Dave’s Deeper Dive: Bristol… and Sellouts

This, my friends is what a sellout looks like to me. 2003 Bristol Spring Race. 160,000 tickets sold. 160,000 seats filled.

When I hear sellout, that’s what I think of. Not all tickets sold to someone, including resellers who may not be able to unload them. Or tickets obtained by a company who couldn’t unload them, resulting in empty seats. Yeah, all the tickets were sold, but…

I guess because I was there and a part of it.

I was going through water damaged boxes of books and papers and came across this. A flooded basement forced me to go through mementoes and discard those damaged.

This escaped… and got me thinking.

As I looked at it closely, trying to find where I was in the crowd, I begin to notice things that reminded me just how much things have changed since this shot was taken in 2003. Zoom in and see if you notice anything.

  • No dirt on the track*
  • No tarps covering seats.
  • No fan tables taking up every other row. Coolers went under your seat.
  • No stadium seats. It was bench seats with every fan packed in as tight as they could fit them.
  • Butts in the aisle because not all on that row would fit the allocated seating spaces. Just because you had a ticket didn’t mean your hind end would fit in the available space if you got there late.
  • All the concrete seats were eliminated. Capacity had jumped to 160K.
  • No “aluminum shirt fans”… you know those fans they say are there but somehow blend into the aluminum benches that on TV make sections look empty.
  • Every ticket sold… not only for this race but for the Night Race… and both Xfinity races. You see that’s how you got to keep your tickets. You had to buy the entire package… a year in advance If you didn’t want to do that, you had to turn in your seats and they were sold to the next person on the waiting list.
  • Everyone in their seats. Not walking around. Not souvenir shopping or under the stands which are the reasons given at the other tracks when TV shows empty seat sellout stands.
  • Everyone watching the race. Not looking down at their phones. Not texting, tweeting, messaging, posting, TikTokking, taking selfies. No watching the streaming March Madness games or whatever other distraction is going on. The action was on the track.
  • There was no Colossus TV, only a scoring pylon.
  • No fan party zones, picnic areas, pickleball courts, paddleboards, aerial restaurants or Ferris Wheels or other things to enhance the fan experience… just racing.
  • No pre-race concerts… just racing.
Old 2007 scoring pylon (Photo Credit: Kim Philips)
  • The sky shows start times were earlier, not late afternoon.
  • In addition to the 160K in attendance, TV drew a 5.5 rating with an 11 share.
  • From all the red in the crowd, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was still at DEI driving Budweiser and brought several fans.
  • This was the 43rd consecutive sellout going back to 1982 when the track held a mere 30,000 fans. Now at 160K, Bristol just kept topping itself with sellouts continuing for another 12 races before ticket sale and attendance drops ended the streak at 55. There has not been a sellout since.

Here are some other points to consider.

