The Fairgrounds Speedway endures — and so does Sterling Marlin

Friday, May 17, 2013 at 1:51am
051713 Fairgrounds racing Sterlin Marlin topper.jpg
Sterling Marlin (40) makes contact with Andy Johnson (20) during the April 6 race at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. (Courtesy


Sterling Marlin’s to-do list Wednesday included a trip to Full Throttle Race Parts and Equipment, a high performance retail outlet on the Cumberland River just east of downtown.

“Race cars cost a lot of money but you’ve got to have the good stuff,” he said. “Full Throttle, they just cater to racers, all the oval track guys. That’s where you’ve got to go to get your parts.”

How things have changed for the 55-year-old from Columbia.

It has been more than three years since he raced on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup circuit, where he won 10 times including twice at the Daytona 500. He’s no longer part of a multi-million dollar team that maintains a fleet of cars in a palatial garage with the help of specialized pit-crew members and research and development departments that operate on the sport’s cutting edge.

In a way, though, he is no different than the teenager who took his first laps at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in 1976.

Mainly, the sense of accomplishment that comes when one has built his own racecar with help from his buddies and then has driven that car to a victory is as powerful as ever. He reaffirmed that notion April 6 when he won the Pro Late Model Race, the featured event on the first of the Fairgrounds’ eight-race schedule this year.

“It’s something about working on a car, building the car yourself,” Marlin said. “… As far as the racecars we pretty much build them — hang the bodies, do all the suspension work and chassis work. It’s something about having something you built and winning that gives you a special feeling.”

Marlin looks to make it two in a row Saturday when this year’s second night of racing, postponed from two weeks earlier by rain, takes place.

Amid all the uncertainty about the future of the facility and the Fairgrounds in general, all the political maneuvers and all the ways in which the racing scene has diminished throughout Middle Tennessee, the speedway is as it always has been. It is a dynamic .596-mile oval that creates competitive, side-by-side racing and helps foster development in those drivers who hope one day to race on a larger stage.

“You can run side-by-side pretty easy,” Marlin said. “It’s easy to pass if you’ve got a good car. You’ll go around to racetracks every now and then and you’ll see guys who will say, ‘Man, I raced at Nashville back in ’98 and man, I love that track.’ It’s a great racetrack always. From Wisconsin to Florida, the drivers all love racing here.”

Albeit a bit weathered for all that has taken place, it remains the bloom of the local racing scene for which the roots still run deep.

Take the No. 40 Chevrolet that Marlin drove to victory six weeks ago. From inception to creation to celebration, every thing to do with that ride has some local connection.

“You pretty much buy the chassis from somebody, a chassis builder, I’ve got one called Wayne Day up in White House,” Marlin said. “… The bodies are fiberglass, they come from ARP [Aluminum Racing Products] up in [Greenbrier]. You buy you some body parts, say from Full Throttle. You bolt it together, put it all together and see what you’ve got.”

Mt. Juliet’s Andy Johnson found out pretty quickly what he had. And he liked it.

The 38-year-old was on the front row for the April 6 race and stayed at the head of the 20-car field to the halfway point of the 75-lap race.

“It’s just a good feeling,” he said. “You work hard all winter on getting the car right. Then when you’re up there leading laps, you know you’ve done something right.”

The feeling soon vanished, though, when contact between him and Marlin, each a three-time Fairgrounds champion, caused Johnson to spin and hit the wall. He was undeniably unhappy following the race but since has cooled a bit.

“You’re never happy when you get wrecked,” Johnson said. “We just kind of got together — I’ll leave it at that. … It’s racing. It’s going to happen. But there’s plenty of room out there to where it shouldn’t happen.

“It tore the car up pretty bad. We just rode around and got lapped two or three times after that. It ain’t no big deal.”

He finished 13th, but the seeds were sewn for a potential rivalry to carry through to the end of the season the first week in November. Marlin, for his part, said there were no marks on his car.

The rematch has to wait, though, while Johnson works to fortify the local racing scene’s roots. He will miss Saturday’s event in order to be with his son, 7-year-old Chase Johnson, who will compete in an out-of-town regional quarter-midget event.

Marlin, likewise, has added to legacy through his son Steadman, 32, who will race in the Limited Late Model race this weekend, which precedes his father’s event. Both were scheduled Wednesday to test cars that came right from the Marlin family farm.

“I probably work on them too much,” Sterling Marlin said. “We’ve got a lot of cattle, a lot of farming, a lot of real estate stuff going on but I enjoy working on the cars. I usually get to the shop at six in the morning and work on them until the help gets there. If you get behind, you work on them until nine or 10 o’clock at night. It just depends on what needs to be done.”

That’s the way it always has been for those who have and continue to turn laps at the Fairgrounds even others push their agendas with designs to transform the property into something else.

