Nashville's Fairgrounds Speedway Fighting For The Future
By Patrick Reynolds
Thirty years ago, I opened my monthly issue of Stock Car Racing magazine. Splashed across the top of two pages was a pavement late model photo spread from the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. Butch Lindley had a close-up that focused on him as he steered his machine through the high-banked turns. Davey Allison, Dick Trickle and Bob Senneker were also featured in driving action shots that centered on the men through the window nets.
Lindley went on to win that inaugural All-American 400 in 1981 over Trickle, Senneker, and 37 other drivers. Allison did not qualify.
So this was Nashville? I wanted to go there someday.
Thirty years ago I opened my copy of Southern MotoRacing, an auto racing trade paper. Pasted on the front page was a wide-angle shot of a NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National field taking the green flag. Darrell Waltrip led the cars to the stripe in Junior Johnson’s car. Towering outside of turn four was a roller coaster, adding to the festive Saturday night summertime image.
So this was Nashville? I wanted to go there someday.
Over the years, new copies of various publications contained coverage of the Nashville short track. I peered at more photos and race results from this oval that measures just a tick under five-eighths of a mile around.
All Pro, American Speed Association, and weekly late model racing results contained names of legendary short track aces. Gary Balough, Wayne Anderson, Freddy Fryar… they were all there.
So this was Nashville? I wanted to go there someday.
That thirty-year alarm clock rang, and an item on my bucket list was checked off. I made the six-hour drive west to what is now known as Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville.
The place has had a few other handles over the years but the facility is just like I pictured it. A large capacity grandstand with a typical fairground roof, a concourse behind the seating structure, and the tunnel that led to a lowered infield section, it felt as if I knew the place well, even though I had never been here before.
I walked through the tunnel and thought of all the historic names that had taken the same steps. From Petty to Earnhardt, from Miller to Bickle, from Crouch to Ridley, the legends of racing had passed through this tunnel. I stood on special soil.
But despite being a short track rich in racing history, it is not immune to modern challenges facing many speedways: property value and development potential.
An attempt to contact a representative of the Nashville Metropolitan Government for comment was directed to the city’s website. There are pages there outlining a broad plan to study the Fairgrounds and speedway property to best decide future use, both economically and publicly. Not only would racing be effected but also, so would the multiple activities that take place on the site.
“I think this place (was) rented out 256 times last year and the year before, out of 365 days,” said Sterling Marlin.
Yes, that Sterling Marlin, former Cup Series driver and two-time Daytona 500 Champion. He has been a strong speedway supporter by attending city council meetings, going door-to-door within the community, and competing in the monthly late model events.
Playing devil’s advocate certainly sped up my timetable to finally make the 30-year anticipated Fairgrounds trek. I have visited many beloved speedways in my native Northeast that are now “The former site of…”
My home track growing up was the Danbury Fair Racearena in Connecticut. Sadly it is now the Danbury Fair Mall, as if the destruction wasn’t heartbreaking enough, the insult came in the property’s new name.
Riverside Park Speedway in Massachusetts is now the location of more Riverside Park rides. Flemington Speedway in New Jersey now has some empty box stores occupying the former turn one. Catamount Stadium in Vermont is now an industrial park. I could continue, but you get the idea.
I would be lying if I said I fully understood all of the Metro website’s legalese for the property study. The gist I read is that whatever is the best investment for the taxpayer’s dollars and receives public support will determine the property’s- and racing’s- future.
Attempts to find out who owned the land brought forth some gray answers.
Marlin provided some input on this hot afternoon. He traded his firesuit for some shorts and a golf shirt between time trials and feature action. Marlin spoke from the back of his fifth-wheel hauler towed by a dually pickup truck. The setup was pure Saturday night and not the large stacker trailer one might anticipate from a former NASCAR national star.
“It used to be the state owned it,” said Marlin about the Fairgrounds. “And I guess at some point in time it switched over and the state deed it to the city, I guess.”
Melissa Smithson, public relations representative for the track had a similar response regarding Fairgrounds ownership, from a similar location, near the pit concession stand next to where Marlin’s tow rig was parked.
“That’s a good question. My understanding is the state. It was given to the state by a family that had a farm here. The state had it for a while, then Metro (city government) was involved in leasing it and the state fair went into their hands,” said Smithson.
“Metro just gave up. Said they ‘didn’t want to be in the fair business anymore.’ So they went to the state legislature and now the state fair is in the state’s hands. Right now the city of Nashville Metropolitan government wants to do a master plan for this facility,” Smithson said.
“However the question is: ‘Whose property is this?’ That’s kind of been the million-dollar question. Right now it seems that Metro is running things right now,” said Smithson.
In spite of the unclear legalities, monthly Saturday night racing is being staged and appears very healthy.
‘It’s a great racetrack. It’s the best short track, I think, in the United States,” said Marlin. “Wisconsin to Florida drivers love to come here to race. Tony (Formosa, speedway president and leaseholder) and his staff have done a great job this year of getting folks out. A lot of people in the stands, entries by the cars in the pits. It’s (the speedway) made a good comeback this year.”
“The fans… 10,000 people the first (race). Probably 6,000 people the second race. A good field of cars. Twenty-nine Late Models raced the last race. We was down to ten or twelve cars last year,” Marlin said.
“We’ve got the support. We’ve got the support of our fans,” said Smithson. “As you can see here, we’ve got over 200 cars registered to race here, among ten divisions. That has not been this way since… late 70s, early 80s. We know we have the support of the drivers, we know we have the support of the fans. There’s a thousand people in these pits tonight. This is a great crowd. We haven’t had this crowd since the early 90s as far as in the pits.”
