Bristol Motor Speedway, often considered the mecca of short-track racing, is located in Northeast Tennessee. Known for its close racing -- including many SportsCenter moments with last lap crashes and passes -- Bristol is the quintessential NASCAR short-track.
Originally opening in 1961, Bristol has gone through many changes just like any other sporting venue. Where Bristol was once an asphalt oval with 22-degree banking, it is now surfaced with concrete and has 36-degree banking. The grandstands have grown from concrete bleachers with seating for 18,000 to a structure that could compete with the best football stadiums in the country. The track now has seating for over 155,000 fans, arranged in a complete bowl, and luxury suites that circle the upper levels of the grandstands.
But what is the fan experience like? If you had to pick a NASCAR race to attend, should it be Bristol?
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The food selection at Bristol is pretty standard sporting venue fare, especially at the standard concession stands. Basic items include a speedway dog for $3, or you can get it topped with chili & cheese for $4. There is also a foot long chili & cheese version for $7. Other standard items include a cheeseburger, a chicken fingers and fries basket, and nachos.
If you want something from a chain restaurant, the track offers both Arby's roast beef sandwiches with chips for $6 (with or without cheese) and Domino's personal pizzas for $7 (cheese or pepperoni).
Niche items such as kettle corn ($6) and turkey legs ($9) are available at smaller kiosks, although most are priced fairly aggressively.
Drinks are Pepsi products, except water which is Misty Mountain spring water, and is a bit on the expensive side. A bottle of Gatorade is $5 while bottled water and soda are $4. Tea and lemonade are also available for $4 or in a take-home mason jar for $7.
Alcoholic beverages are available for $7 for a 24oz can and $5 for a 16oz can of domestic beer. Coors Light seemed to be the dominate offering while Ole Smoky Moonshine was a nice offering for liquor. The moonshine sold for $8 a glass, or you could get it in a collectible mason jar for $10.
Personally, I tried Bristol's Bootlegger brat which was fairly good for $5. I was a bit disappointed to not find a true signature item that the track is famous for, such as the Martinsville Dog at Martinsville Speedway or fried bologna at South Boston Speedway. As a foodie and being in the South, I expected a pulled pork sandwich topped with a choice of barbeque sauces accompanied by either hand cut French fries or onion rings in the $10-$12 range.
Service seemed to be a little hit-and-miss. Each stand was staffed by volunteers from local organizations who receive a portion of the sales their stand generates. While I love the charity idea, and I'll touch on that later, fans want lines to move quickly and efficiently. This is hard to achieve when the staff may have never worked food service before in their life. I'd rather see regular staff and let the organizations help with other duties such as cleanup and program sales, earning money based on a flat rate per worker. To be fair, as was the theme all over the track, workers seemed well-trained and worked hard so minor hang-ups are easy to accept.
My favorite part is that fans are allowed to bring in food and beverages, including alcohol, as long as it is in a cooler 14-inches or smaller and not in glass containers.
As a fan, there is no room to complain about offerings or prices if you are allowed to bring your own food and beverages. Your options are only limited by what you can fit in the cooler while minimizing the effect on your wallet.
The atmosphere at Bristol is incredible. Every fan has their favorite driver plus team and manufacturer allegiances. However, unlike your typical stick-and-ball sports, there are 43-drivers to cheer for instead of just two teams. It makes it much more special when your favorite driver wins and creates many more memories and slightly less hostility between the various fan bases.
Seats in turns 3 and 4 have slightly more shade, especially if you sit up higher where the suites give off shade. I was given some nice access and was able to watch racing from just about every vantage point at the track. The more expensive seats, located along the straightaways in the higher seats, are the best, but any seat between row six and about five rows from the top (number of rows varies by section) are great and have full sightlines.
There are a few limited-view seats where the suites are connected to the grandstands which are why I would avoid the top five rows or so. Many tracks are so large that you can't see all the action no matter where you sit. Not here.
Most seats are bench style with plenty of room. Some upper sections have chair backs but they aren't really any bigger, just that added touch of personal space.
I also think it is well worth getting the pre-race pit passes. You get to walk around the infield and take pictures, getting within a few feet of the cars. Everywhere you turn, you will see the drivers, owners, and other celebrities. I ran into University of Tennessee head coach Butch Jones and Charlie Daniels during my visit.
Another upgrade option is to sit in the DIY Network Man Cave, and it would be worth the upgrade. The seats are modeled after racing seats, the tables are made from old racing tires while the stools are rims. There is also a racing simulator, where you can run laps on a laser scanned version of Bristol using the iRacing software on a motion simulator made by SimXperience. It's a great chance to immerse yourself in your experience without actually shelling out $18,500 to buy your own simulator.
The action itself is highly entertaining. Despite the need for ear plugs due to the volume of the cars being well over 100 decibels, you could hear the roar of the crowd on multiple occasions. It is quite exciting and the racing action is amazing. Great battles all around the track, cars bumping each other nearly every lap and even a scuffle at the end between two teams.
Unlike your traditional sporting venue, race tracks are typically a bit away from housing and business districts due to the noise the cars generate. This makes it a bit harder to find a bar or restaurant within walking distance, but there are some small stands and food trucks to fill this void.
The town of Bristol actually sits right on the Tennessee/Virginia border. Route 11E runs from the Northern part of Bristol, VA all the way to right past the track. This is probably the best road to find bars, restaurants, etc. I had a hard time finding local places however, as most were corporate franchise locations.
I did travel to a barbeque restaurant called Ridgewood Barbeque. It was extremely busy with some of the patrons even being NASCAR drivers. The food I had was good, especially the sauce. However, the meat is sliced sort of like Arby's and not pulled, which I feel is more common.
