The Top Five: Breaking down the Bristol and Long Beach races

Five thoughts after NASCAR’s race at Bristol and IndyCar’s race at Long Beach…

1. Urgency and impatience

Bristol was the best race of the year so far, and it pretty much has lapped the competition in what has been largely a ho-hum season to this point.

It’s a shame only a few thousand people appeared to be in the stands after a postponement and many were stuck at work on a Monday, because the “old” Bristol everyone has been clamoring for — a dominant bottom groove — was back.

At least for a day.

The combination of the sticky PJ1 compound, the freezing weather and a top groove that never really got rubbered in — thanks to both short runs and the rain — meant the place to make passes was on the bottom. And impatient drivers, knowing the race could end any time if another rain/sleet/snow cell came through, frequently used the bumper to make their way to the front.

Even Kyle Busch’s winning pass on Kyle Larson was a bump-and-run — something that couldn’t be achieved in recent years when the top was the fastest lane. After all, you can’t bump someone out of the way when you’re already next to the wall.

This might have been a fluke situation, given the temperatures. When NASCAR returns to Bristol in August, the bottom might not be dominant anymore.

But at least this was one weekend where the conditions — despite being less than ideal for those in attendance — actually helped make for a great show.

2. Short tracks rule yet again

My favorite part about watching racing is when you can see the driver making a difference in the car. I’ve never cared that much about watching a dominant car that is faster than everyone else; I want to see extremely talented drivers perform and put on a show.

Bristol was another example of a short track bringing the drivers into the equation more than a typical NASCAR track. What made Monday’s race so fun to watch was the various drivers working their way into the top five and having to make decisions on how to work through lapped traffic and preserve their tires.

Look at Bubba Wallace, for example: There he was, battling with Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch for the race lead. And then he nudged Keselowski out of the way and actually took the top spot! It was very exciting to see a rookie driver do that, because that kind of thing just doesn’t happen on the typical NASCAR oval.

Ryan Newman was up there having a good run for much of the race. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. challenged for the win. Jimmie Johnson reminded everyone he’s still the best driver in history. And viewers could see that a big reason their cars were up toward the front was because of the drivers.

That’s what I love to see, and I assume others watch for the same reasons. Wouldn’t it be nice to see that type of action on a weekly basis?

Once again: More Short Tracks, please!

3. A grand Grand Prix

The Long Beach Grand Prix was the first time in memory I covered a race for work but sort of wished I attended for fun instead.

That’s because everyone I walked by just looked so damn happy. People were enjoying the sunshine, margarita in hand, watching race cars go by all day. You could sit in the grandstands if you wanted to, or change your angle of the race by walking around the course to see various turns.

There was music, a convention hall full of displays and activities, go-karting and, of course, the spectacular scenery (Want to stare at the harbor while race cars drive by in the background? You can!). I could easily picture walking around with my future children and having a relaxing family outing.

It was glorious. It’s no wonder the Grand Prix said more than 185,000 people attended over the course of three days — up slightly from 183,400 last year.

But who are the people that attend? Are they race fans — those who follow IndyCar or IMSA and know the drivers — or are they people who show up because it’s a festival that happens to have a race?

I asked roughly a dozen people that question during the course of the weekend, both on the record and in casual conversation. The most common answer was about 50-50, though no one went higher than 60 percent race fans. And some went as low as 30 percent race fans.

Personally, I think it was closer to the smaller number. As an experiment — admittedly an unscientific one — I watched 100 people walk by and made a tally on my notepad for every person who was wearing racing-related clothing of some kind (even if it was Formula One or a shirt displaying vintage cars). Out of those random 100 people, only 27 wore any type of apparel that would identify them as someone interested in cars or racing.

Now, I’m not saying all race fans wear racing merchandise — and perhaps in a different area of the track, I would have gotten a different number. But the point is, I’m convinced the majority of the people there were either casual fans or not fans of racing at all.

And…that’s perfectly fine! There’s no problem with that. What’s great about having a race right in a city is you bring the event to the people. There’s still the usual opportunity for any hardcore race fan to attend, but it exposes the product to potential new fans as well.

But even if the attendees don’t become fans, those people still paid to get in the gates, along with whatever they spend on food, drinks and shopping.

“Every track should be doing stuff like this,” eventual Long Beach winner Alexander Rossi told me via phone last month. “If you want families and people to come out, you make it an event and talk about all the things you can experience. That’s a positive thing. You’ll get people in the door that maybe would never be there otherwise, and maybe you get some of them hooked on racing in the process.”

Defending IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden said when he meets people at Long Beach, he can tell many of them are just there for the party. But there are also plenty of true fans who bring him old-school racing gear to sign, which shows there’s “a really nice blend of (people).”