  • There was no Dale Earnhardt, Sr.
  • 45 cars attempted to qualify for the race. 43 cars started the race. Two went home, Larry Foyt and Hermie Saddler.
  • No Team Charters
  • Four makes of cars competed – Ford, Chevy, Pontiac, Dodge. Joe Gibbs Racing was a two car Chevrolet Team with Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart. Toyota had not yet entered the sport.
  • The week before at Darlington, Ricky Craven beat fourth year driver Kurt Busch in the closest finish in NASCAR history – 0.002 seconds. Kurt would get his 5th Cup win in this Bristol race. Margin of Victory-a whopping 0.390 seconds over points leader Matt Kenseth.
  • This was the sixth race of the season. Kurt would be the sixth different winner of the season.
  • This would be Kevin Harvick’s fifth race at Bristol.
  • Jeff Gordon would lead the most laps (174) followed by Jimmy Spencer (139) and then race winner, Kurt Busch (116)
  • Matt Kenseth had a 57-point lead over Tony Stewart going into the race. Matt would leave Bristol with a second-place finish and a 138-point lead over Kurt Busch
  • Jack Roush Racing the parent to RFK was a five-car team – Mark Martin, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton and Matt Kenseth
  • There was no Stage Breaks, Stage Cautions or Stage Points awarded.
  • If you wanted Bonus Points you could get them on any lap… just go take the lead
  • Leading laps also paid bonus money, not just points.
  • For this race, it was race back to the line for Caution. Lucky Dogs and Wave Arounds would appear later on this season.
  • There was no Chase or Playoff. No win and you’re in. 2003 was the last time a Champion was crowned based on total points accumulated over the entire season.
  • Winston was the Series Sponsor. This was their last year even though they had additional time on their contract. NEXTEL would have the Series next season.
  • There was no sports betting. Fantasy Racing was big, but sports betting was a way off.
  • Most of our information came from broadcast TV, radio, newspaper and print publications. The internet was coming into its own.
  • Satellite Radio was just coming on with XM appearing in 2001 and Sirius in 2002. They wouldn’t merge until 2008.
  • MRN’s Dave Moody began his satellite radio show, Speedway. Was he “The Godfather” by then?
  • No YouTube. No TIKTOK. No Podcasts. Peacock had feathers. The only streams ran in the nearby creeks.
  • No NEXT GEN car which according to today’s industry experts means the playing field was NOT “level”. It also means that:
    • No 18” Aluminum Alloy Wheels with single lug nut. Raced with 15” steel wheel with five lug nuts.
    • No low profile tires. Tires used inner liners which allowed them to continue on even with flat tires.
    • Tires narrower. Brakes smaller
    • No splitters. No diffusers. No solid underbody.
    • No holes in windshield for vents
    • No split exhaust system
    • No tapered spacers to restrict horsepower on short tracks.
    • Rear view mirrors not cameras
    • No shifting except on road courses and maybe Pocono. No transaxle but transmission. No sequential shifting but H-pattern shifting.
    • No rack and pinion steering, but adjustable steering box
    • No spontaneous fires from tire buildup around exhaust pipes
    • No car numbers in front of the door. (Sorry, but while we’re talking about changes)
  • Since they were not racing NEXT GEN what were they racing? Not GEN 6 or COT but GEN 4’s. COT’s were still four years away.
  • Even with an unlevel playing field, by season’s end the season produced 16 different winners.
  • The season was 36 races-two road courses the rest ovals. Streets were what was driven on to get to the track, not to race on
  • Stale schedule. To hear the experts today, the schedule Back in the Day (BITD) was stale and too predictable. Back then it was two races each for Daytona, Rockingham (lost dates), Atlanta(reconfigured), Darlington, Bristol (one dirt*), Talladega, Martinsville, Richmond, Charlotte (one road course), Dover (lost date), Pocono (lost date), Michigan (lost date), Loudon (lost date). All these had larger seating capacity and were filled up. Single race tracks included Las Vegas (gained date), Texas, Fontana (gone), Sonoma, Chicago (lost date),Indianapolis (road course), Watkins Glen, Kansas (gained date),Phoenix (gained date), Homestead. Tracks like Nashville SuperSpeedway, Indianapolis GP, ROVAL, Gateway and COTA were either not built yet or were built but not large enough to meet fan demands of the day. Chicago Street Course and the LA Coliseum were not necessary because fan demands were being met in other markets.
    • What is not mentioned today is the reason why we kept racing at those tracks at that time was those were the facilities that could handle the fan demand.

So as I listen to the all the experts of today all I hear is that BITD of this picture, they raced a boring schedule of races, using inferior cars, on an uneven playing field, that produced races lacking excitement and drama, in front of fans who had no comfort or any chance to create “an experience” using a point system to crown a Champion who may be worthy of the title yet did not create a Game 7 moment so isn’t deserving and then look at this picture and wonder just why in the world did so many people pay that much of their hard earned money, give up so much of their time and put up with that much hardship for the product described?

General view of the NASCAR Winston Cup Food City 500 as John Andretti in the #43 Petty Enterprises Dodge leads the pack at the Bristol Motor Speedway on March 23, 2003 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

I know why I did.

Then I have to ask, now that the schedule is fresh, the facilities are more comfortable and create experiences galore, the cars are superior, the playing field has never been more level, the drivers are the best ever, Stage Racing, Win and You’re In and Playoff eliminations produces harder racing where every lap matters and we won’t know who the Champion will be until the checkered flag falls in the last race guaranteeing a Game 7 moment, why does the picture today not look like the picture above?

Kinda makes me wonder. Does it you?

