Bristol's short track long on excitement

`Controlled mayhem' returns with Food City 500

Auto Racing

March 24, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

BRISTOL, Tenn. - Winston Cup driver Sterling Marlin remembers when his father, Coo Coo, raced at Bristol Motor Speedway two decades and more ago. The track was flat. Fewer than 25,000 people were in the stands. The cars weren't nearly so equal. The winner's closest challenger was sometimes two, three laps behind.

Now, they race bumper to bumper. Breathe one another's exhaust. Have every move scrutinized by 160,000 pairs of eyes in the grandstands and a national television audience.

In the pits, crew chiefs smile as their drivers gasp breathlessly in their ears. At Bristol, if a driver isn't in need of air, he isn't in the race.

"I guarantee, if you are driving your car comfortably, you haven't got a chance at winning," said driver Mark Martin. "I'm going to whip you. Once a guy stands up in the seat, everyone else has to stand up, too."

There aren't a lot of races like today's Food City 500 left on the Winston Cup tour. Only Bristol, Martinsville, Va., and Richmond, Va., offer the short-track experience.

"You just make a group apology before it starts," said Stacy Compton, who drives for A.J. Foyt. "When you leave the drivers' meeting, you snarl at the guy beside you and you kick the guy in front of you and you think it's going to be a long day."

This afternoon, 43 cars will line up around this half-mile speedway with the 36-degree high banks. Standing along pit road, a person can get dizzy just looking up to the top of the grandstands. Engines roar and reverberate in the big bowl, and fans scream in self-defense as much as they do in excitement.

On the racetrack, it will be a three-hour test of physical and mental strength.

"It's something you never forget," said Marlin, who leads the Winston Cup points race. "It's just controlled mayhem. All you want to do is be patient and keep your nose clean."

The G-forces on the oval cause every driver to lean left. Though curving headrests and the now-required head and neck restraints help them hold their heads upright, nothing can help the physical demand that comes from driving on the edge. Drivers use the term often. The edge is just this side of disaster. Just a twitch away from out of control.

"From comfortable to turning the knife on its side and driving on its jagged edge, that's race car driving," said Mark Martin, who is making his 500th career start today. "Cars slipping and jerking and jumping at any second - in order to go from one of those situations to the other that quick, it's physically exhausting."

The cars circle the track in from 15 or 17 seconds and average in the mid-80-mph range. Imagine how good - and lucky - Cale Yarborough had to be in 1977, when he set an event record that still stands, averaging 100.989 mph.

The road ahead, as drivers swoop around the track, seems to be a slithering snake.

"You're always behind a line of cars," said Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon. "After a while, it plays with your mind. You know you need to be patient. You want to be patient. But you're looking at the line, swaying, and you know you have a good car. You know you have to pass them, and sometimes you get impatient."

Each driver hopes the other gets impatient before he does.

"Frustration causes a loss of concentration," said Tony Stewart's crew chief, Greg Zipadelli. "Losing concentration breeds mistakes."

For the most part, taking advantage of a mistake is the only way a driver can pass.

"You keep trying to intimidate them," Gordon said. "You dive low, swing back and make them think you're there when you're not there."

Even in the pits, heartbeats quicken.

"There is no place like this," said Gordon's crew chief, Robbie Loomis. "There is so much excitement we're holding our breaths. You feel like you're on the verge of something every second."

Up and down pit road, crewmen are on edge, holding hammers, air cleaners and boards to clear fenders off tires, because cars are always spinning and bumping and sliding into each other.

Because of the passing difficulty and the accidents, it's seldom that anyone comes from far back in the starting field to win. There are exceptions. Last year, Elliott Sadler came from farther back than anyone else ever had, winning from 38th place, and the entire garage area joined in the celebration.

When Stewart won here in 2000, he started first.

"I always ran well in the open-wheel cars on short tracks," said Stewart, who will start today despite lingering back pain and severe bruises from last week's crash. "In sprint cars, throttle control was everything. It's more critical than it is in a Cup car. Having to go through those experiences where you're on the gas hard, using that throttle to really get around the race track, were invaluable. It showed up here, where you use your right foot a lot."

NOTE: Jeff Green survived a record-tying 14 cautions and a final shootout after a red flag yesterday at Bristol to win his 15th career NASCAR Busch series event, the Channellock 250.

The race was stopped with nine laps to go after Greg Biffle bumped Kevin Harvick in Turn 4, contact that wrecked Harvick's car.

After the race, Harvick confronted Biffle, grabbing his firesuit and screaming in his face as crew members tried to pull them apart.

Biffle claimed he wasn't at fault for the accident, but Harvick wasn't satisfied. "Biffle's an idiot," he said. "That's all you've got to say."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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