“When you put on a street course race, it is kind of like a festival and a party, so you want people to just show up and have a good time and enjoy the atmosphere,” Newgarden said. “But it’s also nice to have those purist racers who are here for the action and want to see the race, and I think you get a good mix.”

More than 185,000 people attended the Long Beach Grand Prix over the course of three days this year. (Photo: Action Sports Inc.)

4. The garage and the paddock

Prior to covering this IndyCar race, I had been to every NASCAR race weekend so far this season. And I have to say, the general vibes couldn’t be more different.

In NASCAR, there’s a sense of gloom as the ratings have continued to decline. There’s the familiar hand-wringing over the direction of the sport, frustration at the racing getting overshadowed by things like penalties or pit guns, and a high degree of sensitivity over anything perceived as negative. It feels like NASCAR is always fending off one crisis after another.

But in IndyCar, there’s a sense of optimism and enthusiasm. The drivers seem happy to be there and they openly speak about positive changes (like the new car). When you talk to people who work in the IndyCar paddock, they truly feel their sport is going in the right direction.

And yet…NASCAR’s attendance and viewership still dwarfs IndyCar on a weekly basis. So in theory, people in the NASCAR industry should have reason to be happier and IndyCar should be discouraged about the relative lack of attention. But it’s the opposite.

I don’t have the answer for why that is, other than IndyCar seems to already have endured its most challenging stretch and is now on the rise while NASCAR hasn’t bottomed out yet during its decade-long slump.

5. Points leaders

Busch and Long Beach winner Alexander Rossi might race different types of cars, but they have something in common so far this season.

They’ve both emerged as the drivers to beat in their respective series.

Kevin Harvick got the attention with his three wins, but Busch’s last six races have been ridiculous — two wins, three runner-up finishes and a third-place finish. Busch is now the NASCAR points leader by 59 over Joey Logano.

Meanwhile, Rossi leads the IndyCar points by 22 over Josef Newgarden in a series that does not have a playoff.


After Long Beach, veteran driver Will Power said IndyCar right now has “the most competitive, talented group of drivers the series has seen.” And out of all those great drivers, Rossi is out-pacing everyone.

“When you look at what Rossi did this weekend — man, really, really strong,” Power said. “I think he’s going to be tough to beat in the championship. He’s definitely what I’d call a standout of the field right now in every respect.”

5 Replies to “The Top Five: Breaking down the Bristol and Long Beach races”

  1. I have been a fan of open wheel racing since the early ’80s. I have been to Cart and Indy car races every year. I have never once worn a shirt or hat proclaiming my favorite driver. Why? Because I LOVE THE SPORT. Yes, I had fav’s (PT) but what makes you a fan is not how you fly your freak flag, it is by being there and cheering everyone on, supporting the event. Maybe I am old, but I just want to see a good race. I choose to not wear branded clothing because I want everyone to do well. I buy the overpriced tickets and outrages hotel room fees (note to Hilton LB) just to support the series. Indy car will not survive if we just buy 1 T-shirt for our fav driver or team. Indy Car is not NASCAR. We need to support all the teams. My 2 cents.

  2. I believe NASCAR and NHRA attendance is down for the most basic of reasons. Both sports got their start as grass roots sports. The lack of inexpensive cars that can be worked on in your home garage or in your high-school shop class has severely reduced the involvement of the younger generations or lower income families that in the past have made up the backbone of enthusiasts as participants or observers. No exposure equals no interest. Since it’s inception Indy hasn’t really had the same image even though so many great drivers came up through the quarters and such. Most of the top drivers couldn’t fix anything on their own cars except the seatbelts. They can both fix this but not on their present paths.

  3. It was nice to be reminded why a ticket to Bristol used to be impossible to get. Precision of using the bump and run…not wreck and run, brought back the fun! So many comers and goers, lots of action all over the track…what a fun and engaging race to watch! Reminded me why I USED to have season tickets for Bristol. Short tracks deliver on action.

  4. Jeff, you’ve been to Sonoma and LB in the past several months and have seen what are possibly the two most different atmospheres (ovals aside). It seems like all series should have multiple events and series running, with as much on-track action as possible. It’s expensive and risky, but it’s worth a shot at ovals (for IC at least, or road courses). When IMSA and IC are disputing who is the big ticket item, it does nobody any good. Taking the races to the people in the form of a street course is difficult because it doesn’t produce the best racing, but if a sub-par sporting event is needed a couple times per year to entertain and grow a fan base, so be it.

    That’s not to say LB was poor, because IMSA and IC were both entertaining races this season, but street courses constrict the cars with space constraints, and track conditions are for longevity instead of performance. Would I like seeing NASCAR try a street course, absolutely. But that’ll never happen, especially if short tracks still occupy only a small part of the schedule.

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