By Clint Knight @cjknight3
Early Friday morning, I dropped the kids off at school, and directed the Sienna Van southward – something I had waited to do for months. If you listen to the podcast, you know I don’t get to as many races as I’d like – but this was something I refused to miss. I trucked it just over 400 miles from my door to Bristol Motor Speedway – and I had the anxiety of a child who couldn’t wait for elementary school field day.
My GPS said 3 minutes to arrival – as I drove through a very typical looking neighborhood. There was an older couple walking their dog, a tanked- topped mullet tinkering under the hood of a Chevy Blazer…and then one stop sign later – I saw it: The Last Great Colosseum. The lights and metal structure edged itself over the trees and hillside, just to the right of a church steeple. I was overcome with joy. I had waited for this moment for over 20 years – and the sugar on top – today it would be winged Sprint Cars on dirt.
I wheeled my soccer team toter into a parking spot at the credentials booth, and nearly ran to the window. I remembered that I needed my ID, so I sprinted back for it. When I arrived at the awning lettered “Credentials”, I was forced to wait uncomfortably as a group expressed their frustration to someone on the other side, about where their will-call tickets may, or may not be. Finally it was my turn – I took three steps forward and presented my ID, and the voice from the other side said, “Yeah – so who are you?”. My heart dropped. I had the email confirming my Media Credentials. I read it at least a dozen times. I planned this trip for months. I just drove nearly 7 hours, alone, stopping twice, only to pee. “I’m Clint Knight” I muttered, “with the Ohio Dirt Track Podcast?” It came out like a question. “Next window, hun…” and she pointed her thumb to the guy standing just to her right. The guy to her right had clearly seen my face drop like a kid who just lost the county spelling bee on the word “disappointed”. He said, “I’ve got you right here sir…” and then proceeded to give me precise directions about where to go, and how to get there. Sweet – I was in. I got my parking pass and bracelet and jumped back in the van.
As soon as I got out of the van, I could hear Johnny Gibson’s voice wafting over the top of the colosseum walls. My heart was racing – and we were still hours from qualifying. I looked directly up at the towering walls – noticing the incredible structure that holds the suspended video screen – and marveled at the engineering. To my right – I could see the terraced hillside – that on any NASCAR day would be filled with campers. I imagined the smell of cheap beer and sounds of debauchery. But it was quiet today – under strange circumstances – only a few motorcoaches. Ok – enough gawking – time to get to work. I opened the back hatch of the van – and grabbed my computer bag – double checked that I had my phone charger, put on my @OhioDirt hat, and headed to “work”.
Once I got through the gate, I quickly found the tunnel and headed for the infield. I barely caught a glimpse of the gate that goes across the track. I noticed the red racing surface, but didn’t look too close. I was moving fast and saving myself for the big reveal when I surfaced on the other side. And it did not disappoint. When I climbed the stairs into the infield – it was everything that I expected. Towering grandstands framing the ½ Mile oval – a glowing red dirt surface. The giant suspended video screen where Gib’s voice was leading the smattering of early arrivals through some WoO trivia game…and haulers, side by side down the 500 feet of infield – with Big Block Modified and 410 Sprint Cars parked behind them. I was a kid in a candy store – not sure where to go first. Not sure what I wanted to see first. It was so much.
I headed for the end of pit row, and decided I would just start walking and see who I see. I got my phone out, ready to record anything and everything I could. At the top of pit row was Rico, and then Jac with the iconic yellow Penzoil 22. I caught up with Jac early – which you can see in our Twitter feed. I worked my way down and grabbed Schuchart for a quick video. Then Gravel, Sweet, Drew Brenner, A-Aron, Eliason – everyone was buzzing. You could tell that there was some anxiety, excitement, yet everyone seemed relatively comfortable. After all – these are the best Sprint Car drivers in the world.
I watched hot laps from the top of the media center – and I couldn’t help but to think that quite a few of the drivers seemed apprehensive out there. It was almost like they weren’t sure what they could get away with – actually achieve. I thought back to my interview with Jac and remembered that he said the track was very different than it was in practice on Thursday. So, they’re just getting it figured out – tip-toeing.
After hot laps – I went down pit road and asked all the drivers – that I could – to guess what Quick Time would be (not who it would be – but what the number would be). Check out the @OhioDirt Twitter feed for that – use #GuessQuickTime. David Gravel had the 2nd closest guess, and then went out and beat his guess to set a new track record of 13.672 at 138mph. I watched qualifying in the stands with our friend JD Smith. It was clear, from that vantage point, who had a motor and who didn’t. Speaking of that – both Aaron Reutzel and Cory Eliason completed motor changes before the heats. It was shaping up to be an expensive night.
From the drop of the green of heat #1, it was clear that Gravel would be the car to beat tonight. He was in a rocket ship, and couldn’t be caught. In Heat #2, Sam Hafertepe Jr. proved that he came to Bristol to play – and he didn’t intend on being a quiet runner up. Carson Macedo ran away in Heat 3. The heats were impressive to watch – but not a lot of intense racing. For the most part – they were a bit strung out in the front half of the pack – give or take a few exceptions. But it was still incredible to see these cars on this 28 degree banking – at these speeds – on dirt.
After the 410 heats – we got into the big block mods. I have to confess – I’ve never sat and watched an entire modified race, but today was different. These guys were SENDING it into turn one, and I was mesmerized. They were running 3 different lines and roaring through the center of the turns. I made my way down to the infield wall in 1 and 2, and simply became a race fan again for 30 or 45 minutes.
Rico won the 410 B Main and Jac held on to a qualifying spot to make the A Main. McFadden, Eliason, Tyler Courtney, and Hagar also transferred. Gravel ran away with the dash and Sam Hafertepe once again let everyone know that he was serious. Once again – it was pretty clear to me at this point – as long as he had a clean race with no engine or tire mishaps – Gravel had this in the bag.
And so it was – the feature kicked off with Gravel and Hafertepe jockeying for position early, but Gravel clearly had the advantage and made his way into the lead. I was hoping to see Sam get to the top and make a run at Gravel , but he continued to stay low as Gravel ran away. Donnie worked his way to third, but Aaron Reutzel was on the hunt. He would eventually get by Schatz and run down Hefertepe to take second – as Gravel continued to roll. With 5 to go, there was caution on the speedway – but it wasn’t enough to cause drama. Gravel rocketed off the green and Reutzel couldn’t make up the difference. David Gravel claimed the $10k on Friday at Bristol.
I made my way to Victory Lane. I stood and watched as the pomp and circumstance unfolded. There was a lot going on in front of me, but I couldn’t stop looking at this structure. This massive stadium, created for motorsports and dedicated to the most passionate of fans. I was excited by what I had witnessed, but saddened that the events of recent history kept so many away – they missed out. As the celebration and interviews continued, I spun around looking at the incredible number of empty seats and thought to myself, “It’s Bristol, baby – but…”