If you want something different to do while in town, there is a cave just a few miles up the road. If you are a hardcore racing fan, there was a nice short-track I went to Friday night called Kingsport. It was a good show with nice car counts, including 21-cars in the late model event. There is also a dirt track that ran both Friday and Saturday nights, but I didn't make it.
I don't know that you could fill a full week here like you can at some destinations, but all of the entertainment you need happens at the track. With three races, multiple autograph sessions, free concerts, and even a program where you can drive a stock car on the actual track, not sure what else you need. You really only needed to leave speedway grounds to sleep if you didn't have on-site camping.
The best fan event was probably Friday night, called the Ford Fan Friday, and had more give-a-ways then you could fit into a shopping bag. There were so many free items being given away from snacks, to hamburgers to drinks. There were over 15 drivers on hand to give out autographs, interactive games and even some question and answer sessions with the drivers.
Saturday night, the track offered multiple free concerts and green beer to help fans celebrate St. Patrick's Day. Sunday they took it a step further and put green dye in the stream that wraps around most of the track.
If you wanted to leave the track grounds, there was huge area with "unofficial" souvenir stands, games and more. On Saturday, Walmart also had a racing memorabilia sale along with at least a dozen show cars that you could get up close to. You could even sit in a few of them, which is a great photo opportunity, especially for kids.
NASCAR fans are passionate. They are also friendly if you talk to them. They will often invite you in to their campground for a chat or even some food or drink. Unlike most sports, because racing is an entire weekend event, tailgates are really campsites that have parties that can last for a few days. Just imagine a 72-hour tailgate!
The biggest disappointment this spring 2013 event is that the track wasn't sold out as was the norm up until about four years ago. As crowds grew in the past, the track kept adding seats at an incredible rate of 5-10,000 seats per year. So, now that crowds have become smaller, it gives off an empty stadium feel even with 100,000 fans in attendance.
I believe that in the future, venues are going to be much more judicious before adding seating. But, the owner of Bristol is known across sports as one of the most aggressive when it comes to upgrading and changing facilities.
A change to the racing surface itself in 2007 is part of the reason for lower attendance, but that was rectified before the August race in 2012 and the March crowd was bigger in 2013. The August race also typically has much better weather and still sells out regularly.
The concourses are plenty big and fit both the concession lines and the fans walking by. There are two concourse levels around most of the track, except where some of the stands are built into hillsides, but they are set up in a way that you can get around either of them to walk the entire venue. Restrooms are clean and have plenty of room. As a bonus, most of the closest restrooms outside of the track are full move-able facilities built on tractor-trailer beds instead of your normal, run-of-the-mill port-a-johns.
Staff are extremely knowledgeable, friendly and accommodating. They are clearly well-trained from the staff leaders down to the weekend-only volunteers.
Bristol is built on some uneven ground so campsites are on hillsides and spread all around. All of the closest camping is operated by the track, so you can just make arrangements when you purchase your tickets. If you don't mind walking about a half-mile, there are other camping areas that you could try.
Race day parking is free along certain well-marked stretches of road, although those spots filled up extremely fast. Most local home owners, schools, etc. had parking for $10, which wasn't bad considering that the track did not offer free parking like most do.
The roads in from the interstate are four-lane without too many lights. Like most venues, traffic can get heavy leading up to the event so plan accordingly. I suggest getting there three to five hours prior to the start time and walking around and enjoying the atmosphere.
There are also some great accommodations available for handicapped guests despite the uneven terrain. There is a nice tram setup that helps shuttle guests around the various spots.
While ticket prices on race day ranged from $70-$138, this got you into all events on both Friday and Sunday. A ticket for Saturday's two races cost an additional $40-$77 but if you ordered ahead, you could save a lot of money with a bundled deal. For instance, a family four pack included four tickets to Sunday's Sprint Cup Series race, four hot dogs and four drinks for just $210. That is a $60 savings on just the ticket prices plus $28 worth of food for free.
There are also plenty of other promotions and discounts that you can find to help reduce the cost of attendance.
VIP packages, such as the pre-race fan experience in the garage cost $80, but they sell out quickly so be sure to purchase well in advance. Programs are well done, and probably worth the $10 for the program and keepsake die-cast car. For an additional $5, you could add a t-shirt where most tracks charge $15 just for the program and die-cast car.
Need more incentive to go? How about the fact that they gave away 10 Ford Mustangs to people at the 2013 race! All you had to do was buy a ticket and be present to win. Where have you ever heard of such a promotion?
The hospitality alone is enough to score the maximum here. There were genuinely nice staff that handled anything I threw at them. Free autograph sessions, free concerts, free attendance to practice and qualifying on Friday, and 10 free Mustangs.
Better yet is something I haven't mentioned much in my review; the amount of money that gets donated by the track to charities. While I touched on how the concession stand workers can earn money for their organizations, the track also has a charity called the Speedway Children's Charity. Bristol has raised over $7 million that was donated to over a hundred local organizations.
As a college sports fan, I am accustomed to seeing events such as corn-hole tournaments, golf outings and auctions to help raise money, but it is often kept by the school. In this case, Bristol donates all of that money, which is incredible. Some of the best auction items were track-lap and ride-a-long programs from the Richard Petty Driving Experience, which occurred Friday night. Who wouldn't want to take a lap around the world's fastest half-mile track and have the cost benefit local charities?
Add in the four-sided video tower inside the track and the action here is just like being in a giant stadium with constant action in every direction. It is certainly worth a trip to Bristol Motor Speedway, "the last great colosseum."
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