It’s showing its age, sagging here and drooping there, faded and neglected. Some say its wild Saturday nights are a thing of the past. Others, though, argue not so fast — all that’s needed for a return to its days of thunder is a makeover and a little attention.
And so the debate rages about the fate and future of Fairgrounds Speedway, a 53-year-old racetrack that was once a jewel of NASCAR.
Nashville Mayor Karl Dean wants to demolish the track as part of a redevelopment of the 117-acre Metro-owned fairgrounds. His opposition claims the complex and its activities — including racing and the Tennessee State Fair — are part of the city’s history and culture. And the Metro Council, which has been split on what to do, voted recently to allow another two years of planning for the site’s future.
There’s no denying that the racetrack is a shadow of its former grandeur. It was once part of NASCAR’s Grand National (now Sprint Cup) Series, and giants like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt raced before overflow crowds.
Last season the track ran a limited schedule of mostly local-division races that drew crowds estimated at around 5,000. In recent years some turnouts weren’t half that size.
“It’s been sad to watch the decline of the track,” said Terrell Davis, editor of Middle Tennessee Racing News and host of the Pit Pass radio show. “Can it ever enjoy the success it had when we had Cup racing? Probably not. Can it be successful on some level as part of a revitalized facility? Yes it can. I’ve listened to some fresh ideas, and for the first time in years I’m excited about the fairgrounds’ future.”
Nashville attorney Gary Baker, who operated the track during its glory years in the 1970s and ’80s, said a remodeled track could have a future. “Times have changed, and we have to change with them,” he said.
Baker suggested incorporating the track into an “automotive Research & Development park” that could be used for performance testing by the area’s growing auto manufacturing industry could be a solution.
That might work for retired NASCAR driver Sterling Marlin, who heads a group of investors that wants to secure a long-term lease to operate the fairgrounds. He wants to preserve traditional events and add new ones. One of his ideas is to utilize the 14,000-seat grandstands as an amphitheater for concerts.
“My main objective is the racetrack,” Marlin said, “but to save the track, we have to save the fairgrounds.”
Still, the racing interests don’t seem to have drawn much traction with city government on the issue.
Auto racing has been a fixture at the site since 1904, and the current track was constructed in 1958.
Nashville’s first recorded motorcar race went off on June 14, 1904 — seven years before the first Indy 500 — at the Cumberland Park Driving Club. Later that year, America’s most celebrated racer at the time, Barney Oldfield, competed at the fairgrounds in his Peerless “Green Dragon.”
Fast-forward to 1958, when the new five-eighths-mile track opened and such racing titans as Fireball Roberts, Lee Petty and Buck Baker rolled into town. Nashville’s colorful “Bullet Bob” Reuther won the
inaugural track championship, and the next year equally dashing Coo Coo Marlin of Columbia captured the first of his four titles.
Reuther and Coo Coo Marlin raced nationally and were two of Tennessee’s earliest sports celebrities. Reuther set a speed record on the old Daytona Beach course, and Marlin had a role in a 1960s racing movie, Track of Thunder.
Then in the late ’60s, a brash young hot-shoe named Darrell Waltrip swaggered in from Owensboro, Ky., to seek his racing fortune. The only thing Waltrip ran faster than his racecar was his mouth. Nicknamed “Jaws” by rival Cale Yarborough, Waltrip was the sport’s resident rebel. But he also was one of NASCAR’s most talented drivers, compiling one of the most spectacular careers in the sport’s history.
Living in Franklin, Waltrip won his first Cup race at the fairgrounds in 1975 and went on to add 83 more, tied with Bobby Allison for third all-time. He also won three NASCAR championships.
“Back then, if you wanted to race, Nashville was the place,” said Waltrip, who retired from driving after the 2000 season and began a new career as a Fox Sports racing commentator. “It was so much fun back then, racing against guys like Petty, Allison, Yarborough, Earnhardt — the giants of the sport. When they came in for a big race, the joint would be packed and rocking.
No other track has graduated as many drivers to the big leagues. In addition to Waltrip, both Marlins — Sterling and Coo Coo — competed in the premier Cup series in which Sterling won back-to-back Daytona 500s.
Fairgrounds alum Bobby Hamilton, whose grandfather Preacher Hamilton assisted Marty Robbins with his racing, captured a NASCAR truck series championship. Bobby Jr. advanced to the top series. Fairgrounds champion Jeff Green won a Busch Series title. Chad Chaffin, Casey Atwood and a dozen other Nashville drivers advanced into NASCAR’s upper rungs.
“If you listed all the drivers who came through the fairgrounds, it would read like a who’s who of racing,” said former track promoter Joe Mattioli.
