Straight Out of Left Field

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As we were all looking forward to our first race in nine months last week, this little nugget came out of nowhere – that the NASCAR Cup Series would be staging a race at Nashville Superspeedway in 2021. I had not heard a thing about it until a racing friend of mine in Florida sent me an e-mail with a link. His e-mail was short and to the point – “Have you seen this?”

I have a lot of questions regarding this announcement. First of all, where did this come from? Straight out of left field, that’s where. As most of you know, I live in Nashville and keep up with most things going on in this town – especially in the sports world. For the longest time, we had been hearing that the Truck Series was in talks with the City Council and the Fair Board about holding a race at the old Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. That track is a little more than a half-mile in length. It is a very historic track that was built in 1904. NASCAR’s Winston Cup raced at the Fairgrounds until 1984, before disagreements with city government and track management drove the top series away. This photo was shot at the Fairgrounds Speedway in 1911.

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In 2010, then-Mayor Karl Dean put the historic track in his cross-hairs. He was bowing to the people that bought homes within a block from a race track that had been there for decades, then complained about the noise on Saturday nights. That’s like buying a cheap house right off of a runway, then complaining that jets fly over all the time. He intended on demolishing the track and turning the historic site into a greenway. Fortunately, race fans were bitterly opposed to this and it went to a vote to be decided by the citizens of Nashville. The proposal was soundly defeated and the track still operates with local Saturday night racing to this day. The below photos are from my last visit to the track.

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It was more of a question of when and not if the Truck Series would run at the Fairgrounds. I knew there were some snags with our current mayor and city council that kept delaying an announcement, but everyone assumed the deal would get done. Until this announcement came out of the blue last week.

My other question was; Wasn’t Nashville Superspeedway sold years ago? That’s what I thought. Dover Motorsports built the quirky 1.33-mile concrete oval about two decades ago, and it hosted what is now the NTT IndyCar Series from 2001 until 2008. The race was always very well attended, usually a sellout. However the racing was never that good. In 2011, I had the fortune to ride in the same shuttle with Al Unser, Jr. and my friend John McLallen at Barber Motorsports Park. John asked Little Al about the Nashville track and his response was that it was only a one-groove track. If they had made it wider, it would have been much better racing. He also didn’t care for the concrete surface, although it didn’t change near as much when the sun went down as an asphalt surface would.

That concrete surface. From what I understood, the teams hated it and Firestone hated it. The teams and drivers didn’t like it because the rough surface beat the cars to death. In 2004, three of the four Andretti-Green cars suffered suspension failures – most likely due to the bumpy surface. Firestone had to design and construct a completely different tire for that track, because it was the only concrete oval they ran on all year. Dover Motorsports thought it would be unique to have another oval like the Monster Mile in Delaware with concrete. What they thought was unique was really just pointless.

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But as mediocre as the racing was, the Nashville area supported the Firestone 200 each and every year. In fact, it was the track’s main attraction. But the local General Manager of the track, Cliff Hawks, was an absolute idiot – and that’s being way too kind. IndyCar had made it clear that they were going to raise the sanctioning fee after the 2008 race, but he naively thought IndyCar was bluffing, so he tried to call their bluff. IndyCar wasn’t bluffing and he allowed the race to get away, much to my dismay and every other Nashville racing fan’s.

With only two NASCAR Nationwide Series races left on the schedule, interest and attendance began to sag. The 35-mile drive from downtown Nashville didn’t help. The track was literally in the middle of nowhere between Murfreesboro and Lebanon in Wilson County. In August of 2011, Dover Motorsports announced they were closing the track. I was driving nearby one day in February of 2013 and snapped this photo of the deserted track.

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In 2014, a local businessman of questionable ethics named Robb Sexton, tried to buy the thirteen year-old track. He and his company, NeXovation, had previously made a bid to buy the Nürburgring. Their bid was rejected in favor of a lower bid – which should tell you something. He had all types of big plans for the small track. He was going to turn it into a 52-week a year motorsports attraction. Sexton was required to meet financial deadlines where earnest money had to be paid. To no one’s surprise, he kept asking for deadlines. After more than a year, and a loss of the nearly three million dollars that Sexton did pay, the deal finally fell through and the facility was back on the market.

On August 25, 2016; Dover Motorsports announced that the property had been sold to Panattoni Development Company to convert the property to an industrial and warehouse park. I had heard that their short-term plans were to keep the track intact, but they really didn’t know what to do with it. Surplus cars from local dealerships were stored in the infield of the track and the few temporary grandstands were dismantled, but I heard the facility was being maintained. Still, it sounded like the days of attending racing out in the middle of nowhere were gone. That is, until last week.

With the property being sold and developed for other use, I saw no way for a major race to be held there – especially a NASCAR Cup race. I’m hearing conflicting reports locally. Some say that Dover only sold the surrounding property and still maintained ownership of the track. Others say that the Panattoni deal fell through and Dover still owns the track and the land surrounding it. A check of Google Maps shows a few small businesses that have sprouted up near the track, but the parking lot still seems intact.

I’ll admit, I was still skeptical for a couple of days last week. I thought that this was just a bargaining chip for the Nashville City Council to get their act together so that they could sign the deal for the truck race at the Fairgrounds. But now, it appears that this is legitimate and that NASCAR will hold a Cup race at Nashville Superspeedway in 2021 – ten years after the track was shuttered.

So my third and final question is this, and it’s the most important one – Will IndyCar make a return to Nashville Superspeedway?

I wish I knew the answer, but they should.

