CONCORD, N.C. -- After NASCAR announced Bristol Motor Speedway would be turned into a dirt venue for the seventh race of the 2021 season, the revelation was met with excitement and intrigue. How will Bristol be turned into a dirt track and how will cars from the Cup Series run on them?
Several months and 23,000 cubic feet of dirt later, Bristol Motor Speedway has been transformed into a fortified dirt track ahead of this weekend’s inaugural event. Now the teams are working on their final preparations for the cars before they hit the track for the practice sessions on Friday.
“We’ve ‘heavy dutied’ everything like the crush panels, which are the panels that go between the chassis to the body,” Hendrick Motorsports production supervisor Mike O’Malley explained. “We’ve beefed up the material there and actually put some backer material on just to keep the dirt and rocks, if there are any, from beating the car apart. Crazy stuff like fender braces that are typically just pieces of tubing, we’ve used some metal straps that are just a little more forgiving that might take a blow and allow the fenders to come back out without tearing them off of the car.”
While the cars needed to be reinforced, body fabricator Jonathan Dehart said the body of the Cup cars have remained mostly the same. He reinforced what O’Malley said and added the light stock cars for a normal Cup Series race weren't exactly a necessity for the Bristol cars.
“Everything we looked into on the body side of things was more durability,” he said. “How can we make this stronger? How can we make this last longer during the race? Shapes wise, body contours and everything like that are all the same package.
“Typically, we try to make everything as light as possible on a race car. This was not necessarily making it heavier but how can we make it if it’s going to hit the wall? If it’s going to bounce off the wall, is this going to hold up? Is the decklid going to stay on the car? Things like that, we put a lot of emphasis on.”
Aside from the body of the car, the systems for the car had to be tweaked, too. Pettijohn said the grill on the nose will look a little different and stick out more to make sure the air flow is getting to the car without a ton of dirt getting sucked in. The airflow temperature, water temperature and oil temperature all will be monitored to make sure the car is functioning properly.
“You’re going to have a lot of the debris. The buildup is going to be a lot different than you might see on an asphalt track,” Pettijohn said. "We have different screens, different filters, and outerwears to account for the debris scheme that we are going to see to make sure we don’t clog up our inlets and that we can still flow air.”
The preparation for these dirt Cup cars began as soon as the dirt race was announced. The entire shop started putting together the cars during the offseason and have been fine tuning the NASCAR-sanctioned modifications for months.
“The reason it takes so long is because you pull all of these resources together that we have,” O’Malley said. “It takes a while to get all that data together, so you know what to build. To get the cars started to go through the system, probably like five or six weeks ago, is when that started. But the actual planning phase started way before that.”
Despite pooling resources and analyzing all possible track conditions, O’Malley, Dehart and Pettijohn have little dirt experience. That didn’t deter them nor their teammates from perfecting the fleet of Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets and trying their hands at something new.
“That’s what I rallied my guys around," O'Malley said. "I was telling them, ‘Hey, you do the same thing every day on these cars. This is an opportunity for you guys to step back 20 years and actually do something different than what you do on a normal basis.’
“I think they’ve had a good time with it and at this point they are kind of over it now,” he joked. “It’s been fun but we’re just ready to see them go race.”
O’Malley, Pettijohn, Dehart and the rest of the Hendrick Motorsports teammates will see the Bristol dirt cars in action this Sunday. The race will begin at 3:30 p.m. ET and be broadcast of FOX.