But Fairgrounds Speedway became a casualty of NASCAR’s popularity boom, which began in the late ’70s. Termed “America’s hottest sport” by Sports Illustrated, stock car racing had outgrown its rural Southern roots and became a national phenomenon.
Tracks literally couldn’t add seats fast enough to hold the fans. Bristol Speedway, at one time owned by Nashville’s Baker, expanded to 160,000 seats. It passed UT’s Neyland Stadium as the state’s largest sports venue and still couldn’t meet ticket demands.
The Fairgrounds Speedway, with a capacity of 20,000, had to grow or be left behind. Handicapped by a limited Metro lease that discouraged capital investment, land-locked in a growing residential area and beleaguered by managerial problems, the track stagnated. NASCAR pulled its two annual big-league races after the 1984 season.
Throughout his tenure, Baker was frequently at odds with the Board of Fair Commissioners, the body that oversees the facility, on matters both grand and trivial. During one critical meeting, with the NASCAR races in the balance, a dispute erupted over who was responsible for patching a leak in the office roof.
Some of the commissioners were rankled because Bill Donoho, the original leaseholder, transferred the final years of his 30-year contract (1979-87) to Baker and partner Lanny Hester without consulting them. Leery and suspicious, the board refused to issue another long-term lease, which Baker said he needed to keep NASCAR in Nashville.
“There were people making decisions about the track who had absolutely no understanding of NASCAR and how it operates,” Baker said. “Major cities around the country, from Dallas-Ft. Worth to Miami, Las Vegas and Kansas City, were scrambling to build tracks and get one of the Cup races that Nashville threw away. Today those races are worth hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Even after NASCAR pulled its two premier races following the ’84 season, the track did relatively well under Baker’s stewardship. It frequently drew crowds of 12,000 for local-division races.
But the fair board friction continued. In one contentious meeting, Baker was taken to task for selling discounted tickets.
“I couldn’t make them understand why it was better to sell 12,000 tickets at $5 each than to sell 5,000 tickets at $10 — plus selling Cokes and hot dogs to 7,000 additional fans,” he said. “The folks on the fair board weren’t bad people; they just didn’t know anything about racing.”
Discouraged and wearied by his endless battles, Baker eventually got out. The track began a steady downward spiral.
Nashville businessmen Boyd Adams and Jimmy Allen tried their hand at running things, but they too butted heads with the Fair Board. One summer Adams installed some arcade games in the track pavilion to provide diversions for youngsters while their parents watched the races. The board chastised Adams for not getting its permission and ordered him to remove the machines immediately.
From squabbles over patching a leaky roof to spats over arcade games, the wrangling went on and on.
“They nitpicked while the ship sank,” Adams said.
But the fair board wasn’t to blame for all the problems. One frustrated commissioner — speaking on condition of anonymity — said that one year, Metro government billed the financially strapped fairgrounds $10,000 for “golf cart maintenance.”
“I checked, and none of our golf carts had had any maintenance work done on them,” he said.
So what did the board do?
“We wrote Metro a $10,000 check for golf cart maintenance.”
After Adams departed, nationally renowned promoter Bob Harmon came in from Alabama. Harmon enjoyed a better rapport with the board, and for a while attendance picked up. But during that period, more and more NASCAR races were being televised on Saturday nights, and as Harmon said, “Every Saturday that they race on TV is a Saturday that our fans stay home.”
While Nashville remained one of the nation’s top markets for NASCAR’s TV races, attendance dwindled at the Fairgrounds Speedway.
“Once your fans get out of the habit of coming to the track, it’s hard to get them back,” Harmon said. “NASCAR was a big shade tree that smothered everything underneath it.”
Eleven years ago, Dover Motorsports opened the new Nashville Superspeedway in Wilson County. In addition to the 1.3-mile track, initial plans called for a short track similar to the one at the fairgrounds, along with a dirt track and a drag strip. The plan was to transfer the weekly races to the Superspeedway and close Fairgrounds Speedway. But from the opening race, attendance failed to meet expectations, and Dover shelved plans for the other tracks. Fairgrounds Speedway was back in business — for the moment.
Harmon retired, and a succession of promoters followed: Dennis Grau, Joe Mattioli, Danny Denson and, last year, Tony Formosa Jr.
“It’s hard to imagine Nashville without racing,” said Mattioli, whose parents own and operate Pocono Speedway, one of NASCAR’s oldest racetracks. “Fairgrounds Speedway is to racing what the Ryman Auditorium is to country music. It should be preserved.”
Mattioli incorporated some special events with his race schedule — such as a Dukes of Hazzard TV reunion/car show that drew an estimated 60,000 visitors one weekend. But like most of his predecessors, Mattioli encountered problems and conflicts and eventually left to run other tracks.
