10 Great Bristol Memories
by Tom Jensen September 18, 2020
Bristol Motor Speedway has a rich history of furious competition and tight racing.
On Saturday night, the first round of the 2020 NASCAR premier series playoffs concludes with the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, a fast and claustrophobically tight 0.533-mile short track nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, just south of the Virginia/Tennessee border.
Nicknamed “The Last Great Coliseum,” Bristol is known for tight racing and furious tempers, and given that this is the first time the track has hosted a playoff race, let alone a playoff elimination race, there likely will be a lot of beating and banging under the lights on Saturday night.
The Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race will be the 120th premier series race the track has hosted. Here are 10 memorable moments in Bristol history.
10. The First Year
When Bristol opened in 1961, the track was a half-mile, subtly banked paved oval known as Bristol International Speedway. The inaugural Volunteer 500 was won by Jack Smith who had to get relief help from Johnny Allen after suffering burns on his heels in the hot cockpit of his Pontiac. Hall of Famer Fred Lorenzen (2015) qualified on the pole at 79.225 mph in his Holman-Moody Racing Ford but retired after 175 laps with mechanical woes. Smith earned $3,025 for his victory.
Bristol made headlines when the track announced that the University of Tennessee and Virginia Tech would play each other in a football game on the infield of the race track in 2016. Billed as “The Battle at Bristol,” the game was won by Tennessee, 45-24. But that wasn’t the first game the track hosted a football game. On September 2, 1961, the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Washington Redskins (now Washington Football Team) 17-10 in a pre-season game at Bristol.
8. Throwing Caution to the Wind
One of the most remarkable races at Bristol was the 1971 Volunteer 500, won by Charlie Glotzbach, who finished three laps ahead of Hall of Famer Bobby Allison (2011) and six laps ahead of third-place Richard Petty (2010). In the 119 races run to date at Bristol, it is the only one that went caution-free for all 500 laps. Glotzbach’s average speed of 101.074 mph remains the track record nearly half a century later. The victory was worth $5,675.
7. Dropping the Hammer
Bristol was always a great track for Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough (2012), who won nine races on the Tennessee short track. Those nine victories tie Bristol with Daytona International Speedway as the two tracks where he won the most races. In the 1973 Southeastern 500, Yarborough made history by qualifying on the pole and leading all 500 laps. He remains the only driver to win at Bristol by going flag to flag. In his career, Yarborough led 3,706 laps at Bristol, the most of any track he raced at.
6. The Boss of Bristol
Lots of drivers had success at Bristol, but only one won the most races there. The undisputed King of Bristol among all drivers is Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip (2012), who won 12 races there, including a remarkable seven in a row from the spring of 1981 to the spring of 1984. Waltrip’s team owner during that streak, Hall of Famer Junior Johnson (2010), was the winning premier series car owner 15 times at Bristol, a track record.
5. Night Time is the Right Time
The first Bristol night race was the 1978 Volunteer 500, run on August 28th of that year. The duo of driver Cale Yarborough (2012) and his fellow Hall of Fame team owner Junior Johnson (2010) were the class of the field that night with Yarborough leading 327 of 500 laps to claim the $15,910 purse. That year, Yarborough would go on to win his third consecutive Cup championship, all driving for Johnson.
4. Men Behaving Badly
Bristol is famous for bringing out hot tempers in drivers. Sometimes it results in trading paint, as irritated drivers beat and bang on each other. Other times, things get thrown in anger, like Ward Burton tossing his heat shields at Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2021) after being spun out in a 2002 race, or 10 years later, when Hall of Famer Tony Stewart (2020) chucked his helmet at Matt Kenseth’s car as Kenseth was leaving pit road. Speaking of Kenseth, he and Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon (2019) got into a shoving match on pit road after the spring race in 2006, when Gordon got spun out by Kenseth.
3. The Intimidator and The Iceman
Two of the most famous incidents at Bristol involved the same protagonists, Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt (2010) and Terry Labonte (2016). In 1995 in the August race, Earnhardt rammed leader Labonte and spun him out on the frontstretch as they approached the start-finish line, but Labonte still had the momentum and hung on to win the race. This race is one of 80 races featured in the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Heritage Speedway in the Greatest Finishes interactive exhibit.
2. The Intimidator and The Iceman, Part Deux
Four years later, in 1999, history somewhat repeated itself when Dale Earnhardt (2010) and Terry Labonte (2016) went at it for the victory again. This time, though, it was Earnhardt who won after wrecking Labonte in Turn 2 on the last lap. “Didn’t mean to really turn him around,” Earnhardt said famously after the race. “I meant to rattle his cage, though.” The move was a polarizing one for the heavily pro-Earnhardt crowd, many of whom booed furiously, upset with what they had witnessed. This race is also featured in the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Heritage Speedway in the Greatest Finishes interactive exhibit.
Didn’t mean to really turn him around. I meant to rattle his cage, though.
— Dale Earnhardt, Sr.
1. A Happy Upset
When the field rolled off to take the green flag in the 2001 Food City 500, no one expected much from Elliott Sadler and the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford. After all, up to that point, Sadler was winless in 74 career premier series starts, and the last time the Wood Brothers had won a race was way back in 1993, when Morgan Shepherd was victorious at Atlanta. But the day fell right for Sadler and his team, which was founded by Hall of Famer Glen Wood (2012) in 1950. Making the race even more memorable was that John Andretti finished second in the No. 43 Petty Enterprises entry. For old school race fans, a short track battle that saw the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford beat the No. 43 Petty car was a welcome blast from the past.