As one of the most anticapated racing weekends approaches – the “Food City Dirt Race“ from Bristol I couldn’t help but think back to August 2016 when Race Fans Forever posted my first article for them. After almost five years, it still rings true.
Entitled “That’s Fristol“ the August 30th article went like this…
“During last Saturday night’s rain delay I muted the yammering filler on TV and turned to the Internet. There I found an article on racing at Bristol that included the following quote from AJ Allmendinger, heard on his team radio during the 2014 race: “I freakin’ hate this track, man. The moment I get it figured out, is the moment it goes to …”
You can figure out the rest. But AJ’s feelings toward the high-banked half-mile immediately reminded me of a video racing session a few years ago with my then four year old son when he uttered a term that perfectly described nearly everything about the place. Trying to build his interest in the sport, we’d plugged in the Wii and set out to go racing. As it was loading the tracks I asked him where were we were going today.
“Fr’istol Daddy! Let’s race at Fr’istol” I started to correct him but stopped as I realized his innocent mispronunciation was a contraction that described the East Tennessee track ideally and captures the essence that is uniquely Bristol. It’s like Richard Petty‘s trademark “Just a racing deal” but very clear, concise and track specific… and depending on the inflection, delivery and gestures it covers nearly every situation there.
For example, the night race seventeen years ago … after Dale Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte on the last lap for the win, Dale didn’t have to explain his actions by saying, “I was gonna get back to him and just rattle his cage. I wasn’t gonna wreck him. I got to him and just turned him around.” Instead, all he really had to do was flash that Earnhardt grin, shrug and say “Well, that’s Fr’istol” and everyone would have understood his intentions perfectly. Likewise, the spinnee on that last lap incident could have used the same term as well to describe his perspective. Terry Labonte could have easily said “I got to Dale and passed him coming off of [Turn] 4. He hit me between [Turns] 1 and 2 and turned me around. That’s when all Fr’istol broke loose.”
And all “Fr’istol” did break loose as the spinning Labonte collected Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Ricky Rudd and Sterling Marlin as the #3 went on to take the checkered flag.”Fr’istol” also perfectly describes the finish four years earlier as Terry Labonte came spinning and crashing across the finish line after being tagged by Earnhardt coming out of Turn 4 for the flag. A video of the crash and the winner’s mangled car limping and spewing into Victory Lane with the caption, “That’s Fr’istol, Baby!” would have been a marketer’s dream, creating the ideal commercial for the night race for years to come.
But “Fr’istol” isn’t limited to beating and banging on the high banks. If you were there for the 2000 spring race you saw Johnny Benson‘s dramatic drive from the back to come up a lap or two short of his first win. You had to be there because if you weren’t there you missed it all as ESPN went FOX over those final laps, showing the race for ninth between the Labonte brothers instead of that fantastic drive. When interviewed as he climbed from his car after his “where did he come from” finish, Benson could have easily summed up his effort and just missing the win with an exhausted, “Whew …that’s Fr’istol.”
“Fr’istol” describes the frustration found only there. If the term had been known four years ago, nearby fans could probably have heard Tony Stewart yell a gut-wrenching “Fr’istol!” over the roar of the engines as he did his two-handed helmet chuck at Matt Kenseth‘s passing car. The frightening side of the World’s Fastest Half-Mile comes out in the term. Hear a hushed “Fr’istol” as Michael Waltrip’s and Mike Harmon‘s terrifying wrecks replay in your mind. “Fr’istol” describes the fan experience there as well.
I recall my first trip there, standing at the top of the backstretch stands. The high banks were reminiscent of my boyhood tracks of Salem, IN and Nashville Fairgrounds. The grandstands were mostly concrete, the scoring stands were on a grassy bank outside Turn One, where the Kulwicki Tower now stands and there were more Porta-Potties around than there were fans at this year’s Indy Cup race. I was just tickled to be at a Cup race and my reaction could be summed up with, “So… I’m at Fr’istol” Over the years, I made several trips there and watched as the old facilities were taken down and the new Coliseum rose in its place.
One of my last trips there was with friend and new race fan, Jerry Wright. It was his first Cup race and he looked at the magnificent monstrosity in slack-jawed amazement. If he had broken his silence with “Wow! That’s Fr’istol” all I could have done was grin and nod in agreement. No better term could describe the uncertainty of the weather there, especially during the spring races. In 2006, Jerry and I became greatly concerned heading to the Busch race when we passed snow plows sitting in the median with motors running waiting to deal with what was to come …
Instead of seeing cars racing on the high banks, for a while we watched snowball fights, snow man building and later snow angels, while shivering on the ice cold aluminum bleachers. (Note: the crowd that day was still probably larger than attendance at Friday night’s Xfinity race.) Frfrfrfrfr’istol” said it all.
And Dave Rosenbaum, another long time buddy of mine would have heard me utter “Aw Fr’istol” under my breath as I grabbed my Race Pac to start the mile and half walk to the track only to find the tickets were not in there but right where I had left them – back on the dresser in our motel room win Weaverville, NC some 85 miles away. He never said a word, getting mileage instead from silence. Waiting for the comment that never came was worse than any comment he could have made!
