forward to announcing that soon.
Q: Have you enjoyed watching the Chili Bowl recently?
Jerry Caldwell: It’s another testament to people liking new things. I love seeing all of these NASCAR drivers out there trying out the Chili Bowl. I think it’s good for our sport and our country. I think it’s good to get back to doing things in a safe and responsible way. I think It gives us all a sense of hope and that light at the end of the tunnel.
Q: Will the drivers be allowed to test before the race weekend?
Jerry Caldwell: NASCAR will look at that and decide who tests and who doesn’t. We will announce that if we know something. Another exciting part of this is the Pinty’s Truck Race on Dirt, which is the day before the Food City Dirt Race. I believe we will reach a sell out for that race. When is the last time you had back to back sell outs in a NASCAR weekend?
Q: How thick is the base and how much is the banking going to be?
Steve Swift: We are going to have varying thickness as you can kind of see. We couldn’t just put a layer of dirt down right on top of the concrete because that would be way too steep for the dirt races and would create way too much speed. We’ve shallowed it up and we will be at 19 degrees when it is all said and done. The thickest fills will be 9 and 10 feet and our smallest fill will be a foot.
Q: Are you on schedule?
Steve Swift: We are. It’s never a great time to place dirt in the middle of the winter. So far we’ve been blessed. We started Monday and we are way ahead of where we thought we would be with the weather and we are on schedule and pushing forward. We are really just getting the bugs worked out this week, which is what we had planned for this week and we are moving along a lot better than we thought, so everything is going really well.
Q: It appears that the safer barriers have been removed, can you talk about that?
Steve Swift: We worked with NASCAR and talked about all the safety parameters that we could. With the safer walls it depends on rebound, and how it collapses when it is hit, and how it comes back. Working with NASCAR and the University of Nebraska, with the speeds that will be created with the embankments being a lot less and what the cars will be able to do, the safer barriers are not necessary. If you are familiar with the trucks running at Eldora in the past, they didn’t have safer barriers up there. The speeds here will be comparable to the speeds that the Trucks had at Eldora.
Q: What has your research been like, have you reached out to any other dirt tracks?
Steve Swift: As a company Speedway Motorsports has three dirt tracks in the fleet, one in Charlotte, one in Texas and one in Las Vegas, and they run minimal schedules with events like the World of Outlaws, so we have some background in dirt. None of them have concrete underneath them at a world famous half-mile race track however, so that has made this a little more difficult to tackle that animal in lieu of just plain dirt racing. We have been fortunate; there have been a lot of people who have been more than willing to help, especially a lot of the local tracks around here like Bulls Gap, Marysville, Seymour and Wytheville, all have been more than helpful to give wisdom and tell us what type of dirt we are dealing with and what they deal with when they run their events. We’ve done a lot of research. We’ve reached out to California, Iowa, Missouri and so many others, the list is really long. They are all happy to help us and see this as a big win for the dirt world. To see the big series racing on dirt is exciting for the dirt world as well.
Q: Is there anyone here working on this now that was here 20 years ago?
Steve Swift: Quite a few actually. Baker Construction Services was the group that placed the dirt 20 years ago here and they have been a huge asset in finding resources and helping us find dirt. What we have learned with the advancement in technology is that the placement of dirt is a lot easier now compared to 20 years ago and there are a lot of systems on this equipment that makes it more precise and accurate to put the dirt in. We have a great partnership with Meade and the need for equipment is not a problem, so we have whatever equipment we need at hand and Meade has been great to supply that for us. There’s still a lot of familiar faces still here working on it.
Q: Have you reached out to anyone for tips and guidance?
Steve Swift: We have. One thing we have found is there are a lot of ‘Dirt Doctors’ out there and they have analyzed what makes a good dirt track, a dusty and non-dusty track and what kind of track surface makes for good and fast racing. We have taken advantage of that and actually sourced a new surface dirt for this race based on what we’ve learned from them and what we’ve learned over the past 20 years.
Q: Where did you get the dirt from?
Steve Swift: This dirt going down now is the base layer and it won’t be raced on. This is the dirt that was on the track back in 2001. We store it off Hwy 394 on one of our pieces of property and we stockpiled it from last time. The surface dirt that we are going to use will come from another source.
Q: Have you talked with any NASCAR drivers about the process?
Steve Swift: We have talked to several drivers as far as their input and knowledge, but when they take off for the season, they take off. I don’t want to name any names at this point, but the time for that will come as the process moves along. And remember, most guys are dirt track racers, not dirt track owners. They can tell you what they are feeling when they are out on the track, but not necessarily about what to do when you own a track.
Q: Is this one of the most difficult projects you have done?
Steve Swift: Colossus TV was one of the biggest engineering feats that I’ve ever been a part of for sure. With the Smith family, Marcus and Bruton, we’ve built some really neat and incredibly difficult things over the years. Because of the time of the year this project ranks up there in the top five, but I wouldn’t claim it as the hardest. Putting dirt on a race track is not as extreme as hanging Colossus because that was the first time anything like that had been done.
Q: Will you make any changes to the track between each of the events?
Steve Swift: Not from a banking or transition standpoint. In the dirt world, each series likes a little different dirt prep. Some like it slicker, some like a little more cushion, so it’s more of a track prep situation for each of the different races. But the way it looks overall will be similar. And no, we will not be using PJ1 on the dirt.
Q: Have you taken any notes from the Chili Bowl?
Steve Swift: It’s such a unique event. The Chili Bowl is in an inside facility, so they don’t deal with rain or any weather, so they can control every element of the environment. There’s not a complete science to it, there’s just a lot of good feel for it from a lot of years. It’s hard to compare us to the Chili Bowl, but we have looked at that event, yes.
Q: Are you having fun being an Engineer?
Steve Swift: Absolutely. We get to play in the mud, so anytime we get to do construction projects like this it’s definitely fun for sure.
Q: What is the timetable to have it finished?
Steve Swift: Definitely by March. We said if we had perfect timing and weather it would take us four weeks to get it to 100 percent ready to race. Naturally we built in some fluff time just in case and there are things we can do to if we don’t get the weather to cooperate. We have a lot of pieces in play if we get rain for two weeks.