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Saving NASCAR’s Soul, One Race Track At A Time – Forbes

Saving NASCAR’s Soul, One Race Track At A Time – Forbes
07 Aug
12:13

Lee Humphries finds himself in the middle of a three-car tangle during a stock car race at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in the 1950s.

Getty

Nineteen years have passed since the Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville played host to a NASCAR second-tier race and a truck race, but people in the top echelons of stock-car racing still miss the place. Dale Earnhardt Jr. just tweeted his love for the speedway in March.

The Bristol Motor Speedway and its parent company, Speedway Motorsports Inc., are hoping to modernize Fairgrounds Speedway, the .596-mile oval billed as “The Greatest Short Track in the South.” Thirty-five years have passed since its last Cup race.

The speedway on the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, which now seats about 15,000 fans, still has a schedule that includes nine nights of racing on the lower and grittier levels of the sport. The track’s “$5 Back to School Family Night” is on tap for Saturday, Aug. 10.

The effort to bring top-notch racing back to Nashville makes so much sense for so many reasons: NASCAR announced in March that it was moving its post-season awards festivities to the Music City from Las Vegas. Nashville has become a big-league sports town, but racing is a part of its sports tradition.

But, as I think I heard Dick Trickle once say, “Nothing is that easy, son.” There is a far bigger development project on tap for the Fairgrounds, and it is focused on a sport with a much bigger buzz and higher ceiling right now. That sport is soccer.

Nashville SC, an expansion club, will join Major League Soccer next year and plans to play its home games at Nissan Stadium, the stadium of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, until a 30,000-seat soccer stadium is built at the fairgrounds — right next to the old racetrack.

SMI executives say it is possible to rebuild the racetrack next to the soccer stadium, and condos and stores that go along with it. Just last week, Jerry Caldwell (no relation), the executive vice president of Bristol Motor Speedway, issued this statement:

The field gets ready for the start of the Nashville 300 NASCAR Cup race at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in 1959. Joe Lee Johnson (No. 77) is on the outside pole and went on to win the race.

Getty

“After presenting the city with a detailed vision for the speedway in May, we have had a number of positive conversations with the Fair Board about working together to breathe new life into the historic Nashville Speedway and bring major races back to Nashville. We are really encouraged that this exciting vision is within reach. We look forward to continuing work with Mayor David Briley, Councilman Colby Sledge, the Fair Board and Fairgrounds neighbors to shape a plan that is in the best interests of Nashville.”

Caldwell said improvements to the track can be made by allocating a share of newly generated revenues within the Fairgrounds — rather than using public tax dollars, which tends to be a touchy subject when it comes to projects like this.

There are many issues to iron out, like where to put the Tennessee State Fair and what to do with the giant flea market that is on the grounds. But it sure sounds as Nashville wants big-league soccer — and Nashville will get it, even though 30,000 seats might be a lot to fill.

Because of a 2011 public referendum that received overwhelming support, Nashville can’t just get rid of the speedway, even though it has seen better days. Stock-car racing at the speedway — which was built as a horse-racing track in 1891 — is generally a fond memory for NASCAR. Bringing NASCAR back to Nashville might tap into stock-car racing’s biggest appeal, its roots and soul.

But the neighborhood adjacent to the fairgrounds, once working-class, has changed and diversified, gradually becoming a nice place for young families to settle, and those families don’t have long-standing ties to NASCAR. And kids do tend to play soccer more than race cars.

Stock-car racing also happens to be loud. Even though sound barriers and pedestrian tunnels are in the redevelopment plan, it is hard to imagine people wanting to buy condos in a mixed-use development if more stock cars and trucks are screaming around the track and jamming the streets.

There has not been Cup racing at the speedway since 1984, when Darrell Waltrip and Geoffrey Bodine won the last races there. Much more would be needed to make Nashville a Cup venue again, but try to think of what is going on in Nashville as the latest barometer for interest in NASCAR. 

Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/davecaldwell/2019/08/05/saving-nascars-soul/

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