“It’s the same old Nashville Speedway,” Marlin said. “I started racing on it in 1976 and been racing it ever since. I probably skipped two or three years when I was running [Sprint] Cup, but I’ve been racing 35 years and I’ve probably raced there 30 of my life.

“… It’s a fun track. It’s a track you can run side-by-side on and put on a good show for the fans. It’s probably one of the premier short tracks in the United States.”


6 Comments on this post:

By: JudgeRoyBean on 5/17/13 at 7:49

Great article but I would take exception with the statement "..all the ways in which the racing scene has diminished throughout Middle Tennessee," . Racing at the Fairgrounds is great, with high car counts in most divisions and a 10 dollar admission fee for spectators. Highland Rim Speedway has been under new ownership since last year and they have done an incredible job with that facility. The racing is great and the new owners have worked very hard on spectator amenities. The same goes for Duck River Speedway to the south, and Clarksville Speedway to the north has both dirt track racing and drag racing. Music City Raceway has drag racing 3 nights a week, with classes for everyone who wants to participate. In fact, the local scca club is having an autocross there this Sunday.

So in spite of the economy, rather than diminishing, racing is flourishing in Middle Tennessee. Get out and see some, or better yet find a way to participate!

By: Inglorious bastard on 5/17/13 at 10:16

I disagree. This redneck and mostly blue collar activity is fast fading away. I don't know anyone who has time to participate in such an economic and environmental waste as auto racing. This is the age of the internet and technology, not the age of building cars and racing them. Auto Racing is a hobby that is best left to those stuck in a time warp in remote Americana where the automobile is still king. Look at Detroit and the Midwest and tell me if cars are still king.

The Fairgrounds and the track need to be demolished, and room made for sustainable development that creates tax revenue and a new business portal for the city. Leave the racing to the "good ole boys" in the small towns where nothing exists except auto racing and high school football. Let racing stay in the past where America's fascination with the automobile was accepted. Now it's just another thing that keeps us buying oil from the Middle East.

It just does not make sense.

By: karlwithak on 5/17/13 at 11:42

Hey Bastard, Get your head out of your ASS. You think there isn't tax revenue generated there ?

There was over $20 Million dollars in racing equipment parked inside the pit area for the first event of the season, and over 12,000 fans in the stands.

Google Mason Mingus for an example of a local driver who does not fit the stereotypical racer in your small mind. Brentwood has racers too.

And then Google Billionaire Bruton Smith for an example of someone interested in the property for racing. He owns more Car Dealerships within 5 mins of the speedway than anyone else in Nashville for an example of what he pays in taxes locally.

No one believes the bullshit you're trying to sell.

By: JudgeRoyBean on 5/17/13 at 11:43

I don't know IB. You may not know people who participate in racing, just as I don't know people who participate in other activities, but that doesn't mean that those activities aren't worthwhile.

You say that this is the age of the internet and technology, do you know where some of that technology comes from? Why do you think people can drive cars that are safer and more economical today? By the way, a hybrid car won the 24 hours of Le Mans last year.

I don't think I was claiming that the "automobile is still king" but I have spent some time in the Midwest and it seems that the automobile is still pretty popular there.

And I don't really want to get into an argument over the fairgrounds. That has been discussed to death on this site. I will say that I'm beginning to understand why people say it's just as much a cultural issue as an economic one. Your comment seems to reinforce that idea. How do you feel about country music?

By: murdog on 5/17/13 at 11:54

Fortunately we live in a democracy and you don't decide if people can entertain themselves by attending racing. I get the distinct feeling that you also probably think that firearms and the 2nd Amendment are also "bad" and only rednecks support those things as well. I grew up at that track in Nashville when Bill Donaho ran it and I knew Steflings father who was a legend in racing and Tennessee and if you knew anything about racing you would know that racing is no longer and hasn't been for many years a redneck hillbilly sport. It takes a lot of money to race and a significant amount of technology, skills, money and smarts to be involved and successful. I wouldn't trade the memories, friends, or lessons that were gained from my time at the speedway for anything and I think you would do yourself a favor by opening your mind up to learning about things that you are closed off to. Sterling Marlin is a true class act and someone that Nashville should be proud call its own. Don't judge a book by its cover nor a man by his accent.

By: courier37027 on 5/19/13 at 6:40

Local stock car racing is not different from the Grand Ole Opry and Sounds baseball. All three have their core fan support, and always will on a local, community level. From a national view there are empty seats at NASCAR Sprint Cup races that did not exist ten years ago. Major League Baseball is losing stadium attendance through technology and broadcast package deals. Grand Ole Opry is preserving harmonies and melodies in a synthesizer, rap/rock driven country music industry. Nostalgia has its place; small and remote as it may be.