Friday 5: Call it a roof or a cover over Bristol, but it likely will be costly

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As NASCAR headed into the 2000 season, several people in the industry gave their vision of what the sport might look like 20 years later.

The ideas featured cars with wings (the Car of Tomorrow debuted in 2007 with a rear wing) and road courses with banked turns (the Charlotte Roval debuted in 2018 and Daytona road course debuted in 2020 on the schedule).

At the time, there were plans for a domed track up to 1-mile in length near Pittsburgh that would make weather forecasts meaningless for races there.

The project fizzled, but the concept of an indoor track was one that many in 2000 thought would happen by now.

The wait remains. But maybe not much longer.

Marcus Smith, chief executive officer of Speedway Motorsports, said on a recent episode of the Dale Jr. Download that in “five years, we need a roof on Bristol.”

Smith later described it as a cover instead of a roof.

“We need an umbrella,” he told Dale Earnhardt Jr. “We just need to prevent the rain from ruining the day.”

The idea is feasible, it’s a matter of finances. One sports stadium architect expert estimates such a project at Bristol would cost at least $80 million.

Benjamin Flowers, a professor of Ohio State University’s Knowlton School of Architecture, said the key for any track would be a cover that does not fully enclose the stadium. By not having an enclosed roof, there will be places for exhaust emissions and sound to escape and fresh air to circulate.

Flowers notes that the “operating expenses of this novel approach (of covering a track) are unknown. That is, historically, you don’t want to be the first to try something this high-risk. You want to know what the business model is.”

No track has had more Cup races affected by rain in recent years than Bristol Motor Speedway. Three of the its last five spring races have been impacted by rain. Two, including this year’s dirt race, were postponed a day. Another race started on a Sunday and finished on a Monday because of rain. The track’s spring race has been held primarily in March or April in recent years.

A cover could shelter the racing surface from rain and allow the event to continue. Races postponed by weather typically have smaller crowds and TV audiences the next day. Postponements also can make it more challenging for tracks to retain some ticket buyers, impacting finances.

Another benefit of a cover — even if it does not enclose the facility as a roof would — is that it could allow the track and NASCAR to do some creative scheduling.

Should NASCAR continue to hold the Daytona 500 on President’s Day weekend in February, maybe it’s possible to make Bristol the second race of the season. Imagine the potential for fireworks by starting the season at Daytona and then going to a short track? The high temperature in Bristol the week after Daytona 500 the past two years was in the mid 50s.

A cover would be valuable even if Bristol’s spring race weekend returned to April. Bristol had 7.55 inches of rain last April, the city’s most rainfall in that month in more than 40 years, according to the National Weather Service. From 2016-20, there was more rain in Bristol in April than March by nearly 4 inches, National Weather Service data showed.

With a need for a covering, the question is cost.

“No engineering firm and architecture firm is going to give you a realistic number,” said Flowers, who has written multiple books on sports stadium architecture. “They’re going to say, ‘We think it might cost this, but it could cost a lot more.’ The likelihood is it will.

“That’s before we even get into the global demand for building materials right now in a post-pandemic startup. It’s going to drive up the cost of steel. It’s going to drive up the cost of concrete. It’s going to drive up the cost of everything you’re looking to work with on this project, including labor. … If you asked me, off the cuff, what would this cost? I would say you’re looking at at least an $80 million project.”

NASCAR - Sprint Cup - Chevy Rock & Roll 400
Jimmie Johnson takes the checkered flag at Richmond Raceway on Sept. 7, 2008. (Photo by Tom Whitmore /Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images)

2. Richmond riddle

No current Cup track has stymied Hendrick Motorsports more than Richmond Raceway.

The team’s last victory there was September 2008 with Jimmie Johnson in the Car of Tomorrow. William Byron was 10 years old at the time. Chase Elliott was 12.

In the 23 races at Richmond since Johnson’s win, Hendrick Motorsports twice failed to place a car in the top 10 and had eight races where it did not have a top-five finisher. 

The organization’s best result at Richmond since Johnson’s win is second. That’s occurred six times. Jeff Gordon has four runner-up results. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliott each added a second-place finish for Hendrick in that time.

Greg Ives, crew chief for Alex Bowman, was an engineer for Johnson’s team the last time a Hendrick car won at Richmond.

Ives said he and an engineer recently discussed the organization’s struggles at Richmond with Chad Knaus, who was Johnson’s crew chief when Hendrick last won there.

“(Knaus) goes, ‘I don’t know, I’ve wholesaled (changes to the setup) a lot and haven’t really hit on anything that was perfect,’” Ives told NBC Sports.

When Ives moved to JR Motorsports to be a crew chief in the Xfinity Series from 2013-14, his cars finished in the top five in each Richmond race. Elliott had a pair of runner-up finishes there in 2014. Elliott finished second to Kevin Harvick, who was in a JR Motorsports car, in the spring 2014 Richmond Xfinity race.

