It’s obvious that dirt tracks are entirely different than paved tracks, but it is unclear whether the cars used for these races undergo any specific changes to match the terrain. With so much dust flying through the air, you may wonder whether NASCAR uses different cars for dirt tracks.
NASCAR typically uses the same cars on dirt tracks as with paved tracks. However, they mandate that teams provide moderate tweaks to accommodate for the dust. NASCAR did not race on dirt between 1971 to 2020 but temporarily transformed Bristol Motor Speedway into a dirt track in 2021 and 2022.
Below, we will fill you in on the history of dirt races and why NASCAR suddenly turned back to dirt track racing. We will also explore how well the Bristol Dirt Race appealed to fans, and whether we will see more dirt track racing in the future.
NASCAR did not run on dirt from 1971 to 2020. During this time traditional asphalt ovals took precedent, with the occasional road course. However, in 2021, NASCAR modified the Bristol Motor Speedway into a dirt track. They ran it again in the 2022 season due to its popularity.
When you think of dirt races, you often think about short, local tracks whose drivers race on weeknights to avoid competition with NASCAR’s Truck, Xfinity, and Cup Series. Many of your dirt track drivers aren’t striving to be NASCAR stars, they just love to race.
Although some drivers, like J.D. McDuffie, started off racing on dirt tracks, dirt races were unheard of in NASCAR between 1970 and 2020. September 30th, 1970, was the last time NASCAR raced on dirt before they scheduled the Bristol Dirt Race for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Season. The race occurred on March 29th, with Joey Logano winning the event.
With its popularity, the Bristol Dirt Race returned for the 2022 NASCAR Season for its second straight running, this time under the lights. This time, Kyle Busch won the three-hour, thirty-four-minute clash.
Even fans who don’t care for slower races found the Bristol Dirt Race entertaining. Despite the cars’ average speed ranging between 34.973 and 46.313 miles per hour, the race was keeping spectators excited. The dirt race brought an old school flair to a sport whose popularity declined during the 2010s.
Between the dirt rising through the air, forcing drivers to maintain concentration, and the persistent sliding into turns, the race created adrenaline-pumping action throughout the 250-lap event. The dirt track presented a new challenge to drivers and their teams, as well as new entertainment for the fans.
The event gave NASCAR teams plenty of unknowns. That alone made the race a memorable one for fans. They saw teams forced to make numerous adjustments and opt for trial and error over a clear-cut strategy. This turned it into anyone’s race.
The September 1970 race at the North Carolina Fairgrounds served as the last NASCAR dirt race until 2021. However, dirt racing was a common sight in the Cup Series early on before it switched primarily to asphalt. Between 1949 and 1970, NASCAR ran 490 events on dirt, including the first race in the series’ history, run at the Charlotte Speedway.
Jim Roper won that event, but it was Lee Petty who ended up holding the record number of dirt race wins with 42. Sticking to the Petty theme, Richard Petty won his first NASCAR Cup Series event on dirt. The win came on February 28th, 1960, at the Southern State Fairgrounds. Like Lee, Richard dominated on dirt tracks, collecting 30 dirt race wins between 1960 and 1970.
The first 20 races in NASCAR history occurred on either dirt, clay, sand, or a mixture. The Daytona Beach Road Course was the first race to partially occur on asphalt, while the Darlington Raceway became the first full-asphalt venue to host an event in 1950.
While the Cup Series started racing on dirt tracks again in 2021, the Truck Series had been racing on dirt since 2013. The first truck race on dirt occurred at the Eldora Speedway, which held annual events until 2019. In 2021, the Truck Series also ran dirt races in Knoxville and Iowa, besides Bristol.
Notable drivers who won the Eldora Race include Martin Truex Jr, Bubba Wallace, Chase Briscoe, Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson, and Christopher Bell. All of whom reached the NASCAR Cup Series ranks and would run in the Series’ Bristol Dirt Race.
In 1971, NASCAR signed a sponsorship agreement with the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and rebranded as the Winston Cup. With the company sponsoring NASCAR, R.J. Reynolds, grandson of the company’s founder, wanted NASCAR to project an image cleaner than dirt.
This forced NASCAR to abandon dirt track racing seemingly for good and the sport’s popularity grew to astronomical heights. Especially following the melodramatic 1979 Daytona 500. With the cleaner image juxtaposed with intense rivalries, NASCAR attracted the attention of large media markets.
Areas like Los Angeles (Auto Club Speedway), Las Vegas, and Dallas-Fort Worth (Texas Motor Speedway) all built tracks in the mid-1990s. NASCAR’s popularity continued to grow well into the 2000s and culminated when Forbes named NASCAR “America’s fastest-growing sport” in 2005.
The Bristol Dirt race is the first dirt race since 1970. The event itself has been around since 1961. Initially the race ran for 500 laps across 266.5 miles, at 70 to 100 mph. The cars ran much slower than on asphalt, between 35 and 46 mph. This necessitated only a 250-lap or 133.25-mile event.
Drivers raced on the track’s traditional asphalt surface until 1992, when concrete took over from 1993 to 2020. Therefore, many drivers enjoyed familiarity with the track. The Bristol Dirt Race wasn’t just NASCAR’s first dirt race in many years, the 2022 event also marked the first time NASCAR raced on Easter since March 26th, 1989. It was the 12th Easter Sunday race in the sport’s history.
