70: The Dirt on Bristol Motor Speedway

70: The Dirt on Bristol Motor Speedway

From Stories about racing from a book that is no longer in print

The Dirt on Bristol Motor Speedway

At Bristol Motor Speedway, the folks who run the place know how to think out of the box.

I covered the track for 15 years as a reporter and one of the best examples of their innovative thinking happened in the summer of 2000 when the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile” was converted to a dirt track.

The plan was conceived by Wayne Estes, the track’s Director of Communications.

Estes had the perfect background to pull off such a feat. He had earned a reputation as a guy who could get things done when he worked for the racing department of Ford Motors. Estes was well-liked in the industry and people always listened to his ideas.

Estes and his boss, BMS President Jeff Byrd, believed the track was under-utilized.

BMS sold out its two NASCAR races every year but Estes believed the area would support another major racing event. Estes had convinced the World of Outlaws, then the preeminent sprint car organization, to stage a race on the track’s treacherously high banks.

There was a host of problems. First, you needed dirt — and not the kind that grows tomatoes. It needed to be red clay, soft enough to stick between your toes but hard enough to flatten like a day-old pancake. The dirt would have to be hauled in by the truckload.

Estes solved both problems by contacting Baker Construction. The company owned a farm a few miles from the track that was full of the “tacky” clay needed to make a racing surface.

Estes had a race, a date and the makings of a dirt track. Now he needed some luck.

I arrived early one morning to watch a parade of dump trucks cover parts of the concrete in dirt. There was only one problem. The dirt was too sticky. How would track workers clean it up once the race was over?

Bruton Smith, the owner of BMS, flew in some of his company’s top engineers to solve the problem. A team of guys with degrees piled higher than the dirt filed out of a van. They came up with a bunch of solutions; black fabric, white fabric, plastic sheets, tar paper, but nothing worked.

Then a man with a deep baritone voice stepped from the back of a pickup truck and said, “You need some sawdust.” George Wilson, a quiet, unassuming man, worked at BMS as a painter. But during his younger days, Wilson had hung around an old dirt track. “Just spread the sawdust on the concrete, and then roll it out like you’re making biscuits ... and the dirt will stay in place,” Wilson promised.

The college boys got a big kick out of old George’s suggestion, but since nothing else had worked, they decided to give it a try.

The so-called experts couldn’t believe their eyes. George was right. The School of Hard Knocks had trumped the Ivy League. The sawdust acted as the perfect buffer. The college boys packed their calculators and equations and flew back to Charlotte. Estes called several lumber mills for more sawdust and in a couple of days, the track was ready for its debut.

The World of Outlaws raced for a couple of years at Bristol, setting track speed records in the process.

Jeff Byrd was so impressed by George’s solution that he gave him a bonus for coming up with the sawdust idea.

In fact, Byrd thought George might make a good spokesman for the track.

And so the legend of George the Painter was born. George has starred in a number of TV commercials for BMS and helped sell thousands of tickets.

In fact, George became so popular his bobble-head doll became one of the track’s top sellers.

I just wish the bobble-head had been made of sawdust. Now, that would have been a fitting tribute.

~PJ Johnson

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