HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – Built out of concrete and stone, the Roman Colosseum still stands today in the Italian center of Rome as a major tourist attraction visited annually by millions from around the world.
Completed in 80 AD, the amphitheatre seated 50,000 spectators and was used for gladiator contests and public spectacles such as mock sea battles, animal hunts, and re-enactments of famous battles based on Roman mythology. The Roman Colosseum was considered by many as one of the greatest feats of Roman architecture and engineering.
Built in 1961, the .533-mile Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway is nestled in the hills of East Tennessee and originally seated around 18,000. Over the years, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers have fought their own battles on the half-mile bullring and Bristol quickly gained popularity – and seating capacity – as one of the premier stops on the circuit.
In fact, this weekend’s Food City 500 at Bristol will be the 105th Sprint Cup race at a track that now accommodates approximately 160,000 spectators and it, too, features plenty of concrete, albeit as the track’s racing surface.
A large banner at the tunnel entrance to Bristol Motor Speedway reads, “The Last Great Colosseum.” To that end, fans who visit the facility in hopes of watching modern-day gladiators in action, 27-year old Kyle Busch certainly fits the bill as he has put on quite a show there over the years.
The driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) has won five Sprint Cup races at Bristol, including four of the last eight. Busch has also recorded seven top-five finishes and 11 top-10s in 16 career Sprint Cup starts in “Thunder Valley”.
While he’s on quite a roll at Bristol, it’s interesting to note Busch didn’t immediately take to the place. During his rookie year in 2005, he posted finishes of 28th and 33rd. But Busch’s record in his last 14 starts at the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile” has been nothing short of amazing. After bringing home finishes of eighth and second in 2006, Busch captured his first Bristol Sprint Cup win in March 2007. The track was resurfaced after that race and, since then, nobody has been better at the concrete short track than Busch. He has added four more wins and a total of seven top-10s in the last 11 NASCAR races contested on the current surface.
Those numbers are certainly impressive, but Busch’s most notable Bristol feat occurred in August 2010, when he became the first driver in history to win all three of NASCAR’s national touring series events in the same weekend. He won the Wednesday-night Camping World Truck Series race, followed by the Friday-night Nationwide Series race, and he topped it off by wheeling his No. 18 M&M’s Toyota to victory and into the history books in Saturday night’s Sprint Cup race. Busch led four times for a race-high 282 laps in the latter event, bringing his weekend total to 514 laps led out of a possible 956.
Busch followed that weekend sweep by backing it up when the series returned to Bristol in March 2011. He won the Saturday Nationwide event and his fifth career Sprint Cup race at the track the following day.
Busch is looking to get back on track at Bristol in 2013 after a tough 2012, when he recorded finishes of 32nd and sixth, respectively, in the March and August visits there. If there’s anyone who is hungry to emerge from the “Last Great Colosseum” this weekend with another armful of trophies, it’s the gladiator in the M&M’s uniform.
KYLE BUSCH, Driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing:
What makes you so good at Bristol Motor Speedway? “I’m not exactly sure what makes me so good at Bristol. I’ve just had a lot of success there, but I’ve also had some misfortune there, too. Ever since I got through my rookie year, I’ve just taken a liking to the place. Of course, I’ve been able to get some help from my brother (Kurt). He’s always been really, really good there. But, when they changed the track to this current surface, I just really took to it right away. I really liked it and I’ve been fast there, but also I’ve had great racecars from Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s just a fun racetrack no matter what series I’m running there. You really have to be on your game because, you make one mistake, or someone else makes one mistake – like what happened when I got collected in the early wreck last spring – that’s it.”
Does the fourth-place finish last weekend at Las Vegas give you some momentum heading to Bristol? “We’ve had a lot of success at Bristol, but not last year. We’ve really hit a road block there for some reason, but things are different with the track changes last fall and the fact that we’ll be working with a new car this time around, as well. We have to get back on our horse a little bit and this is a good way to do it. We’ve had a tough start to the year and a good finish at Vegas, but it’s a long year to go and we have an uphill battle to climb, so we’ll just continue to claw out of it.”
What is your most memorable experience at Bristol? “The one that stands out the most for me is August 2010 – being able to do the sweep. We won the Truck race on Wednesday night, backed it up with the Nationwide race Friday and took home the Cup race on Saturday night.”
What is the most challenging aspect of Bristol? “I think the most challenging aspect of Bristol is just how difficult it is to transition through from the straightaways to the corners, back to the straightaways and have your car set up in order to do all that. Sometimes you can be really loose getting in, or you can be really tight in the middle – you just seem to never be able to get a good-flowing car that works well there. Drivers have to do a lot of manipulation with the racetrack with their car in order to try to make the best of it.”
How have you figured out the best way to get around Bristol Motor Speedway? “It has just kind of really worked well together. It’s a fun place that you go to that you like going to. You enjoy the race around there. We grew up at the ‘Bullring’ (in Las Vegas) and stuff like that. They aren’t as banked as Bristol is, but I love going and racing at Winchester (Indiana) and at Slinger (Wisconsin), Salem (Indiana) – those are all really high-banked racetracks that are a half-mile in distance, or a quarter. They’re really fun to race around and you kind of get a great feel for racing in a bowl. You go down the straightaway and you slam it into the corners and you mash the gas and you kind of sling right back out of the corners. It’s a lot of fun to do that. It’s kind of an art. Some guys are really good at it, and some find a knack that makes them really good at it and makes it seem easy.”
What makes Bristol Motor Speedway so unique and a place that fans love? “Bristol Motor Speedway is one of the best racetracks on the circuit. All the fans love it because of the excitement, the run-ins, and the close-quarter action with all the cars being packed on top of one another at a half-mile racetrack with us 43 lunatics running around in a tight circle. With the fans, the atmosphere there always makes for a good time.”