The Slow Death Of An Icon

This site is usually devoted almost exclusively to the IZOD IndyCar Series. In the past I’ve deviated slightly to discuss the moon landing or to joust with Roy Hobbson. Forgive me today for venturing away from IndyCars and focusing on a venue that is more known for NASCAR Cup racing and USAC Sprints. Still, it is about racing and it satisfies my craving for racing history – so indulge me.

I took in a local icon this weekend, that appears to be destined for the wrecking ball. Long before the concrete white elephant known as Nashville Superspeedway opened in 2001, Nashville was home to one of the oldest tracks in the country – Fairgrounds Speedway. The historic old track and the Tennessee State Fairgrounds that surround it are the subject of a bitter local political dispute. Mayor Karl Dean wants to demolish the site and have the area re-developed for either a business community or a greenway park. He has the full support of residents who have recently moved into the area, only to be shocked to discover that a racetrack sits nearby and is rather loud. Keep in mind that the track was there way before they were. That might explain why the house was so cheap.

Actually, Fairgrounds Speedway has been there in some form or fashion since 1904. It first existed as a dirt track and beginning in 1915, featured many of the same cars and drivers that ran in the Indianapolis 500. The current track was built in 1958 as a paved half-mile oval.

TN State Fairgrounds -1911 (2nd from rt - Hal j. Simmons)
Tennessee State Fairgrounds – 1911

What is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, ran at least one race per season at the track from 1958 until more political squabbling forced NASCAR to leave after the 1984 season. All in all, there have been forty-two NASCAR Cup races at Fairgrounds Speedway. Of those, nine were won by Richard Petty. Aside from all of the NASCAR stars of the day that would run twice a year at the old track; drivers such as Darrell Waltrip, Donnie and Bobby Allison, Sterling Marlin, Bobby Hamilton and Dale Earnhardt raced at the track regularly as part of the weekly racing series during the developmental stages of their careers.

The current configuration is a five-eighths mile oval with eighteen degree banking. The track was lengthened in 1969 with thirty-five degree banking, but that configuration proved to be too fast, so they lowered the banking to the current eighteen degrees in 1972.

Track 1Turn Four – Fairgrounds Speedway

I hate to admit that being a life-long Tennessean and having lived in Nashville for the past nine years – I had never been to Fairgrounds Speedway until Saturday. Since I’ve lived here, the track has hosted races every weekend from April to October. It looked as if the Mayor had succeeded in his quest to kill the track, but a new promoter with a family history at the track – Tony Formosa – took it over and was able to put together a very abbreviated season (five dates) for 2010. This past Saturday was one of those dates. With the Titans pre-season kickoff not scheduled until 9:00 on Saturday night, I thought it would be a good opportunity to visit the grand old relic before it was razed.

When I suggested the idea of going to the track to my significant other, she looked at me like I had two heads. With the temperature over a hundred degrees, I knew my daughter had no interest and my son is in Florida. A couple of friends said no, but a co-worker had promised me that he was going. He didn’t. Hot weather and fickle friends would not deter me from experiencing racing history and nostalgia. It’s only a ten minute drive from my house to the track located just south of downtown Nashville. Racing didn’t start until 5:00. I thought it might be cooler then. It wasn’t. Even though I was alone in my quest, I was going.

My first mistake was taking a shower before I went. Not only was it a waste of time, since I started sweating as soon as I got there; but apparently I was the only one there that had bathed in several days. I knew before I arrived, that wearing my IndyCar polo shirt would make me a little out of place. What I didn’t realize, was that actually having sleeves at all would set me apart. Not having any tattoos or a ponytail also put me in the vast minority.

Having sleeves and no tattoos made me feel very out of place.

Legends die hard in the south. We’ve managed to keep Elvis and Bear Bryant alive for decades. Add Dale Earnhardt to the mix. I saw no less than three Dale Earnhardt look-alikes complete with bushy mustache and GM Goodwrench apparel.

But being the non-judgmental person that I am, I overlooked the differences in our appearances and talked to several fans around me. I was surprised to find out how much these local stock car fans knew about the IZOD IndyCar Series. Even though no one I talked to had ever been to the Indianapolis 500, a couple had been to the Brickyard 400; but they knew more about our form of racing than I expected. Of course, they all knew about Dario Franchitti, since he lives here – but Tony Kanaan seemed to be the consensus favorite among them. Surprisingly, no one I talked to cared too much for Danica Patrick – but then again, these were real racing fans I was talking to.

I took in the whole experience. I moved around the stands, and I also took advantage of the tasty concessions. Although they didn’t have a tenderloin sandwich that you would find at Indianapolis motor Speedway, they had one of the best corn dogs I’ve ever eaten, at a much more affordable price than you’ll find at IMS.

The crowd was decent by the time the feature started. Capacity is approximately 13,000.

