The first time I laid eyes on Bristol Motor Speedway, it was Bristol International Raceway and it didn’t seem overly international. It looked like a small-college football stadium, though much larger because a half-mile ribbon of asphalt is twice as large as the quarter-mile track that rings the football field at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem. Asphalt coated the track, and the turns were moderately, not high, banked.
I was nonetheless overwhelmed because I was, (a.) seven years old, and, (b.) a bit fatigued, having slept sitting up in a 1964 Plymouth Belvedere along with Ralph, Steve and Marshall Barnes, none of whom survives, so I reckon I can’t prove it.
Ned Jarrett won the Volunteer 500 in the autumn of 1965, and it was the first paved stock-car race I ever saw. I had already watched a bunch of flathead Fords circle a dusty quarter mile in Greenwood, S.C. Ralph was the sole full-time employee of my grandfather’s curb market, and he took me to see Richard Petty, who was the only driver who counted and the reason we slept in a Plymouth. When it became obvious The King, not yet acknowledged as such, wasn’t going to win, we walked back down the incline and listened to Gentleman Ned win on the radio. At the time, Petty was merely Rapid Richard of Randleman.
The second time I laid eyes on Bristol, I didn’t get to see the inside because the family was participating in a nearby horse show.
If I had gone to bed in 1965 and awakened at the track this morning, I couldn’t possibly know it was the same place. It’s vastly different than when I wrote about my first Bristol race 20 years ago. Back then the press box was in turn one, whereas now it majestically overlooks turns three and four. I parked at the foot of a long asphalt incline, and making my way up to the press box was a bit like walking up an Olympic ski-jump ramp. Once up there, there were steps up to the press box proper. I remember when an elevator was first installed. When Bob Latford, also sadly departed now, touted the ease of movement afforded by the elevator, I told him the steps were nothing compared to the walk it required to reach them.
“Well,” Latford conceded, “that’s the truth.”
What did resemble a small football stadium now appears as if an alien mothership landed in the shadow of Holston Mountain, particularly at night when it is illuminated by an eerie glow.
Some race tracks are drudgery to cover. Bristol is fun. Part of that is due to the quality of the racing. Part is due to the friendliness of the folks who work there. The late Jeff Byrd is the only track president who ever came out into the press parking lot, no longer at the foot of a would-be ski jump, to drink beer and listen to me sing Jerry Jeff Walker songs.
There’s a recurring theme. I keep writing about folks who aren’t around anymore. This weekend I won’t be there, but I’ll be fine, thank you, watching from the distance and with a spirit that imagines itself on the grounds.