The term “Fr’istol” is timeless – still as relevant and applicable today as some of the examples mentioned above (and more you have probably recalled as you read this). In post-race interviews from the wild overtime finish of Friday night’s race, there were numerous drivers who could have easily used “That’s Fr’istol” in their responses and we all would have known exactly what they meant. Austin Dillon‘s race win elation, Justin Allgaier‘s near miss, Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski‘s frustration, Kyle Busch‘s anger, Brendan Gaughan‘s knock-down-the-walls excitement, Ty Dillion’s “I was just going for the win”, Elliott Sadler‘s “Aw shucks I messed up” could have all been summed up with their own versions of “Fr’istol”. And as the rain falls once again on Saturday night’s Cup race you can almost hear the crew members muttering “Aw Fr’istol” as they covered up the cars for the seemingly umpteenth time.
When the skies finally clear, racing resumes and the laps are run, who and how they could have used the term will unfold. I won’t be able to write about it though. Somehow, during the hustle and bustle of this August Sunday I missed the restart of the race. When I finally found it on some obscure NBC channel, Kevin Harvick, wife and crew were already in Victory Lane near the close of the hat dance. Oh well, that was Fr’istol”
Nearly five years has passed since that post. A lot has happened at Fr’istol since then. Less than a month later, The Last Great Coliseum hosted more competition, different competition, as Virginia Tech and the University of Tennessee fought the “Battle of Bristol” in front of the largest crowd to ever attend a college football game. The infield converted to a football field took center stage. The race cars that built the stadium were there, sitting sadly silent on the darkened track surrounding the “field”. Sadly, Fr’istol.
Stage Racing had yet to make its way to the half-mile high bank. Little did we know this race, the 2016 Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, would be the last race run the same way as its first –drop the green and race to a single checkered flag… a black and white checkered flag. The 2017 race, the 113th here, would be different – with three checkered flags – two green and white and the third, a real one. A changing Fr’istol.
When Cup returned in the spring of 2017, we saw the 2016 and seven-time Cup Champion, Jimmie Johnson back up his Texas win with the victory here. It would be his 82nd win-his next to last. Five races later, he would get his final career win at the other high-banked concrete track-Dover. When he returned in August 2016, he would be 11 races into a winless streak that would continue through the remainder of his career, including eight more trips to the East Tennessee track. That’s Fr’istol.
Kyle Busch would dominated the next four Fr’istol races – winning three and finishing second to brother Kurt along the way. Kyle’s last win, the spring 2019 race would be the third of five wins that season on his way to his second Cup Championship and his first under the new Stage Racing/Playoff system. Fr’istol domination.
The crowd at the 2019 night race went wild as underdog Matt DiBenedetto took his Leavine Family Racing Toyota to the front and appeared to be on his way to his first win until late contact with Ryan Newman cost him the win. Both the crowd and Matty D could only imagine what could have been as Denny Hamlin took the win. Heartbreak, Fr’istol.
Fr’istol perfectly describes 2020 season here. As it opened, Bristol had everything going for it. The schedule had been shifted to put the short track in the Playoffs. For the first time in a long time, a track other than Charlotte would host the All-Star Race. Things couldn’t be better.
Then came COVID. The season was put on hold until NASCAR could get their response plan in place. The Spring race was rescheduled to the end of May. Brad Keselowski stole the win as Joey Logano and Chase Elliott took each other out with two laps to go in an eerily quiet and fanless Coliseum. Chase was mad at Joey. Joey mad at Chase. What would you expect? Fans or no fans… it’s still Fr’istol.
The All-Star race moved to a Wednesday night, July 15th saw Chase Elliott finish the job he started at the Spring race, taking the win in front of a sparse but very vocal crowd. Kevin Harvick took the Fall win, this time a Playoff win. Again, that’s just Fr’istol.
Now it’s 2021 and the first Fr’istol race is fast approaching. Her concrete racing surface now sits beneath 3’ to 10’ of red Tennessee clay as Marcus Smith and company has transformed her into a high banked half-mile dirt track. The Great NASCAR Dirt Experiment is underway. For almost a week, dirt track racers from various series from across the country have made the trek to East Tennessee to compete on the newest dirt track. But it started earlier than that with weeks of testing, before finally competing on the red Tennessee clay. For the over 1200 entrants from various series from around the country, Fr’istol was their Super Bowl. For some, they beat the best in their series (along with some Cup ringers) and for that they got to hoist the big trophy and pick up the big check in Victory Lane. For others, like Nick Stoop in his 20-year old,”The Tank” it was a chance to live the dream so many racers have dreamed – to race on the big stage at Fr’istol.
This weekend, Fr’istol will become THE event in NASCAR for the Trucks and Cup as Cup returns to dirt for the first time in fifty years. Much has been written. Much has been discussed about whether the Great NASCAR Dirt Experiment will be successful or not. Will it be a better race than we’ve seen all those times before? Will we get another new winner? Will it be worth all the work and expenditure for the conversion? Can Fr’istol be the bump NASCAR needs to change the sport’s trajectory?
Good? Bad? Interesting? Fun? Should they have left Fr’istol well enough alone? Tons of questions are going to be answered this weekend, with the main one being – “Does Cup belong on dirt?” We’re gonna soon find out.
Bottom line… no dirt or dirt… It’s still Fr’istol!
Still is and will always will be…
Let’s do this!
Thunder On and Stay Safe.