LOOKING BACK: Did the Bristol Dirt Race Propel Late Model Racing to the next level?

By Chris Tilley

Bristol Motor Speedway and the Hav-A-Tampa Dirt Racing Series made history in the year 2000 like nothing the dirt late model world had ever seen. Twenty years ago this June to be exact.

Before Bristol, the World 100, the dirt late model Dream along many other Crown Jewel races had solidified their place in history but did the events that transpired at the hallowed racing grounds located in northeastern Tennessee add to that excitement or put late model racing in its own league?

When people think of Bristol Motor Speedway, they naturally think of NASCAR. With any other form of motorsports or sporting events for that matter, there are a few places that stand out to people with significant events or moments in history that make their mark. Bristol covered with dirt was one of them. Constructed in 1960, Bristol had its own unique flavor with the concrete-covered surface and stadium-seating that looked like a giant salad bowl, as referred to by many. Names like Petty, Earnhardt and Waltrip to name a few made their mark in NASCAR’s history books at the famed track. So how could dirt late models make an impact on something that had already cemented their place in history?

Looking back, it doesn’t seem like it’s been nearly twenty years since over 1,000 loads of dirt was hauled in from a local farm, placed sixteen inches above the hard surface of Bristol to make it into a temporary “racing venue” for competing dirt cars. Sawdust was actually used underneath the dirt surface to hold moisture and for easy removal. Not only did the dirt late models race at the coveted Bristol track, the World of Outlaws sprint cars and open wheel modifieds also competed during the mega event that spanned two weekends.

So how did this all come about? Debra Swims, the wife of the late Mike Swims who passed away in 2007, saw Mike’s passion for race tracks and his series evolve into something special with the running of the first Bristol race. At the time, Mike was operating the Hav-A-Tampa National tour as well as the family-owned Dixie and Rome Speedway’s located in north Georgia. “He loved racing, he always felt like dirt track racing did not get the publicity and the mainstream media coverage like it should. He was always trying to expand the sport to bring more people in. That was really an overall goal of his in every event that he planned.”

Mike Swim’s vision continued, and after talks with track general manager Jeff Byrd and Wayne Estes (communications director) it finally came to fruition that dirt late models would race on the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway. “He kept trying to think of different things that could be done to start joining the NASCAR fans with the dirt track fans because they’re not always the same,” said Debra Swims. “Mike’s overall business plan was just promoting dirt track racing because he loved it so much…expose it to more people.”

Mia Swims-Green, sister of Mike Swims, talked about the impact this event had on her racing family. It all started with an announcement from the legendary promoter at his 1999 Hav-A-Tampa Racing Series banquet. “Mike had a goal to showcase dirt track racing for what he always believed it could be and when I say always I mean all the way back to when we were little. His first goal was to make Dixie (Speedway) a showplace and to make it big and to make it successful not just for business reasons but because he truly loved what he did,” stated Green. “He was really excited about the Bristol deal and truly when he talked about it to us, to the family, he would say this is going to change dirt track racing.” With over 45,000 fans in attendance for Saturday’s finale at a facility that held nearly 150,000, the inaugural running of the race seemed to be a glowing success because dirt track racing had never seen those types of crowds before.

Eventual Bristol winner Dale McDowell was complimentary of Mike Swims’ path to success. “Mike Swims was such a person with a bigger vision of what to do. Our industry was strong and gaining some strength about that time and with lots of pieces in the puzzle, it just took a lot to put together, but they did it,” commented McDowell. “I was honored to win the inaugural race there. It was a trophy that I’m going to cherish and its one of my keepers for sure,” recalled McDowell. Racer turned promoter Ray Cook also applauded the efforts of Swims. “It just goes to show how much influence and how hard Mike Swims worked to pull that off, that was huge.”

The event on a new surface was unchartered territory for all of the race teams. Extensive testing was done before the first competitive laps were ran on the half-mile track. “The guys they hired were from the dirt late model industry so they put a lot of thought into that when they were fixing the track. It was a work in progress with so many moving parts,” stated McDowell.

Mike Swims, who was eventually inducted into the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame in 2007, then President of the UDTRA and its Hav-A-Tampa Dirt Racing Series did a television interview before the first Bristol dirt race with broadcast partner Speedvision. The late Swims knew that when the dust settled at the first event at Bristol, people would be talking about it long after. “I just think it’s a tremendous step in dirt racing tonight, mostly for dirt late model racing,” stated Swims. United Dirt Track Racing Association’s Hav-A-Tampa Series has been in existence for eleven years, this is a major step and I think some people are going to take notice to this crowd tonight, the kind of show these guys put on, it going to be amazing.”

With success in events comes hard work, dedication and the promotional ability in which Mike Swims along with the crew at Bristol Motor Speedway and everyone associated with the event had. Even successful events have blemishes which is a common theme anytime you’re promoting an outdoor event. Rain showers plagued the days preceding the mega-weekend which led to track conditions that caused several issues in Saturday’s finale. Fans were also kept out of the bottom fifteen rows in the bleachers due to dust concerns and broken wheels in the main event on Saturday became a burden to race teams. “When the moisture started coming back, the race track had some rough spots in it and we hadn’t been anywhere where we ran those speeds constant with that banking so the race track was insanely fast,” eventual winner McDowell recalled. The newly formed surface took the track from its original 36 degrees of banking to a newly formed 24 degrees. “Where the holes and dips were, that was the culprit on the wheels breaking and obviously we’ve never had that problem,” said McDowell.

Freddy Smith and Chub Frank, a pair of stalwarts in the sport made history by leading the field of 30 cars to the green flag for the start of the inaugural “Living Air 100” in which Mike Balzano led the historical opening lap. Balzano went on to lead until lap-34 when troubles with a broken wheel knocked him out of contention for the win.

