CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Charlotte Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith climbed to the flagstand above the speedway's start/finish line yesterday evening and at 7 p.m. pulled the lever on a mock switchbox. The gesture was symbolic, the real switch was elsewhere. But it would be Smith who for the first time brought night racing to a superspeedway.
Unfortunately, the ball of fire that burst out of the box, into the air and onto Smith's head was real. Smith quickly knocked the fireball, a piece of sulphur that was supposed to sparkle instead of burn, off his head. Smith has thinning hair. Sometimes thinning hair is good. This was one of those times.
It would have been a good public relations stunt if it had worked. Aside from the president of Charlotte Motor Speedway's head catching on fire, last night was a blazing success for the speedway. On May 16, the speedway will sponsor its first night race. No track Charlotte's size, 1.5 miles, has ever done this. The tracks at Bristol and Richmond have, but Bristol is a half-mile and Richmond three-quarters of a mile. Only the 1-mile Raleigh Fairgrounds track back in the 1950s has ever come close.
Last night was practice for The Winston. The lights have been turned on twice before, but last night was the first time drivers had a chance to practice beneath them and fans had a chance to watch. Admission was free and about 38,000 race fans showed up.
Winston Cup drivers drove from 7 until 10 p.m. When darkness came, the effect initially was a shock, although not nearly as shocking as the fireball that attacked Smith. Although their cars lacked headlights, drivers drove as if this was business as usual, shadows reflecting off the side of the track as they sped by.
But by 10 p.m., you were used to it. Watching the drivers was no more unusual than watching the traffic nearby on I-85.
Lights blazed from atop 56 poles, from the side of the press box and the condominiums, from the top of the WBTV van and from 1,700 mirrors set up on the inside of the track.
Spotlights faced the mirrors, which are 4 feet high and 6 feet wide and set at intervals of 15 feet. The mirrors reflect the light. According to Musco, the company that set up the lighting system, there are 2 miles worth of mirrors around the track. I must say that the only place I've seen as many mirrors is on the ceiling of the Tarzan Suite, in a certain motel not far from Miami.
I also must say that the speedway's marriage of lights and mirrors was remarkable. The lighting is not diffuse; it is steady, and seemingly glare-free. It's like walking out to a well-lit basketball court. After a while, you forget the lights are there and just play.
"They didn't change the racetrack," said Ken Schrader. "They lit it."
All the drivers seemed pleased.
"The way the lights are, there's no beginning and no end," said Dale Earnhardt, who drives a black Chevrolet. "They're pretty constant."
Kyle Petty said superspeedways everywhere, and not just in NASCAR, are watching Charlotte.
"I think the next step for the sport is to go prime-time," he said.
Night is prime-time. Think about it: How many big-time sporting events do you see during the day? The national pastime, baseball, moved to prime time almost 57 years ago. The Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies played the first major-league night game May 24, 1935.
Most racing is done in the dark. The sport is built not around superspeedways, but around small tracks, where fans bring their families or their dates on Friday and Saturday nights.
The lights were the idea of Smith and speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler. The undertaking was enormous. The speedway paid $1.7 million for them.
Musco also lights the Rose Bowl, and lighting the speedway is the equivalent of lighting 10 Rose Bowls.
According to Musco, 1,200 lighting fixtures were required. And that's without the fireball.