WashingtonPost.com | By Liz Clarke | March 29, 2021 at 8:25 P.M. EDT
It was hard to blame NASCAR drivers for spinning out, with the rutted clay racing surface chewing up rear tires with each high-speed slide through Bristol Motor Speedway’s steep corners.
It was even harder to fault them for wrecking, because they could barely see past mud-splattered windshields in the early going and thick walls of dust and blinding sun glare in the waning stages.
When the checkered flag flew and the red dust mercifully settled Monday, Joey Logano was the victor of the NASCAR Cup Series’ first dirt-track race in 51 years, outdueling Denny Hamlin, who ended up third, in a two-lap shootout at the end. And Logano celebrated, fittingly, by spinning his Ford in circles that kicked up new plumes of dirt.
The 253-lap Food City Dirt Race was the most anticipated event of the 36-race season — staged on a temporary dirt track created by piling 2,000 truckloads of Tennessee red clay atop the half-mile concrete oval.
Torrential rain over the weekend scuttled plans to race Sunday, wreaking havoc with the surface and flooding parking lots and campgrounds. But after a fleet of bulldozers and dirt graders restored the surface overnight, Bristol staged a dirt doubleheader under Monday’s sunny skies, with a 150-lap Truck Series race serving as the undercard to the main event.
The dirt-coated track looked smooth as red velvet when the Cup race got underway on the Fox broadcast. But just two laps in, the challenges in store for drivers became apparent.
A dirt track is a dynamic, shape-shifting beast that changes dramatically over the course of a race. It’s watered before the start to improve traction but dries out as the laps unfold.
Early in the race, the problem was mud. It clogged the cars’ grilles, causing some engines to run too hot, and it coated windshields.
As the surface dried, tire wear was the worry — particularly the right rear, which bears the heaviest load rounding the 19-degree corners. And the dust was so thick, turning the air into a thick orange haze, that racing at 100 mph became a leap of faith.
Spins and crashes soon followed, turning the event into a battle of attrition in which luck and nerve counted for more than experience.
Because the 3,400-pound stock cars couldn’t race very long without attention from a pit crew — cleaning windshields, changing tires, scraping mud off the snouts — NASCAR made sure there was a break for maintenance every 50 laps.
Crashes — and there were plenty — also brought the action to a halt 10 times for 39 laps, slowing the winner’s average speed to 46.313 mph.
In the lulls, some drivers — particularly those with virtually no dirt-track experience — laughed at the impossible conditions.
“I don’t even know what I’m doing!” Daniel Suárez said over his radio, although he would finish fourth. “My first time on dirt was five days ago!”
Others, such as Kyle Busch, vented.
“Dude, you can’t see anything!” Busch screeched to his crew chief after getting snared in a nine-car wreck on Lap 153. “You can’t see even the car in front of you!”
Nonetheless, Bristol officials were sufficiently delighted that they seized the scheduled break with 50 laps remaining to announce to fans in the stands and those following the national broadcast that they would reprise the dirt-race spectacle in spring 2022.
It had been unclear, to that point, if Monday’s return to dirt was a one-off or the start of a new tradition.
NASCAR’s elite division ran its previous race on dirt at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in September 1970. Over the decades that followed, NASCAR executives and the sport’s top promoters worked hard to make stock-car racing more professional, courting deep-pocketed corporate sponsors and nationwide acceptance as a major league sport.
If there was a subtext to NASCAR’s return to dirt after a half-century, it was to make amends with many longtime fans who have griped that NASCAR had “gotten above its raisin’ ” in its quest for nationwide popularity. By going back to its dirt roots, NASCAR sought not only to spice up its schedule but to send the message that it hadn’t forgotten where it came from and wasn’t too snooty to mix it up on dirt, like stock-car racers of old, and have a blast doing it.