There were five races. Beginning at 5:00 were the Frontrunners, which resembled old, small cars from the sixties and seventies. I think I saw a Datsun and a Chevy II in the field, and the twenty lap race was won by what looked like an AMC Gremlin. Then the Super Streets took to the track for a thirty lap race. These looked like stock cars from the seventies – a mixture of Monte Carlo’s, Cutlass’s and Century’s.

The Late Models were next. This was when it hit me that things were not all that economically healthy with the track. There were only five cars to start the thirty lap race that featured new-looking cars that resembled what we are used to seeing in NASCAR.

After that, the most curious cars took to the track – the open wheels. I knew that this wouldn’t conform to what my definition of an open-wheel car was, but I thought maybe it might resemble something that looked like a sprint or midget. Instead, it was a strange looking vehicle that looked like a modified stocker with the front fenders removed. This race featured only six cars in a thirty lap race.

The southern definition of open-wheel racing.

Finally, it was time for the feature event; the Pro Late Model race that was scheduled for 125 laps. These also looked like regular NASCAR Cup cars and also featured two-time Daytona 500 winner, Sterling Marlin, who started fifth. For the past hour, dark clouds had been gathering. As the skies grew darker, lightening became very prevalent. This was not the Indianapolis 500 or even the Firestone Indy 200. Although the stands were covered, I didn’t relish the thought of sitting in aluminum grandstands during a lightening storm. Call me a fair-weather fan, but at the first caution on lap twenty-two – I left.

Hard to see clearly, but Sterling Marlin is in the black No. 40 on the other side of the parked vehicle.

I had seen what I came to see. Quite honestly, all five races that I saw were entertaining. The crowd of regulars all knew who they liked and didn’t like. The only name I knew was Sterling Marlin, so I followed him as he battled for fourth before the first caution. But the racing was fast and furious. I saw passion as drivers got spun fighting to defend their positions. I also saw many drivers in all divisions, fight for the lead; only to blow up after they got there – they had been too hard on their equipment. No rev-limiters there. Patience paid off many times, as those that knew the fine line between running hard and too hard would watch others fall by the wayside.

This was grass-roots racing at the most basic level. Not only did I feel like I was taking a step back in time; I felt like I was in another state. This felt like small town Americana in the truest and best sense. The fans I spoke with have been going every week for years. They were saddened by the political events that make leveling this track a near certainty. The drivers aren’t in this for the money. Few, if any, will ever race beyond this level. They do this because they love it. It’s refreshing to see this kind of passion for a sport, at any level.

Weekly racing is dying across the country. With hundreds of HD channels devoted to the most obscure interests, technology that makes anything a few keystrokes away – it’s hard to conjure up interest among the younger set. But based on the size of the crowd on a hot and sticky Saturday night, there seems to be enough interest among the locals to justify keeping Fairgrounds Speedway around. I just don’t know that there will be that many interested in a greenway park.

George Phillips

14 Responses to “The Slow Death Of An Icon”

  1. Jack in NC Says:

    I grew up in Tennessee and never heard of this track. We have a similar track outside of Raleigh, with similar small-time locals racing. A friend of mine just bought a car and is trying to get it in condition to race. When he does, I want to go watch it and expect an experience much like you had.

  2. I used to pit for a guy who raced hobby stocks on dirt tracks in Minnesota. I still enjoy that kind of racing better than anything – these guys put their heart and soul into it, with shoestring budgets, limited to no sponsorship, and varying degrees of talent. You’ve got a unique mix of up-and-comers with folks that will probably never go beyond their home track. The fans are passionate, and the lack of corporate cleansing is refreshing. I’m glad you had a good time.

    I’m also a fan of sprint cars on dirt – there aren’t many forms of racing that are quite that intense. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to it before, but the Knoxville Nationals is one race that I think every race fan should have on their life list. I know Pressdog has been covering it. Classic small-town Americana mixed with serious horsepower. It’s a great experience.

    • Oilpressure Says:

      The only sprint car race I’ve been to was in 2003, when I went to IRP the night before the 500. Quite an experience. One of these days I’d like to go see sprints on dirt. The Knoxville Nationals has always been one of those places I’d like to go to at some point. – GP

  3. I’d imagine the loss of racetracks like the one you describe is contributing to lack of fans in the seats and in front of the tube for both Nascar and Indycar. One of the first automobile races I ever attended was a dirt track midget race somewhere in Indy when I was 10 or 12. I was asked to go by some girl who’s dad was a big fan and that one night had something to do with my interest in racing to this day.

    But with the economic downturn and the political incorrectness of burning fuel and loud engines, along with raising a generation of gamers and tv watchers–I don’t see much future for small racetracks. Hope I’m wrong.

  4. Scott Simmons Says:

    I remember doing some work for the track years ago when i knew the guy running it. Went to a couple of races but as an open wheel and road course fan it was a novelty. What i saw over that time was that it’s a hard track to run. And I’m sure making money at it isn’t easy. But tracks like that have history so it’ll be sad to see them go.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    This was a great read, George. I’m glad you enjoyed your local track and I really hope someone finds a way to save it. We’ve lost too many fairgrounds tracks already, too many tracks in close proximity to well-populated areas. Still, as long as folks want to race, someone who loves the sport will have a track available for them.