McDowell talked about his run in the $20,000-to-win feature on Saturday night. “I recall running third behind when (Mike) Balzano was leading and (Shannon) Babb was there too and I saw they were running through the holes but that’s where the traction was, where the most grip was in the rough spots in the race track as it is today. When he (Balzano) broke that wheel, I actually took note of that and thought man I can’t run through that because there’s going to be an issue here so I was right there where I could see it and then Shannon (Babb) broke a wheel as I recall.”

In fact, McDowell would play victim to a broken wheel during the mandatory fuel stop at lap-50. “They let anybody that had a visible crack in the wheel change it and mine was cracked,” stated McDowell. “What was so odd at those points and times of racing is we had a right-rear tire that was a different construction, it was what they called an LSB construction back then so it had a stiffer sidewall that we would use on higher speed racetracks but we didn’t actually have that for that reason, we weren’t prepared. Fate had it that we had that thing there for a spare and we put it on so it just worked out for us but I stayed out of the holes for the rest of the night,” McDowell chuckled.

Speeds were in excess of 118 mph. for the qualifying efforts held the night prior while speeds in excess of 130 mph. were reached in the feature race adding to McDowell’s sentiments that it was unlike anything the race teams had ever seen before.

Ray Cook remembers the speed and compared it to Eldora Speedway in Ohio. “It was fast. It was the fastest thing we had ever ran on. As a driver, when you go to these big tracks you’re aIways intimidated by the size of the track, I don’t care who you are, especially when it’s against the wall. Eldora was the biggest place we had ever been to, well when we went to Bristol it was like bigger and faster but the intimidation wasn’t there because the groove was in the middle of the race track, so if something happened you had a safe runoff spot.”

“I remember we had Cornett Ford motors at that time, it was the biggest thing we could get (laughed Cook) but I remember that also put Real Wheels on the market too because a lot of the wheel companies sent letters out saying their wheels wouldn’t hold up for there. They recommended buying a heavier wheel and we was able to take the wheels we had, our lightest weight wheel that Real offered and was able to go up there and had no issues. Those were some things I remember the most coming out of Bristol which was the parts and pieces that held up. We was running big old heavy springs that we had never ran, along with doing things we had never done before.”

In 2001, Bristol and UDTRA teamed up again for another round on the dirt. When the series returned to Bristol, it returned with a new name. The UDTRA Pro DirtCar Series rolled into Bristol without the Hav-A-Tampa sponsorship. McDowell looked back and thought that big amounts of preparation by everyone at Bristol and UDTRA made the event another vibrant success. They also saw a big difference, that being weather. McDowell stated that the track crew did a few things different to prepare with the significant weather changes of the previous year. “There’s a huge misconception. Working a race track is a lot like these setups on these cars, sometimes you do everything the same and there’s just different conditions and it reacts different and the same way with our race cars,” McDowell said. In the 2001 Bristol event, McDowell came back and had three-straight top-ten finishes during a weekend that featured three main events which were victorious by Scott Bloomquist (twice) and Jimmy Mars.

The magnitude of the crowd shocked not only the rest of the dirt late model world but winner Dale McDowell. “It was pretty awesome really, a huge crowd. That was the biggest crowd, over 45,000 people there at that point and time.”

McDowell talked about what the significance the first Bristol dirt race did for his racing career. “Something that had as much fame behind it as Bristol had, and to be able to go up there and be a part of an event like that was huge for us and the whole dirt late model industry, but to be able to win it was really big for us. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years ago (McDowell chuckled) it doesn’t seem like that long ago but it was a lot of fun. I think it introduced a lot of people to the sport and it got so much hype building up to that race.”

McDowell said. “I was the (Hav-A-Tampa) champion in ’99 so I got to do a lot of the advertising stuff for that race and so we went up and did some stories. I met Bruton Smith (Bristol Motor Speedway owner) up there prior to that race. They were doing a lot of promoting so we was able to do a lot of cool stuff leading up to it and then for us to win it was unbelievable.”

Ray Cook was a hard charger in that inaugural Bristol event. He moved from his 27th starting spot to finish ninth in the final rundown. It was also a busy few weeks for the driver who had just won the 'Show Me 100' in Missouri five days earlier. “Bristol was an exciting deal, I don’t know of anything that compares to it or nothing really since then, it was a big deal,” said Cook who ran both years on the dirt at Bristol. Cook went on to say “I didn’t know what to think, it was overwhelming from having to park outside the track and get all of our equipment in the infield, it was totally different for us.”

Was the first Bristol race a pinnacle moment for dirt racing? Dale McDowell seems to think so. “I think that was a huge step to where we are today, simply because it got people to look at dirt late model racing in a different way. If a place as well-known and as famous as Bristol would put on an event for these guys then obviously there’s a market for it and the race fans are interested in it. I think it was huge. Once we started doing that, more big events started growing roots simply because the race fans supported it so much that these other promoters and these other venues would look at the demographics they had in their areas and started putting together events like that,” McDowell recalled.

Ray Cook felt the inaugural running of Bristol was one of the turning points for dirt racing. “If we would have had the media coverage back then that we have today it would have no doubt been the biggest thing, it was a big deal” said Cook. “We was one of the three classes running at Bristol and it not only threw late model racing but dirt racing in general into the spotlight because it showcased the three biggest classes we have in my opinion,” said Cook. “I wished it could have continued,” Cook went on to say.

Multiple sources speculate as to why dirt racing didn’t return to Bristol after 2001. Stories of the inaugural Eldora Million spoiling the party to stories of the Sprint car drivers refusing to come back because of the high speeds arose over the years. One thing is for sure, the inaugural dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway will go down in history as one of the most highly publicized and successful events the dirt late model industry has ever seen.