NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It’s not often that a group of citizens fights city hall — and wins.
But that’s exactly what happened two years ago when it came to saving venerable Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway from demolition. And as the track begins its 55th season of racing on Saturday, it operates the second-oldest continually operated racetrack in the country, trailing only the Milwaukee Mile in longevity.
“It would have been a huge mistake to tear the Fairgrounds racetrack down,” said former NASCAR Cup Series driver Sterling Marlin, the two-time Daytona 500 winner who cut his teeth driving on the .596-mile, 18-degree banked oval that played host to Winston Cup Series races from 1958-84.
“The track has produced a ton of drivers who have gone on to bigger and better things,” he added, reeling off other notables like Darrell Waltrip, Michael Waltrip, Bobby Hamilton Sr. and Jr., Mike Alexander, Chad Chaffin and Sterling’s father, the legendary Coo Coo Marlin.
“There is really no racetrack like it anywhere close to Nashville.”
Come Saturday, there will be 400 laps of racing across eight local divisions, plus the newly announced Southern Super Series, a high-powered Super Late Model touring series that features a mix of seasoned veterans and the best up-and-coming stock car drivers competing in 16 races at five different Southeastern tracks.
It nearly wasn’t meant to be, though, for racing at Fairgrounds Speedway. Nashville mayor Karl Dean had a plan to redevelop the 117-acre Fairgrounds, which also plays host to one of the country’s largest flea markets once a month, and many other events. Dean wanted to turn the plot into a multi-use facility featuring a blend of recreational, residential and commercial projects.
But a group of local racing enthusiasts and Nashville historians rallied the troops and eventually the Nashville Metro Council rejected Dean’s proposal and allowed the Fairgrounds to continue operating as is.
“The Fairgrounds is the convention center for the common man in this city,” said Tony Formosa, who enters his second year as promoter for Fairgrounds Speedway. “It is a famous Nashville landmark, just like the Ryman Auditorium (longtime home of the Grand Ole Opry). For the people who grew up in this city, it would have been a sad day to see it torn down.”
Certainly, the track has a rich history. Country music legend Marty Robbins was an avid driver at the track. The famous Alabama Gang of NASCAR legends Bobby Allison, Davey Allison and Red Farmer frequently ran races at the track, and legendary Richard Petty won Nashville’s NASCAR Cup Series race a record nine times.
Promoting racing at the track has been tricky over the years, though, especially dealing with a politically-charged Metro Fair Board. Formosa also notes that having a racing schedule that now features just one weekend a month allows for local drivers to afford entries and fans not to be taxed with the cost of attending a weekly racing schedule.
As for the racing itself at Fairgrounds Speedway, Marlin says it’s as good as it gets for a short track.
“There is no track close to here that offers the kind of local racing where you can go 50 laps side by side with good, hard racing,” said Marlin, who will run several Late Model races this year at the track, including Saturday night.
Both Formosa and Marlin applauded the local racing community for rallying to save the Fairgrounds. And they also noted that to fill eight local divisions of racing, it takes a strong commitment by many who just come to race as a hobby.
“Lots of people like to play golf,” Marlin said. “Lots of people like to play tennis or ride horses. But there are lots of people who like to drive and work on race cars. And lots of those don’t want to go to quarter-mile tracks where they bang and tear equipment up and have to fix it every weekend.
“This is the kind of track where you can race clean and go three-wide. It’s really good racing.”
Along with the featured Late Model division, Fairgrounds Speedway offers Limited Late Model, Open Wheel Modified, Sportsman, Super Street, Pure Stock, Front Runner and Legends divisions. While Formosa admits excitement for yet another season of racing at Fairgrounds Speedway, he is most charged about the newly formed Southern Super Series.
“I think I’m more excited about it than anyone,” said Formosa, a former champion driver at the track he now promotes. “The Southern Super Series is the most exciting thing to happen to this racetrack and Late Model racing in years. To have the series kick off here in Nashville is a real treat for us and our fans.”
The $5,000 prize for winning the Southern Super Series race on Saturday has attracted its share of local drivers, too, including Willie Allen, Tyler Miles and Daniel Bolden.
“We’re really excited about the Super Series,” Bolden said. “It’s a new division, a new type of car, but we’re learning a lot and looking forward to the race.”
Other tracks participating in the Southern Super Series include:
**Gresham Motor Park in Jefferson, Ga., on April 27, July 4 and Aug. 10 **Montgomery (Ala.) Motor Speedway on May 4, June 1 and Aug. 14 **Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla., on May 24, June 21, July 26 and Sept. 20 **Mobile (Ala.) International Speedway on May 25, June 22, July 27 and Sept. 21
The Series concludes at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway with the All-American 400 on Nov. 2.
But it’s mostly about the history and continuance of local racing coupled with its storied past on the national racing scene that continues to attract fans to the track that seats 14,000-plus.
“Richard Petty, Bobby and Donnie Allison, Red Farmer, Darrell Waltrip, how far do you want to go?” Formosa asked of the track’s legacy. “Our fathers and grandfathers grew up racing here or watching racing here. And I want our children and grandchildren to have the same opportunities.”