“That was the culmination of something that we hit on,” Ives said of Elliott’s 2014 runs at Richmond in the Xfinity Series. “We’ll bring that over to the Cup Series in ’15. … We had some OK runs, but nothing that really was like, wow! … We never really got to the point where we were a big threat at Richmond. It was not for the lack of trying. That’s definitely for sure.”

Ives noted that regardless of the setup the results often were similar.

“From driver, aero, engine, to how the crew chief calls the race, it doesn’t seem to line up very well, that’s for sure,” Ives said of what Hendrick has tried at Richmond.

LONGEST TIME SINCE HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS LAST WON AT A TRACK

Sept. 2008 — Richmond Raceway: Jimmie Johnson

June 2010 — Sonoma Raceway: Jimmie Johnson

July 2012 — New Hampshire Motor Speedway: Kasey Kahne

May 2012 — Darlington Raceway: Jimmie Johnson

Aug. 2014 — Michigan International Speedway: Jeff Gordon

Aug. 2014 — Pocono Raceway: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Pinty's Truck Race on Dirt
Chase Briscoe (right) has leaned on Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick for advice in what has been a challenging start to Briscoe’s rookie Cup season. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

3. Searching for success

Chase Briscoe’s rookie Cup season has not gone as expected. Eight races into the season, he’s not finished better than 18th.

It’s not just him. All of Stewart-Haas Racing has not met the standards of an organization that has won 26 races since 2018.

“Obviously, we want to go out there and try to win every race, and right now our cars are off,” Briscoe said. “We’re just trying to keep that confidence, and it’s been hard to not run like I thought we would. 

“I think the encouraging thing is we’ve been fast at times of the race, we just haven’t been able to put the whole thing together, and I think that will come with experience.”

Briscoe said he’s leaned on teammate Kevin Harvick this season for advice. Briscoe said Harvick’s comments have proved helpful with several things, including what to say on the radio to the team.

“I feel like my entire career I’ve never really been vocal on the radio,” Briscoe said. “I’m a pretty even-keeled guy. I don’t get worked up. I don’t yell. I don’t get frustrated. I’m pretty normal all the time and just kind of relaxed all the time, and I probably need to get a little more worked up in the race car and let my team know what I need and not get angry or mad, not yell and scream, but be more adamant.”

Briscoe said Harvick’s advice helped him discuss how to improve that with his team.

“I felt like as a team we could have communicated a lot better, for example,” Briscoe said of last weekend’s Martinsville race. “ There were a couple of times we should have pitted and we didn’t, and we were gonna take the wave around, but there are lead lap cars in front of us and a couple times we didn’t even know who we were racing for the lucky dog. It was frustrating from my end just not knowing, and I know at Martinsville it’s really hard for my crew chief and spotter to even know all those things that are going on because stuff happens so fast, but I just felt like it needed to be addressed to make our team better.

“Just talking to Kevin about ‘How do I bring this up without being a rear end essentially?’ I don’t want to be that guy just because that’s not who I am from a personality standpoint. I’m not gonna be going into a meeting and pounding my fist or cussing or anything like that. … In the past, I never felt like I could complain because I was just thankful for the opportunity, and I didn’t want to screw up my opportunity. 

“So, just talking to Kevin about how I think, (and) the best thing he told me was you have to look out for yourself. This is a business, and if you don’t bring things up, the blame is gonna get pointed at you on why the results aren’t coming and things like that. Not saying I’m trying to blame the results on our team, I just felt like we could run a lot better and just communicate a lot better, and as that communication gets better and even me communicating what I need in the car — all those things — those are gonna make our results better.”

4. Frustrated teammates

Car owner Rick Ware told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week that he’s talked with James Davison and Cody Ware after Cody Ware spun his teammate during last weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway.

Rick Ware said that the drivers had issues this season at the Daytona road course and also Atlanta before the contact at Martinsville.

“Cody was wrong,” Rick Ware told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio host Dave Moody. “He was upset, and he knew better than to go wreck one of our cars, but he for sure spun him out.

“James and I had multiple conversations over Atlanta with him driving a little bit with tunnel vision. There were several instances (at Atlanta) that both of our cars were going to be wrecked. Cody had backed out and there was a frustration factor.”

Davison finished a season-high 22nd at Martinsville. Cody Ware placed 28th, his best result in the last six races.

5. Opening the garage

Car owner Joe Gibbs said he looks forward to NASCAR opening the garage to a limited number of team guests. That’s expected to begin next month.

Such guests have not been allowed since the sport returned from the COVID-19 pandemic last May. The garage has been restricted to team members. Car owners were allowed there this season after being permitted only in suites at races last year.

Gibbs said that inside access can be important to sponsors and potential sponsors.

“When you’re missing all that, it’s really hard,” Gibbs said. “So I appreciate our sponsors. I know that other owners do here. Everybody that has worked so hard with us. I’m hoping we reach the time now where we can start getting a lot of the key players for us, from the sponsor standpoint, back at the racetrack.

“I know NASCAR wants to do that. They’re working hard to try to get that done. But it’s a huge deal, as I mentioned earlier, because they play such a key part. Over here you can’t race these cars if you don’t have a partner, a sponsor partner.”

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