NASCAR mania descends on Bristol

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   BRISTOL, Tenn. -- For the next three days, Bristol Tennessee is one of the most popular places on earth.
   The Bristol Motor Speedway will play host to the largest gathering of sports fans in the country this weekend as the NASCAR Busch Series and Winston Cup races bring fans from across the country.
   "My trailer moves twice a year, and both times it comes to Bristol," said J.D. Duncan who along with his father Jerry Duncan are among a crew of gentlemen who trekked to Bristol from southeastern Ohio for race weekend at the world's fastest half-mile.
   The Duncans and pals Art Hanlin, Stan Dombrowski, Jeff Hoepfner, and Willie Cooper enjoyed racing fellowship under sunny skies Thursday afternoon outside their recreational vehicles parked in the Earhart East campground. The majority of the group hails from Shadyside, Ohio, near Wheeling, West Va., where the Ohio River forms the border between the two states.
   They are a loquacious bunch united by NASCAR, the Shadyside Marina, and barbecued ribs from Pardner's Restaurant.
   "This is the capital of racing, right here," said Hanlin of Powhatan, Ohio, who will attend his first NASCAR event this weekend. "I like Jeff Gordon, but I like all of them."
   Sunny skies welcomed thousands of race fans that sloshed through mud and traffic as campground and retail establishments began overflowing on Thursday afternoon. License tags around the campground found fans from Ontario to Michigan and Florida to Illinois.
   "There's at least 25 other people from Shadyside coming down here," said J.D. Duncan.
   Cooper said that while he had been a regular at NASCAR events held at Daytona for years, he was considering abandoning those trips -- however, nothing would make him give up his Bristol tickets.
   "I've gone to Daytona every year for 10 years," said Cooper, "but I will always come back to Bristol."
   Dubbed the fastest half-mile in the world, BMS hosts the Busch Series Channellock 250 on Saturday and the Winston Cup Food City 500 race on Sunday. Fox Sports will carry the Food City 500, which will mark the 2,000 points event race in NASCAR history.
   "It's 43 cars in a blender," said J.D. Duncan. "(BMS track owner) Bruton (Smith) always puts on one helluva show."
   Hoepfner, with the help of Hanlin, among others, took a 1984 Monte Carlo and built his own short-track racing machine. He plans to begin amateur racing at short-tracks in Ohio later this year.
   "When I started this I didn't know a camshaft from a crankshaft," said Hoepfner. "We are going to try to race this May."
   Frank Gallaher of Decatur said he had been coming to Bristol for a dozen years. The Speedway may have grown, but the camaraderie among fans and coziness of Bristol races had not changed, he said.
   "It really is racing the way it ought to be," said Gallaher, referring to the BMS slogan. "There's not a bad seat in the house."
   The 2003 season is the first marked by NASCAR's use of ""common template cars" in Winston Cup -- a process set up to limit manufacturers' complaints of advantages held by one car make over another.
   "I think they ought to come out with one set of rules and leave it alone," said Gallaher. "You don't want equal cars -- you want one faster than the other guy's car."
   Larry Kitchen, of Akron, Ohio, made his first trip to Bristol this year to see his first NASCAR race ever. An experience he said he had been anticipating for some time.
   "I have a brother who comes every year, so I'm definitely looking forward to it," said Kitchen.
   Despite the U.S. attack on Iraq, race fans did express trepidation about safety at the Speedway this weekend. Bristol officials talked to NASCAR earlier in the week regarding the upcoming race weekend. With 160,000 fans and thousands more in teams and BMS staffer members packing the speedway, the Food City 500 represents the nation's largest gathering of sports fans at one arena in the country this weekend.
   "I figure we are doing what we need to be doing," added Gallaher of the military action against Iraq.
   The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Homeland Security Council, raised the national threat level from an "elevated" to "high" risk of terrorist attack or Level Orange. The United States began tactical bombing of Iraq on Wednesday night and began inserting troops into southern Iraq Thursday afternoon.
   Local, state, and federal law enforcement organizations are involved in security efforts at the track, having designated a restricted airspace within a three-mile radius of BMS except for approved aircraft.
   "I have all the faith in the world in our guys," said J.D. Duncan. "If I had any doubts of safety, I wouldn't be here. I hope he does it right this time and we can be done with it."