Bristol looking to revitalize Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway – if the community lets it
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
The historic Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway needs a lot of work for NASCAR to return with national series races. The return would be heralded by old-school fans who would view it as an additional short track and a nod to the sport’s history.
But it wouldn’t be a complete celebration, as a Tuesday hearing by the Nashville Board of Fair Commissioners showed, considering a proposal by Speedway Motorsports to renovate and operate the 0.596-mile track has generated significant community response on both sides.
A 2011 referendum on the fairgrounds included voter approval to continue racing there, but it has been a struggle for the track to cover operating costs. Speedway Motorsports is coming in as either a savior or a Trojan horse, depending on the view.
It’s not rare, whenever companies attempt to build race tracks, for there to be opposition from the community. This debate is compounded by the existing track being in operation since 1904 and with it still having events (including ARCA), but no Cup race since 1984 and no Xfinity and truck races since 2000.
The track is owned by the city of Nashville, and Speedway Motorsports has a letter of intent with the city that allows it exclusivity to negotiate with a July 31 deadline to get a deal done. From the vibe of the meeting, that deadline won’t be met, but Speedway Motorsports has put so much time and effort into it, it is hard to envision it walking away if the deal doesn’t get done by that date.
Speedway Motorsports owns several tracks, and executives at Bristol Motor Speedway – located near the Tennessee-Virginia border – are heading up the Nashville project. It must negotiate a final financing plan with the city and then execute two contracts – a redevelopment contract and an operating agreement – that first must be approved by the fair board and then by the Metro Council (the Nashville version of a city council).
Bristol is proposing a 30-year lease that consists of a 10-year deal and a series of five-year options. It would pay the city $1 million a year to operate the track.
The question is does the community want it? Do they want a big NASCAR race in a residential area of the city at a location next to where the city’s new Major League Soccer stadium is being built?
"Our proposal is not more racing," Bristol GM Jerry Caldwell said during the hearing. "We believe we can produce more revenue from those events. ... With this plan, we can all work together to create a better experience for the community as a whole.
"I hope you can see why we’re excited about this and to bring this historical facility back to its rightful place as a top-tier venue in motorsports."
After Caldwell’s presentation on Tuesday, proponents – including NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip – spoke for about 33 minutes (public comments were limited to two minutes per individual), while opponents spoke for about 45 minutes.
Those in favor of the track focused on its history, how Speedway Motorsports could put in the upgrades necessary to make it nicer and safer, and how it is a place where families have competed for generations and enriched lives.
Those against the expansion focused on noise, limited parking in the area, and traffic. Yes, the track was there when they moved in, but bigger NASCAR events lead to expectations of more noise and much more traffic for that weekend.
Elizabeth Tanquilut, a resident who lives near the track, told the fair board that its decision comes down to enriching lives for those who come to the city from other towns versus enriching the lives of those who live there – that people are leaving the area because of the track.
"We have to make decisions based on what is true today and what is true in the future," she told the board. "I want to recognize and acknowledge all of the historical significance that this track has, all the memories, all the hard work, all of the talent, all the passion that so many families have brought to this track.
"But bottom line, we live in an increasingly densely populated city in an urban area in a very rural state. There is just no reason there should be a track in the middle of the city."
To address the community concerns, Speedway Motorsports has already pledged to:
- Build a sound wall(s).
- Limit racing to 10 weekends and a maximum 20 test and practice dates, with any tests on weekdays starting after 3 p.m. (because of an elementary school in the area) and ending by 7 p.m.
- A curfew of 10 p.m. for races and 11 p.m. for NASCAR events.
- Continue muffler requirements for local and regional racing events.
- Only four events a year would it run a maximum 30,000-seat capacity, such as a tripleheader NASCAR weekend and one concert.
- Creating a traffic plan that includes encouraging shuttles and public transportation.
Funding, which could run upward to about $100 million to resurface the track and rebuild the grandstands, would come from a seat user fee (added to the ticket price), the rent paid by Bristol, the state portion of sales tax, facility naming rights and a potential partnership with the Nashville Convention and Visitor Bureau.
Speedway Motorsports would make up the difference in hopes that television and attendance revenue could make up the bulk of its commitment. According to Dover Speedway’s annual report, it took in $12-13 million for each of its Cup weekends solely from the NASCAR broadcasting agreements, and it is reasonable to believe a race weekend at Nashville would do the same.
Because Speedway Motorsports can likely move a Cup race from one of its tracks to the Nashville track, it has the ability to know it can generate that type of revenue while others cannot.
The fair board members indicated during the meeting that they don’t want to take a rushed approach to approvals. With no contract yet, there are many details that need to be hashed out to make them feel they have addressed enough of the concerns of the neighborhood, as well as a financial package that is good for the fairgrounds and the city.
One fair board member, Jason Bergeron, asked most of the prodding questions and asked for a delay in the timeline. The other board members did not support setting any new deadlines, in part to see how the negotiations go between Speedway Motorsports and city and fair officials on the details.
Bergeron was adamant they take a more methodical approach, citing the lack of specifics on the financing, sound mitigation and other items to address community concerns.
"I haven’t heard SMI compromise on one thing yet," Bergeron said. "We are nowhere ready for an agreement. ... This is absolutely unacceptable – I will oppose it with every procedural thing one commissioner can raise. This timeline needs to radically change."
NASCAR will race in the Nashville area next month at the Dover-owned Nashville Superspeedway, a 1.33-mile concrete oval located about 35 miles from downtown Nashville. That track is in the first year of a four-year deal with NASCAR for Cup races, but that wouldn’t preclude NASCAR racing at both NASCAR-area facilities during a season.
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!