As you may have realized, Bristol is not a permanent dirt track since its second event of the season occurs on concrete. This necessitated NASCAR to place 30,000 tons of red clay onto the track and pack it down to create the temporary surface.
If you study their method of laying the dirt, you might know it’s not one, but five layers on top of the concrete. They lay sawdust above the concrete, before supplementing that with dirt from previous local events not sanctioned by NASCAR.
Dirt from Gentry Camping provided the third layer, while lime-treated clay made up the fourth. Finally, NASCAR packed Bluff City red Tennessee clay at the apex. The multiple layers also decreased the banking degrees from between 24 and 28 degrees to just 19, which helped the track hold the dirt better.
NASCAR was motivated to race on dirt by the desire to revive ratings and popularity. NASCAR’s popularity had been dwindling over the years. The COVID-19 pandemic created a chaotic schedule that allowed for experimentation, where NASCAR played with the idea of dirt races.
Shortly after Forbes made its proclamation regarding NASCAR’s popularity in 2005, things dwindled. Many fans felt NASCAR either took them for granted, or were doing so much to make the cars safer that they tarnished its product.
Following Dale Earnhardt’s death at the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR had no choice but to make the cars safer. So, they spent over a decade trying to find ways to reinvigorate its fan base and even find prospective fans. The goal was to provide an entertaining yet safe product.
NASCAR had seen declining, and at best, stagnating ratings throughout the 2010s. These ratings traced back to several factors, such as too many races on oval, asphalt tracks, or the generic look of the old Car of Tomorrow (CoT). The series grew stale, in other words.
They tried remedying things with the Gen 6 Car, which at least fixed many of the CoT’s flaws and let the cars further resemble their street legal equivalents. However, the races continued to lack variety, which left fans unsatisfied.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, NASCAR had to shuffle around its schedule. This ultimately led to them running a drastically different slate of races for 2021. It also provided a good year for experimentation, which explains the dirt race and six road course events.
The dirt race went a step further, as it allowed NASCAR a chance to trace things back to its origins. While the Charlotte Speedway was no longer feasible, NASCAR set its sights on Bristol in its attempt to appeal to both prospective and older fans.
NASCAR uses the same cars on dirt as on asphalt tracks. However, they require that teams make moderation tweaks to accommodate for the dust. There is no special variation necessary for the dirt tracks as the primary goal is simply to prevent the cars from collecting dirt.
The Bristol Dirt Race is one of the slowest events all season, as the average speed is roughly that of the pit road speed limit at speedways and superspeedways. The NASCAR Next Gen Car debuted in 2022 and ran its first dirt race on Easter. They did not make substantial modifications to the cars, they only made tweaks to prevent dirt from collecting on the car’s body and suspension.
Other changes included instructions of how to tether the engine panel to the chassis, plus changes to the underwing and diffuser. The diffuser saw specific parts like the cable, flap assembly, and scoop omitted for the race.
NASCAR also mandated metal pieces to be used in favor of composite parts for all dirt racing events. They also allowed teams to install screens for the rear wheel vents and rocker box. NASCAR further required teams to install exhaust exit shrouds inside the rocker box.
There will likely be more dirt races in the future as the ratings of these last two dirt races were very promising. NASCAR is continuously looking for ways to improve their ratings and keep fans satisfied. With the high ratings of the recent dirt races, it is likely we will see more in the future.
Throughout the 2020s, NASCAR will continue to tweak and fine-tune its schedule as they try to appeal to more fans. With ratings being the deciding factor for the types of races they plan on hosting, if the Bristol Dirt Race holds up, you can expect more dirt track racing in the future.
Sadly, the 2021 event was a wash as rain forced NASCAR to host the event on Monday. However, it still averaged a 1.8 Nielsen Rating with 3.1 million viewers. The 2022 event delivered promising, more accurate results. It averaged a 2.19 rating and a viewership of 4.007 million. This barely eclipsed the previous Cup Series event, held at Richmond in viewership, which saw 3.958 million viewers.
The Bristol Dirt Race saw more than the average number of overall viewers between 2018 and 2021. This number is striking, because the COVID-19 pandemic limited attendance in 2020 and 2021, forcing most to tune in on television. Despite this, they averaged 3.06 and 2.93 million viewers.
Ratings-wise, the race came closer to the average viewership in 2017, which sat at 4.1 million viewers. However, the number of viewers still paled compared to the 5.3 million average in 2014, 5 million in 2015, and 4.6 million in 2016.
The number also remains substantially lower compared to the turn of the 2000s and 2010s decade, when NASCAR averaged 5.9 million viewers per race in 2010. By 2013, the number dropped to 5.8.
However, the general increase in viewership for the Bristol Dirt Race compared to the average number seen throughout 36 races between 2018 and 2021 may indicate a breakthrough. If the race becomes one of the viewed races of 2022, look for potentially more dirt races in the future.
NASCAR uses the same cars on dirt as those used on asphalt tracks. However, teams are required to add moderate tweaks to the cars to prevent the collection of dirt on the cars’ body and suspension. With the promising ratings of the recent dirt races, we will likely see more in the future.
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