Dale Earnhardt (3) and Rusty Wallace (2) battle it out during a 1985 race at Bristol.

To qualify as a must-see experience, a sports event needs a familiar setting and rich history full of unforgettable characters and jaw-dropping highlights.

While the names have changed and the craft has become more nuanced, The Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway still commands respect in the motorsports world and beyond.

This supreme test of iron wall has attracted interest from an array of crossover celebrities and helped gritty drivers such as Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt reach legendary status.

It also has catapulted little Bristol, Tennessee, onto the national stage. Every serious NASCAR fan can remember the images of green hills and mountains surrounding the track when ESPN carried races.

There are no flukes at BMS. Just consider that Earnhardt, Waltrip and Rusty Wallace earned 30 wins over 23 years.

To the dismay of hardcore Bristol fans, the days of bumper car passes and accordion type accidents have given way to a more technical strategy where drivers take advantage of the sticky Bristol Track Bite traction compound applied on the inside of the turns.

Now, cunning is just as important as courage.

Kurt Busch solved the Bristol equation last August en route to his sixth BMS victory. In an event that featured nine cautions, Busch managed to hold off Kyle Larson over the final 24 laps.

Moments after the race, a jubilant Busch spoke of the aura surrounding the half-mile concrete-coated facility.

“This track brings out the best in everybody,” Busch said. “To come here, to feel that Saturday night atmosphere and racing under the lights …. it brings you back to the roots.”

According to several track devotees, the rootsy appeal of Bristol works like a siren call.

During a walk through the sprawling campground before last year’s Night Race, several campers shared how they make return treks to NASCAR’S second-smallest market simply to party and fellowship with old friends.

BMS track officials devised a wise marketing plan last year by staging block parties in the surrounding cities of Kingsport and Johnson City in the weeks leading up to both the Night Race and the spring race. They have also spread goodwill by recognizing an assortment of “Hometown Heroes” throughout Tennessee.

NASCAR has too many bland, look-a-alike facilities located near major cities. The Bristol track may seat over 140,000, yet the small town appeal remains strong here.

Bristol may not qualify as Mayberry R.F.D., but the citizens are friendly and inviting.

For the most part, residents across Southwest Virginia, Northeast Tennessee, Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky appreciate how important Bristol Motor Speedway is to the economic health of the region.

And of course, there all those magical Game 7 moments that spark animated campground discussions.

Even casual NASCAR fans can remember the hot night in 1999 when Earnhardt was serenaded by boos and jeers after he wrecked race leader and all-around good guy Terry Labonte on the final lap of the Bristol Night Race.

What about the 1969 clash where Hall of Famer David Pearson navigated past multiple wrecks to capture the first event staged on the track’s controversial new banking that was billed at 36 degrees.

For pure emotion, no finish could trump the 1998 victory by Mark Martin. After the race, the exhausted Martin dedicated the win to his father Julian, who had died weeks earlier in a plane crash.

How many folks recall the 2010 Night Race when Kyle Busch became the first driver to sweep all three top series’ races on the same track on the same weekend?

The BMS memory machine also includes countless incidents of multi-car wrecks, temper tantrums and remarkable displays of skill and endurance on a track that would bring most mortals to their knees.

Pre-race festivals, military flyovers, fireworks and concerts add to the Saturday Night Live spectacle.

To borrow the motto of the iconic downtown Bristol sign, Bristol is a Good Place to Race.

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agregory@bristolnews.com | Twitter: @Greg_BHCSports | (276) 645-2544

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