    Unfortunately, I live on the wrong side of town from the local racetracks, but I make the 50 minute drive often enough to be a semi-regular at the 3/8 mile asphalt track. The dirt tracks are close to an hour and a half away, so I frequent them only on occasion (mostly for the rare occurrence of sprint cars in Texas).

    It’s tough to beat the asphalt track’s $6-$15 ticket for close to 4 hours of action-packed racing (pretty close to what you saw in Nashville), plus $1 hotdogs, and the best cheap french fries anywhere.

  6. If you ever make it up for a race at Chicagoland in Joliet, or to some of the races at the nearbye Autobahn CC road course in Joliet, try and swing by Morris, IL (just west of Joliet). There lies a great local track, Grundy County Speedway, which is paved and often features midget racing. It’s nothing fancy but it makes for a full day of racing after watching big cars at Chicagoland or finese road course racing at Autobahn.

  7. Great piece here, George. I’ve only been to one ‘weekly racing’ event before. That was a few years back at Thompson (Conn.) when I was still living in New England. A buddy of mine had an uncle racing some four-cylinder Honda and another friend of theirs raced the Modifieds. It was a fun night, even though the Mod race was marred by like, 10 cautions or something.

    I still think weekly racing will survive but perhaps only in the rural regions. As Billy said, a lot of tracks near urban centers have gone under over the years. Land that’s too valuable, too much competition with other attractions…I’m sure there’s more reasons than that. It’s a shame, but I guess that’s progress.

  8. Great work, George. I’ve been a fan of local short tracks, and I love to get out there whenever I get a chance to go check them out. They’ve all got their charms, like minor league baseball (or even Little League) fields, and it’s a shame that they’re beginning to be a dying breed. I’ve hit at least one little dirt or paved oval near almost everywhere I’ve lived (though shamefully not Winchester Speedway in Virgina, where I lived about two miles from the track but was in a snobby SCCA mood at the time). I’ve even managed to hook the wife on going once or twice a summer, since I convinced her that it’s fun to wager on the local crap stocks (this, mind you, from the lady who was bored at the 2006 Indy 500, closest finish in history and all). “Eagle Raceway! America’s Home Track!” Good times. Very good times.

  9. Fantastic piece, George! As a kid growing up in northern Virginia, my parents and I would frequent Old Dominion Speedway near Manassas for oval racing and Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia for some SCCA road racing — all of it fantastic. Now, as a resident of Bloomington, IN, I try to get to Boomington Speedway, a 90-year-old quarter-mile, high-bank, dirt bullring, a coupe times a year. It is ALWAYS the Friday night leg of Indiana Sprint Week and Indiana Midget Week and it ALWAYS packs in the crowds. It’s a fantastic little track in a fantastic city — I recommend the USAC Midget race, ’cause those little cars really fly on tracks like Bloomington.

  10. Great piece George. As Speedgeek mentions above, the local short tracks seem to be going the way of the old Minor League baseball parks. (I’ve been following the demise of my hometown Class A baseball team on my own blog lately)

    Here in Minnesota we don’t yet have one of the NASCAR one & a half mile cookie cutter tracks, so our local short track scene is still pretty healthy. Within a one hour drive of Minneapolis we have Elko Speedway, Raceway Park, Princeton Speedway, and the classic dirt track Cedar Lake Speedway, and Kopellah Sppedway just over the border in Wisconsin.

    It seems to me like the tracks closest to major cities are the first to go. The ones that hang on seem to be the rural ones, where they don’t have as many local sports options to compete with.

    Thanks for the article. Your piece, and Pressdog’s coverage of Knoxville Nationals have inspired me to take the boy out to Cedar Lake before the season ends to see the 410 Sprint cars.

  11. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Nice job George… As you may know I am originally from Long Island NY. Back when I was a kid, there were several great race tracks on LI, (Freeport, Islip and Riverhead), in fact my father worked with several folks at the Grumman Corporation, that built, owned and raced stockers and midgets. (in fact my gift request for my holy communion was a trip to Freeport Raceway to watch Jim Lacy drive) Over the years as home building burgeoned and “civilization” came to every corner of the island, one by one those tracks were closed. At one time the tri-state area held so many races that many drivers would drive from state to state competing in as many races as they could fit in logistically each weekend. From one weekend to the next many guys had to decide whether to pay the rent or rebuild their racing engines so they could go back and do it all over again. As you mentioned in your article, the race tracks had been there for years, but once homes were built within earshot, the homeowners crusade to close them began. The same went for the many airports once located on LI.

  12. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Apparently Riverhead is still open…

  13. Speaking of the decline of race track in and near big cities, I stumbled across this in an IBJ online article by Anthony Shoettle. Pretty wild.

    It reminds me of a cross between Roller Derby & Short Track racing. Looks like a heck of a lot of fun.

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