The speedway’s future, like the ownership, appears unclear.
“It’s a multi-use place. So why the city hasn’t paid attention to that or neglected that, that is the million-dollar question. We are trying to find that out,” said Smithson.
“It seems to be neglected, kind of like the red-headed stepchild. Money needs to be put into something (for its) upkeep. It hasn’t been pampered so it’s kind of run down. And over time they’ve also been taking money away from that and putting it in the general fund. Now we’re in a point where we’re asking for money, but we really don’t need to. We still have the state flea market. We are one of the top-five flea markets in the United States,” Smithson said.
“If we can get the city to focus on this like they’ve been focusing on the parks and other places, this could be a premier Expo center. That is kind of what it has turned to be. We have gun and knife shows here. We have different lawn and garden shows,” said Smithson.
“We’re actually going to present a resolution, hopefully here in the near future,” Smithson said. “We’re going to ask the city to privatize it, to just lease it. Long-term lease it. The track hasn’t been successful because the city hasn’t been willing to give them a long-term lease. Tony Formosa has fought for this track. He has raced on this track since he was little. And he was a big part of the Save The Fairgrounds (initiative). But they won’t give a long-term lease, because they have a master plan. But they’re just now after two years coming up with this master plan. What is in store for it, I do not know.”
Said Smithson; “They wanted to demolish this track. It was going to be demolished. Then we had 3,000 people come to the courthouse in January and saved this. So the mayor’s eyes got wide open as far as ‘Oh, I underestimated this place.’ So I think it will be good if they’re just open to listen. We’ve got people that want to invest in the track. Sterling has people that want to invest in this
Smithson feels that if Formosa could obtain a long-term lease on the property, not just the racetrack, “the investors will come.”
On this night the grandstand was crowded and the pits were full. Noted southern late model technical inspector Ricky Brooks was on hand to look entries over. Former NASCAR National Series competitors Casey Atwood and Chad Chaffin were in the pits. Even pastor Joe Nelms was alongside officials for the driver’s meeting. You remember Nelms from his “Smokin’ hot wife…” invocation at a 2011 Nashville Superspeedway race.
I tipped my head into Formosa’s golf cart following the meeting and asked him if he had time to answer a few questions. As the words left my mouth I realized I might as well have asked a surgeon for an interview while his patient lay on the operating table. Formosa politely explained he was a bit busy with the night’s work ahead. But the respect and admiration from the local fans for his work to keep racing alive was evident with sustained applause from the strong grandstand crowd during an intermission.
In spite of the healthy race night, the political overture struck a nerve with Marlin.
“I don’t know what they’re (Metro) thinking. That’s initially what they want to do. Tear it down and build a park here,” said Marlin.
“I know I read in the paper this morning, Metro’s got 115 parks. Do they need 116? They lose money on every one of them and they want to tear this place down and build a park. It’s in a flood zone. Twenty million dollars to tear it down. Five million to build a park. That’s taxpayer’s expense. A high level guy told me this place makes $4 Million a year if everything is done right. Why throw away $4 million a year to spend $25 million? It don’t make sense to me,” Marlin said.
“All the money they can make on the flea markets, guns shows… That’s where $4 million comes from. All the activities- bundle it in one makes $4 million. You’ve got a place that brings in $4 million a year. What would you do?” said Marlin.
“What happened was people come here and bought houses 25 to 30 years old. Then they complain about the noise,” Marlin said about the track built in 1958. “We put mufflers on the car. Try to help them. Try to knock the noise down. We done all we can do. When you look at it like you bought a house at the airport. You don’t like the noise. You knew there was a racetrack here when you bought your house. This place is making money for the city. That’s all I know.”
The scheduled races are not NASCAR sanctioned, but Smithson said, “they (NASCAR) would come back. They would come back for a Truck race or a Nationwide race. We need about $20 million invested in this. We need the soft walls. We would have to reconfigure pit road.”
Smithson boldly said, “This would be the premiere short track of NASCAR. If they would give us a long term lease, this place would be better than Bristol.”
The property was granted seven races to run this year including the return of the All-American 400 in October. There are no racing, market, or show activities scheduled beyond 2012.
“We are prepared to fight, again,” said Smithson.
Marlin went on to place third behind winner Willie Allen in the 100-lap late model main event. The race night was healthy yet the track’s future faces a matter-of-factly wait and see situation. The Metro government will continue to study and land. The Fairgrounds advocates will continue to show their support.
As I began to leave for the night, I stepped through a gate below the flagstand. A checkered flag waved over this location when Geoff Bodine won the final Grand National, now Cup Series, race here in 1984. Bodine drove for All-Star Racing, which had yet to be renamed Hendrick Motorsports. This was only the second career win for both Bodine and Rick Hendrick.
I took another look at the start/finish line as I walked over it. The same line Lindley crossed over to win the first All-American 400.
I glanced at the large, empty space occupying air outside the turn four wall. The same space that once supported the long-gone roller coaster, and is now just above a paved parking lot.
I exited back out through the tunnel. The same tunnel under the backstretch where Allison crashed in a heat race for that original 400 and failed to make the big show.
I took all of this in. Knowing that in spite of waiting three decades to get here, my hours at the track were over and it was time to go.
I hoped the flagstand, the pavement, the tunnel, and the property would be more than just memories for years to come. That the race fans in Nashville won’t be telling stories of their own Danbury, Riverside, Flemington, or Catamount.
And if there is some kid in another part of the country looking at photos of Nashville today, saying “someday I want to go there,” I hope all of this will still be standing to welcome him thirty years from now.