BRISTOL, TN — Within 30 seconds of walking out of the tunnel and into the infield of Bristol Motor Speedway I find myself dodging the first of many cars of the weekend. The half-mile oval is one of the last true short tracks on the NASCAR schedule, as the sport is dominated by mile and a half and larger tracks where infield space is at far less of a premium, providing ample room for RVs and campers.
Bristol is very different — in so many wonderful ways — but the contrast in the infield experience at Bristol to a larger track is rather incredible. Wandering around at a place like Indianapolis, it takes serious effort to be in the way of the teams and crews at work. At Bristol, it’s impossible not to be in the way, even if you’re actively trying not to be. There are no garages, only the team trailers crammed in side-by-side with about a person’s width between them.
Your hot pass guarantees you close encounters with cars, drivers, pit crew members, and safety crew vehicles. “Rubbin’s racin'” is never more appropriate than at Bristol, where close quarters lead to constant contract on and off the track.
After dodging cars, toolboxes, hand carts full of tires, and golf carts for the better part of 24 hours, I finally am unable to avoid contact at Bristol. During driver introductions, while standing in pit lane near Chase Elliot’s Kelley Blue Book No. 9, Kyle Busch delivers a forearm shiver to my back while pushing his way to his No. 18 M&M’s machine, setting the tone for the evening as Busch would find himself in three on-track wrecks while somehow managing to finish 19th despite losing his rear bumper less than 10 laps into the race.
Bristol calls itself “The Last Great Colosseum” of racing. It’s a throwback to when short tracks were more prevalent and its nickname is a nod to its status as a true racing stadium, fully enclosed by stands, which makes it stand out compared to spread out superspeedways. The infield experience is a jumbled, congested mess, but an enjoyable one, much like races at Bristol themselves.
Luck is as big a factor at Bristol as anywhere in NASCAR, where simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time when rubbin’ becomes wreckin’ can end your day. However, it also allows drivers to tap into their roots. Short tracks are where drivers honed their craft because there aren’t many local 1.5 to 2.5 mile tracks. A half-mile track evokes a certain nostalgia for drivers to their younger days, even those that grew up with rich NASCAR ties.