I’m trusting that this time around Dover Motorsports has a more savvy negotiator in place than Mr. Hawks. Although it has been announced that several million dollars will be spent on the facility – many of the problems with Nashville Superspeedway remain. It is still thirty-five miles from downtown Nashville, it still only holds about 25,000 in the existing permanent stands and it is still a narrow track with a concrete surface.

But let’s look at the positives. Bridgestone-Firestone is still based in Nashville. In fact, since the series was last here, they have built a beautiful new building – one of the many new buildings that towers over downtown Nashville. They were not entirely happy the series left Nashville after the 2008 race, but they allowed IndyCar to make the final call.

Who else is in Nashville? Two-time and reigning series champion Josef Newgarden, that’s who. Not only was Newgarden born and raised here, he and his new bride Ashley are building a home here and plan to stay. Do you think he would be an ambassador for bringing IndyCar back here? Right now he has to call Barber his home track, even though it is three hours from Nashville in another state. Just imagine how hard he will promote this race.

And of course, to a far lesser degree of importance, Susan and I live here. We live on the western side of Nashville, while the track is to the east of the city. From our house to Nashville Superspeedway is a good fifty miles. But there is something to be said for going to a race and sleeping in your own bed.

Not to gloat over my own city too much, but for a while now Nashville has been known as the “It City”. Not only is it a great place to live, but it’s an even better tourist destination. My recommendation would be to make a four-day weekend out of the race weekend. Roll into town on Thursday and take advantage of everything Nashville has to offer. Sleep in and get to the track sometime early Friday afternoon, when practice starts. Sleep in again on Saturday and get to the track a little bit earlier for Race Day. The race will run sometime that night. Sometimes TV dictates when that is, but the later the better. After the race, head back to Nashville to take advantage of the late Saturday night activities. Then take in more of the city on Sunday before heading home. That sounds like a perfect weekend and I live here.

Do you want another reason? The NTT IndyCar Series needs more ovals. It’s not a perfect track, but Nashville Superspeedway is an oval. Most importantly, it’s an oval that is not owned by ISC. We know how quick the NASCAR-owned company was to jettison the series from Phoenix. I’m not sure how confident I am in the long-term viability of Iowa and Richmond on the schedule beyond next year. Gateway, IMS and Texas are non-ISC tracks and they feel a lot more secure (obviously IMS is). Nashville will give them another one.

I know the old argument that you can only go where you are wanted. Well, I think Roger Penske can convince a track like Nashville that they need IndyCar. If the support they received through 2008 is any indication, he would be right. Believe me, Nashville will sell out their Cup race, but history shows they will also sell out their IndyCar race too.

With a track that was seemingly brought from the dead last week, consider this my open letter to Roger Penske and the NTT IndyCar Series to please give a strong look to returning to Nashville. It would be a win-win for all parties.

George Phillips

14 Responses to “Straight Out of Left Field”

  1. James T Suel Says:

    George you hit the nail on its head. We need more ovals for IndyCar. .I live in Louisville so easy for me to attend. I think everyone involved can make that track work.

  2. Depends on how much PJ1 they NASCAR puts down…

    • billytheskink Says:

      I don’t believe NASCAR presently uses PJ1 on Dover’s concrete surface, so they may not in Nashville. They do use it on Bristol’s concrete surface, though.

      It will be interesting to see if anything is done to the track surface (PJ1, grinding, tire dragging, repaving) prior to NASCAR’s re-arrival, as much will certainly be done to the spectator areas. One thing drivers do generally like about concrete tracks is that they are predictable. They don’t change as much with temperature or age as asphalt surfaces do.

  3. Yannick Says:

    Would this be a suitable venue for an IndyCar/NASCAR (or vice versa) double header? If there is enough paddock space, it surely would.

  4. Keith r Says:

    I would like more short ovals… I always thought they should return and run the Milwaukee Mile during the state fair. It would be a crown jewel event for the fair.

  5. Bruce Waine Says:

    Merry Christmas, George.

    Enjoy your surprise “gift.”

  6. billytheskink Says:

    Always happy to see a track rise from the grave, regardless of what series is racing there. I’d love to see Indycar back at Nashville.

    I’d love to see them at the little 3/4 mile Memphis oval as well, but that’s a bigger pipe dream.

  7. Xfinity, Trucks, and IndyCar did manage to put on good races at Nashville in their day

  8. Perfect time for me to ask this: Why is it called Nashville “Super”speedway? I’ve always wondered. IMS. MIS. Fontana. Pocono. Talladega. Daytona. Old Texas World. Old Ontario. I always thought a track was a Superspeedway if it was 2 miles or larger. Just seems silly it’s called a Superspeedway to me.

    • I can’t say that I disagree with you. But I’ve been told that anything over 1.0 miles qualifies as a Superspeedway, which sort of cheapens the term to me. It’s like calling anyone that likes science, a doctor. – GP

  9. If the track surface is suitable for IndyCar, I’d rather see them run at Memphis (Trucks & Xfinity, too). Stock cars in general didn’t race very well at the Nashville Speedway, either; they belong at Fairgrounds Speedway.

  10. I checked the land records and it is indeed still owned by Dover Motorsports Inc., it has not changed hands since 2000. The land to the East of the speedway looks to have been sold but there are still 615 acres owned by Dover. https://tnmap.tn.gov/assessment/

  11. News just came out that Indycar might have a street course race in Nashville. You have an uncanny timing with your oval article George. Hopefully we’ll get one or the other!

  12. George, wake up. You are NOT dreaming. LOL. I am glad the track is coming back into use.

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