Expensive Abominations

RICHMOND - Overheard a thousand times: “How come they don’t build another Bristol?”

Bristol Motor Speedway may be a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, mainly because the most popular track on the Winston Cup circuit opened in 1961, has been rebanked (higher!) and repaved (in concrete), and would be virtually impossible to identify by those who last visited the place in, say, 1990. Bristol was built – and rebuilt, time and time again – in a piecemeal fashion.

The more logical question would be: “How come they don’t build another Richmond?”

Give Paul Sawyer, now embittered by the aftermath of Richmond International Raceway’s sale to International Speedway Corporation, should have his photo on the mantel of every fan, right up there next to Dale Earnhardt and Fireball Roberts. He is the only recent builder of a race track who got it right.

Sawyer’s track wasn’t cloned from another. Michigan (and its evil, er, bankrupt twin Texas World Speedway) begat California, Las Vegas, Kentucky, Chicagoland, Kansas and (with concrete) Nashville. Charlotte begat Texas and performed plastic surgery on Atlanta.

What’s wrong with cloning? That’s obvious, isn’t it? The majority of the races look just alike. The drivers say all these tracks are different, but theirs is a rather finely honed perspective, seeing as how they drive around these tracks at breakneck speeds. On the television screen, they all look the same.

Without discussing any problems specific to any of the new tracks, save Richmond, the biggest shortcoming is a general one. Every time the series adds another Michigan and loses another North Wilkesboro, the quality of the spectacle declines. The ability and versatility it takes to be champion diminishes.

One of NASCAR’s strong points has historically been the glorious diversity of its venues. Say what you will of Darlington, Pocono, Martinsville, Dover, Bristol and Talladega, but they’re unique. They’re difficult showcases of driving skill. They test the mettle of a champion.

Twenty years from now, the builders of these new tracks are going to look as ridiculous as the architects of Three Rivers, Riverfront, Atlanta-Fulton County and Veterans stadia. Please note that all these unlamented edifices are either gone or headed that way.

So why do they keep building these nauseatingly familiar tracks? Same reason as with the big, round ballparks. They are “multipurpose” facilities. Never mind that they do none of the purposes well.

The new tracks were built to host a wide variety of events. By and large, their “moderate” banking is too flat for stock cars and too banked for Indy cars. Call it an unhappy medium.

If there were just one Michigan, it would be palatable. As it stands though, the tracks can be told apart only by their surroundings. Casinos in the distance? Vegas. Smoke and smog? Fontana. Mountains visible? Vegas. Mountains invisible? Fontana. Rolling countryside? Michigan. Air Force jets doing tricks (usually more entertaining than the race cars)? Vegas. Industrial hell? California.

You want versatility? I’ll show you versatility. Richmond has put on shows for Cup and Busch Series cars, modifieds and USAC open-wheel cars. The Indy Racing Northern Light Series is visiting later this year. We don’t know how that’s going to go, but we’re reasonably sure the IRL drivers aren’t going to be staggering out of their cars with their eyeballs compressed by the G-forces.

Richmond is only three quarters of a mile around, which means it didn’t take as much real estate to build as the other new tracks. What is a major obstacle to building other tracks near major cities? Finding the land.

RIR was built by a racing promoter, not a Wall Street speculator. Ultimately, the biggest reason why so many new tracks stink is that they were built by businessmen, and the reason why racing is becoming so mind-numbingly unimaginative is the same reason movies, TV shows and music are awash in the same, well, sameness.

And now we’re stuck. There’s only so much room for race tracks. The schedules are full. Races are going to be held at these antiseptic edifices for years to come. Until, of course, they undermine the sport so much that people just stop attending.

Then, maybe, desperate promoters will raze these expensive abominations, and motorsports will find the same brand of creativity that gave baseball Camden Yards, Jacobs Field and Pac Bell.

Why must motorsports be perpetually 20 years behind the times?

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