Bristol was a Coliseum Long Before It Looked like One
30 Years at Bristol, a Fan’s View
The Coliseum was a place in ancient history where gladiators met to do battle. The games in Bristol began in 1961 when racing gladiators started traveling to East Tennessee to do battle on the high banks of Bristol. The biggest gladiators of the racing game came to Bristol to battle the banks and each other. Some of the most long remembered battles came at Bristol. Some of the most cherished wins came at Bristol. For 30 years I’ve seen it all. And some of the most wonderful memories I will ever have came at Bristol.
Bristol is on the line between VA and TN. In fact, the state line divides State Street. I live about 15 miles on the VA side so Bristol it’s my home track and I am so proud of it. Bristol is an experience. It’s the total experience and days leading up to the big finale with the Sprint Cup Race but before that there is the Truck Race, The Modified Race, Family Race Night (where drivers make appearances), The Hauler Parade, The Xfinity Race and then the Big Sprint Cup Race.
When our racing days started we went down a day early to get a good camping spot, then it was first come first serve. We lived 15 miles away but we didn’t want to miss a minute of the excitement of just being there. When we first started racing tickets were like $25 and there were only concrete grandstands on the front and backstretches. Spectators sometimes lined the hills surrounding the track for a view.
The day I became a real Earnhardt Sr. fan, he and Sterling Marlin got into a tussle on the track with Marlin getting the worst end of the deal. In an interview CooCoo Marlin, Sterling’s Dad said “Someone needs to take Earnhardt out behind the barn and whoop his ass!” That was the last day I pulled for anyone else until Sr. died. I wanted to pull for someone who would race as hard as he could until the end and never quit and secretly I hoped one of them ol’ boys would try to take him out behind the barn and try to whoop his ass!
Starting back in the day some of the names I remember making noise at Bristol were Allison, Earnhardt, Elliott, Waltrip, Gant, Parsons, Wallace, Labonte, Martin, Kulwicki, Ervin, Marlin, Petty and Bodine. Then came along Gordon, Busch, Stewart, Johnson, JR, Biffle, Logono and Keselowski. Times have changed. Drivers have changed. Styles have changed. NASCAR has changed. The Last Great Coliseum may have changed but the track hasn’t and it still takes a hard-nosed, drive by the seat of your paints, not afraid to take chances driver to be successful at Bristol baby!!
We made so many memories from the people we met in the campground to the people we met in the stands to the vendors that came in to sell merchandise and even the food vendors who were sometimes friends and neighbors raising funds for a charity or a school. We would talk to the hauler drivers and pick up souvenirs and stories long before the big hauler parades started. We’d sit in the parking lot until late at night waiting for the gates to open the next morning so they could get in. We’ve shared a beer or two.
Over the years we’ve seen Bristol grow from just two concrete grandstands to the actual coliseum it is today. A grandstand at a time, a tower at a time or a few sky boxes here and there to the 160,000 it seats today. It truly is a coliseum. The night races were always wild and they usually always had a full moon now down inside the coliseum the moon is no longer visible but the races are still wild.
The spring races are great too but it’s a different atmosphere. You never know what the weather will be. We actually sat through rain, sun and snow one weekend! Kyle Busch made snow angels on the track and we still got the race in!! We sat through a storm that dropped so much rain the track actually flooded because the drains could not handle it all. It stopped and a few hours later we were racing. Some of greatest fan memories have come from midnight visits in the campground when we’ve met people from all over the country and shared a cold beverage and enjoyed some good racin’ talk. In all our years we never had any trouble and made it back to the correct camping spot each time! We’ve also seen some pretty good cooler lid racing down the banks getting out after the race trying to beat the foot traffic but then it turned into so much fun they just kept doing it over and over and people just kept watching. It’s been so crowded a few times trying to get through turns trying to get out we felt a little herded and we “moo”ed all the back to the campground. Most of all there have been hours of laughter and good times shared with old friends and new and we were there hearing the engines and smelling the fuel and burning rubber before a lot of people started staying home or tickets became so high people can’t afford to take their families anymore.
If I’m going spend my money Bristol is going be the place! There’s no place like Bristol Baby!! We’ve seen it all for the last 30 years. The Earnhardt /Lebonte spin, the Stewart helmet throwing incident, Kurt Busch sweep the whole weekend, the, Waltrip years, the Wallace years, the feeling over the track the morning of Alan Kulwicki’s death just a few miles from the track in an airplane crash, the crash where Michael Waltrip hit the end of the wall where crossover gate was and demolished his car and there was dead silence and he stood up and walked away and raced the next day, the time Rusty Wallace flipped on the front stretch during practice and stopped breathing and Dr. Jerry Punch and Dale Earnhardt were on the car helping him, the time Sterling Marlin caught on fire and we feared he might be burned alive but made it out with minor injuries. These are just a few of the many incidents of many from every race at Bristol. Very seldom does anyone leave unscathed just to finish is an accomplishment, to finish on the lead lap is a big accomplishment, a top ten is worth celebrating and a win at Bristol more than just another win. It’s one many want but few will ever achieve.
I have visited many tracks on the east coast and for me Bristol is the best. Every seat in the house is good seat. They have worked to make it the most fan friendly with shuttles and buses and handicap accessible. Bathrooms are numerous and clean which being handicap I appreciate. As far as track action it can’t be beat!! That’s why they call it Bristol Baby!!
I’ll be watching all the action on the high banks this weekend and I wonder what will be the names that dominate the next 30 years and what changes will the next 30 bring? I can’t say the racing or the drivers can be much better than in the last 30 from this fans view.
Check out a few more images in the gallery below. Which one is your favorite?