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Wednesday, March 19

Bristol's seating capacity to reach 160,000
Associated Press

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- The grandstand at Bristol Motor Speedway was so packed with seats that Dale Earnhardt once joked there was maybe a sliver of space to jam in more fans.

That sliver isn't there anymore.

Bristol Motor Speedway
Workers install seats at Bristol Motor Speedway, where an expansion project will increase capacity to 160,000.

The speedway will show off a $30 million expansion when qualifying begins Friday at the Food City 500, the track's first Winston Cup event of the season.

The 13,000-seat expansion began in August after the checkered flag waved in Jeff Gordon at the Sharpie 500.

Now, at 160,000 seats, Bristol Speedway is behind only Indianapolis Motor Speedway (250,000) and Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C. (167,000).

"It just boggles the mind to look around here and see 160,000 seats around a half-mile race track, knowing that there are another 160,000 or more fans that want tickets to this place,'' driver Dale Jarrett said.

The expansion includes a new section of black seats named Earnhardt Terrace, in honor of the former Winston Cup champion who died in 2001.

Earnhardt made his tongue-in-cheek observation about Bristol after winning the track's August race in 1999 when the speedway already accommodated 131,000 fans and an expansion was under discussion.

Bristol holds two Winston Cup races each year, one in March and the other in August. Both have already sold out for this year.

"Everywhere I go, people ask me what it's like to race at Daytona, or what it's like to race at Talladega, but when they ask about Bristol, it's, 'How can I get a ticket?''' Jarrett said.

Jeff Black, project manager for Speedway Motorsports, Bristol's owner, insists the new terrace will open by race weekend, but decorative banners and a plaza to honor drivers won't be finished until the Sharpie 500 on Aug 23.

"Everything will be complete,'' Black said. "But it won't be polished.''

Getting finished on time was a concern, since Tennessee got more than its usual share of snow this year, delaying work.

Contractors even worked as about 1,000 students from Sullivan East High School used the track's older suites for classrooms after a breakout of potentially dangerous mold closed their school for several weeks.

The expansion meant digging pits for three new elevator towers, demolishing the 42-year-old concrete grandstand along Turn 2 and the backstretch, and replacing it with steel beams to hold the new seats and a two-level row of 52 new suites.

To accommodate the larger crowd, officials built another 14 concession stands, eight souvenir stands and 17 restrooms, including 550 toilets.

Some drivers, including Rusty Wallace and Michael Waltrip, wanted to test drive the speedway this month, but construction trucks driving across the concrete put the track out of commission until this week, speedway spokesman Wayne Estes said.

The speedway was built in 1960, and the first race was held in 1961 with 18,000 seats.

Bruton Smith, now chairman of Speedway Motorsports, bought the Bristol International Raceway for $26 million in 1996, when it had 71,000 seats.

Three months later, 15,000 seats were added and more fans filled the seats. So, he just kept adding seats and more fans.

"Our demand is strong here. People are looking for the limit, when the market is going to be saturated,'' Estes said.

The speedway doesn't have much more room to grow. While the Indy track is 2½ miles around and Lowe's is 1½ miles, Bristol is a half-mile, short and steep.

"It makes you wonder why someone doesn't wake up and make this the track of the future, the track that should be built in the next markets we go,'' Jarrett said. "The racing is better and the fans have a better NASCAR experience here than anywhere else.''

NASCAR pumps $30 million to $40 million per race into the economy in and around Bristol, twin communities straddling the Tennessee-Virginia border. Hotels within a 150-mile radius, from Knoxville to Roanoke, Va., are booked on race weekends.

"It's further evidence of what we've known -- that Bristol is the most popular track in NASCAR,'' said Bristol City Manager Tony

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