Amid the track’s struggles, Nashville landed the NHL’s Predators and the NFL’s Titans. Auto racing, once a local sports staple, was bumped off the media radar and into oblivion.
“I remember when The Tennessean and The Banner had full-time racing reporters,” Baker said. “NASCAR was on the front page. There was a local racing show on TV and two or three on the radio. Now racing seldom gets mentioned.”
The track appeared doomed a couple years ago, when Mayor Dean began public discussions about redeveloping the fairgrounds property. He eventually proposed demolishing the track, terminating the Tennessee State Fair at the site and relocating the flea market, Christmas Village and other longstanding fairgrounds events to Hickory Hollow Mall. After encountering criticism, the mayor dropped the plan.
Although the fairgrounds receives no tax dollars, Dean has said ongoing financial shortfalls there would eventually drain its internal operating fund. Rather than wait until Metro might be called on — as soon as this year — to fill a projected deficit, the mayor proposed putting the property to other uses, such as an office park or other mixed-use development.
But months went by, no specific proposal arose, and the costly demolition was put on hold indefinitely by a Metro Council vote, which also called for a new “master plan” to be developed for the site. Presumably, racing could have a second chance in those discussions.
Considering all the past problems and sagging attendance, the obvious question looms: If dedicated, expert promoters such as Baker, Harmon and Mattioli couldn’t make a go of it, what makes someone else think he has a chance at turning a profit — or at least breaking even — at the Fairgrounds Speedway?
“The climate has recently changed,” said Davis, who attended his first race at the fairgrounds in 1960 and has covered it as a member of the media since 1984. “For several years things had gone downhill, from the loss of Winston as a local series sponsor to the explosion of big-league NASCAR events that smothered everything else. But that interest has cooled, new sponsors are coming in, and fans are returning to grassroots racing.”
Davis said tracks in Pensacola, Fla.; Mobile, Ala.; and Montgomery, Ala., are bringing in good-sized crowds again. But some changes must come.
“For starters, they should run a shorter local schedule [in Nashville], which makes each race more special,” Davis said. “Add more mid-level touring series races, which are growing in popularity. Then promote it — it does no good have great racing if nobody knows it’s going on.”
Neil Chaffin, a retired driver and former member of the fair board who along with son Chad has been active in the Save Our Fairgrounds movement, said racing could make a comeback in Nashville — especially if its home is buoyed by other events.
“When the new downtown Convention Center opens, thousands more visitors will be coming to Nashville, and they’ll be looking for things to do,” he said. “They might enjoy going to races, concerts, fairs, flea markets and outdoor shows. There’s more to Nashville than Lower Broadway.”
Chaffin said he thinks NASCAR might eventually return one of its second- or third-tier races to the fairgrounds. NASCAR runs two annual Nationwide/truck doubleheaders at Nashville Superspeedway in Wilson County.
“Lots of fans would rather see a NASCAR race at the fairgrounds because there’s more action,” he said. “But NASCAR would require a 10- or 15-year lease.”
Sterling Marlin said he and his investors “could live with” a 10-year lease but would prefer to establish a longer one. Baker said a minimum 15-year lease is necessary to reinvigorate local stock car racing.
“Without it, it’s impossible to invest in major improvements,” he said. “And auto manufacturers need assurance that an R&D park wouldn’t be shut down after a year or two. A long-term contract shouldn’t be a problem. It could contain automatic extensions tied to specific performance requirements. Both parties would be protected.”
When Baker operated the track, more than 20,000 fans packed the grandstands and spilled over onto surrounding hillsides for premier events. Crowds of 12,000 were not uncommon for routine races. NASCAR and country music are entwined, making Music City a “destination city” for many race fans. Some called Nashville “Daytona without the beach.”
“Can we draw those crowds again? No, not on a regular basis,” Davis said. “But we can draw crowds comparable to most other sports events in Nashville.
“From an economic standpoint, would you rather have 20,000 race fans coming in from out-of-town and spending two or three days, or 60,000 football fans driving in from Franklin, Gallatin and Murfreesboro the morning of the game and going home as soon as it’s over?”
Marlin, who won more than $40 million during his racing career, said he and his fellow investors are prepared to make a “substantial” investment in the facility. Part of that investment would be in noise control, which has increasingly become a problem as the residential neighborhood has grown around the track. Marlin said acoustic barriers could be installed to absorb much of the rumble of motors, concerts and other activities. Others have discussed possibly requiring newer muffler technology on the cars that race there.
“We can fix the noise,” said Marlin, who has also helped pay for a public relations expert to run opposition to Dean’s fairgrounds redevelopment plans. “We’ll also build a community park and playground, construct walking paths and greenways — whatever it takes to make the neighbors happy.
“If I wasn’t convinced that racing and the fairgrounds had a future, I wouldn’t be working so hard to save it.”