Thunder On… and Stay Safe

David Nance

*No Dirt race at Bristol 2024 (More here)

Photo Credit (cover); Getty Images


  1. David
    This recap of your 2003 spring Bristol visit and of the”famed and now defamed” 1965 Darlington Southern 500 a couple weeks ago, illustrates the very spirit of what made stock car racing one of the fastest growing sports of all major sports properties. Sadly, it has been deluted, homonized and guided into a weaken product. Gimmick protocols and the multiple welfare systems have killed a performance based product. Too often a win and your in winner, doesn’t have the wherewithal to compete for the locked in playoffs. A one race champion doesn’t make a season champion. This is done for the entertainment of a few, but the review of this and its use at Phoenix Raceway says little about great competition. Most of the playoffs are consumed with race not to lose, vs race to win , that doesn’t produce seat of the pants, lap all competitors and keep them down in the past. The welfare of wave around mast the fact that is a great disparity in the starting line-ups ( this will always be the case) and that most races are unable to start full fields state to me the charter ( welfare and the rich , get richer) doesn’t reflect that the recipe of great racing is working. The lack of side by side racing on many tracks reinforce these mistakes and engineering will continue to turn the races in to one pass wonders as seen in open wheel high speed parades , the same can be said for the NASCAR current day formula. Stage racing , hides and times embellished the lack of racing that an Earnhardt Sr ,J Johnson, Cale, and Lee Roy Yarbrough would race with that type of desire. Buddy Baker lost more races because the car could not keep up with Buddy’s right foot.
    Watching the Daytona race with qualifying at 190 mph ( notice there was no reference to speed) and then hear the teams we’re only racing at 80% to save gas. Is not what made stock car racing good!
    Keep writing about great racing , even it you do see it on Sundays anymore

    BTW I thought FOX had lost their minds over the winter by showing the Richmond race where Earnhardt and Waltrip raced and wrecked. Kyle Petty won, and I recall correct Earnhardt cleaned his windshield while driving under caution. The cars were identifiable and more makes and model years.
    And in front of a standing room only , not a sellout crowd on a cold brisk February Sunday

    1. David, Thanks for your comments. Sorry it took so long to reply. You have a lot to unpack there.

      It’s amazing all the changes that have been made to the sport since BITD to “improve” things and add entertainment value and how each has resulted in its own unintended consequences that have further complicated the sport.

      Racing back to the line was eliminated for safety purposes but it brought about the Lucky Dog.. That guaranteed one driver gets their lap back when BITD it may be one, none or multiples depending on position and how hard are raced back to the line.

      It also made scoring a heck of a lot easier and more transparent to the fans. How they crossed the Start/Finish Line is how they were scored. Everyone knew and could see it. Now it’s determined by when the caution flew (based on how fast the Caution Committee reacted and decided) and everyone’s position in relationship to some invisible scoring loop. The first one was clear. The second creates controversy and confusion.

      I’m not so sure if they want clarity as much as controversy and confusion creates a lot more clicks.

      The old lineup procedure of lead lap cars on the outside, lap down to the inside may not have provided all the “excitement and drama” of today’s double file restart but you didn’t have restart zones and all the games being played on taking the flag.

      Everything has a consequence and some of them not good and compounding and confounding.

      Lead lap to the outside also negated the need for a choose cone and all that goes with it. Probably reduced the length of cautions by a lap each since one wasn’t needed for the choose.

      Stages, stage points, playoffs, playoff points, eliminations, schedules the list goes on and on.

      There was a reason things were the way they were. Unfortunately over time they forgot that old Cowboy adage of “don’t remove a fence until you know why it was first put up”. Not all change is improvement.

      The thing I can’t figure out is it creating the decline (bad) or slowing it (good).

      Thanks again for all these points to ponder. Appreciate your comments and encouragement greatly.

      Have a great race day!

  2. Yessir, David – spot on. As the song says, “Those were the days my friends, we thought they’d never end.” BUT, they did.😪

    1. Thanks Dave! You are right about that. Perfect song.

      And that’s sad but thankful I saw them.

      What I have trouble with is the current narrative that these days are the same oh no, better than those days.

      Track capacities don’t matter, ticket sales doesn’t matter, attendance doesn’t matter, viewership doesn’t matter, car counts don’t matter, sponsorship doesn’t matter, on track product doesn’t matter it’s better today because we said so. And if you don’t agree you are not a true fan so get out of here.

      I have trouble with that.

      Seeing one thing on Sundays and being told on Monday you don’t know what you’re seeing but we know what is harkens back to “Let’s Go Brandon!”

      That gets a bit old, tiresome and hardly beneficial. But if they whistle past the graveyard loud and long enough everyone will believe them.

      Thankful I got to see what it once was and feel a bit sorry for those who didn’t but now think they have.

      There is a saying around these parts for that..,

      ”Well, bless their hearts”.

      Thanks again! Have a great race day’

      1. Hi Dave and Dave, great response and you really took me back. That song was one PattyKay and I talked about and posted often.
        Bristol just is not the same anymore. The last race had lots of empty seats and the the racing. This article brought back so many memories and told us what racing once was.

        Thank you, Mr. Nance and Mr. Fulton

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.