BRISTOL, Tenn. — Whether it‘s forking over money or sheer courage, drivers and teams will pay a significant cost when attempting this week‘s World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series event at Bristol Motor Speedway.
There is nothing that measures up to the track‘s layout: 18 degrees of banking in the turns and long, narrow straightaways, amounting in a big half mile that will churn out daunting speeds.
Modern sprint cars haven‘t been put to this kind of test. That puts teams in uncharted territory when preparing for the Bristol Throwdown on Friday and Saturday, forcing basically every crew chief to assemble new race cars.
“You have to run new equipment,” said Phil Dietz, the crew chief for the Jason Johnson Racing No. 41.
Without the engine, a newly-assembled sprint car costs roughly $30,000, according to Dietz, a price teams need to pay in order for ultimate safety.
Stiffened axles, beefed-up rear ends, heavier wings, and larger fuel cells are some common changes teams have made to ensure reliable race cars this weekend.
Instead of typical 28-gallon fuel cells, most teams — like Dietz and the JJR No. 41 with Carson Macedo behind the wheel — are using 30-gallon tanks. The track will require more on-throttle demands and cooler temperatures require more fuel usage. Dietz also built a special wing.
“Obviously aero(dynamics) is very important here,” Dietz said. “We didn‘t want to take any chances.”
Overall, Dietz kept the No. 41 relative to what the team runs on big half-mile ovals, such as Ohio‘s Eldora Speedway, Port Royal (Pa.) Speedway, and Calistoga (Calif.) Speedway.
“For that reason, we kept our car pretty similar to what we normally run on big tracks,” Dietz said.
Jason Sides is taking an old-school approach to this weekend‘s Bristol Throwdown. For the first time since 2001, he is using a sideboard — shorter wing panels that were popular two decades ago.
“Twenty years ago I was younger and could see a lot better, and I couldn‘t see real well then,” Sides said, almost jokingly. “The boards have evolved and have gotten bigger. They capture more air and everything. I just went back and had something made like the old school (days). It‘s something a little smaller and something you can see from out under it, so you can see both sides of you.
“With this much banking, you‘re already titled to the left and it‘s hard to see,” Sides added. “It just makes it easier to see.”
Some teams, specifically those that don‘t run with the World of Outlaws on a regular basis, simply aren‘t willing to build a new race car for one event.
Anthony Macri, the 21-year-old Pennsylvania Posse driver who surged to 11 sprint car wins last year, received an invite to the Bristol event, but he and crew chief Jimmy Shuttlesworth saw more disadvantages than advantages to competing at Bristol and declined the invitation.
“I thought, ‘First of all, you have to change your program a little bit to go down there,‘” Shuttlesworth said. “One thing you have to do is make your parts stronger, which costs the owner a lot of money. Then, safety wise, that‘s the most important thing. You don‘t want to break parts. Not only will you hurt yourself everything you have, but you hurt other people, like other cars behind.
“If we were running with the Outlaws, we would [race],” Shuttlesworth added. “To do that right now, we didn‘t want to.”
On top of the financial costs, drivers face extraordinary speeds and the possible scares that come with them, another factor that may have dwindled the prospective car count from 38 to 28 by practice night on Thursday.
Brian Brown, Justin Peck, and Kerry Madsen are three drivers who backed out of the event earlier this week.
“The speed of the track is just going to be concerning for the parts we run nowadays,” said Pennsylvania Posse driver Danny Dietrich, who also turned down an invite to run the Bristol Throwdown. “I don‘t think our cars are meant to run those kinds of speeds. I just worry about everybody‘s safety as well.”
This week marks the second time sprint cars are racing at Bristol, and the first time such an occurrence has taken place since 2001. A lot has changed over the years, namely a weight limit and added horsepower.
That means that not much, if anything, can be taken from that first event.
“I don‘t know what the answer is,” Shuttlesworth said. “We‘re talking 21 years ago. Our tires are different. I‘m sure everybody had their cars better than they‘ve ever been, downforce-wise. I think you‘ll find out there are going to be a lot of race cars sitting into the race track pretty hard. I don‘t know. Maybe everyone is overdoing it. But I still think you have to be a little stronger [in preparing the cars].
“You sure don‘t want to be that guy who has problems.”