The closure of Nashville Superspeedway, combined with Nashville voters’ endorsement of the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, might open the door for NASCAR’s return to historical Fairgrounds Speedway.
“I’ve been on the phone to NASCAR and I didn’t have to beg — they want to come back,” Hamilton said Friday. “That’s not the question. The question is, are we willing to do what’s necessary to make it happen? By ‘we’, I mean myself and the city of Nashville. I’m willing to put my own money up but I need some support.”
Hamilton said approximately $4 million is needed to secure a NASCAR Nationwide Series race and a Camping World Series truck race. That includes about $2 million in track improvements, such as installing NASCAR-mandated safer barriers around the existing concrete walls. The other $2 million would cover sanctioning fees and related expenses.
“You could trim about $1 million if you went with just a truck race,” Hamilton said.
On Wednesday Dover Motorsports announced it will not seek any 2012 NASCAR sanctions for Nashville Superspeedway, its 11-year-old track in Wilson County. The track, which struggled with attendance, is expected to be closed next year.
On Thursday Metro voters approved a referendum supporting the fairgrounds and its traditional activities: auto racing, the expo center, flea market and state fair.
That vote does not assure the long-term survival of the Metro-owned facility, but it forestalls any immediate redevelopment.
“The people spoke and they bought us some time,” Hamilton said. “And the timing couldn’t be better, considering what happened with the Superspeedway. I hate to see it go under, but it presents an opportunity for us that hadn’t been there before.”
NASCAR is in the process of finalizing next season’s schedules and Hamilton said there may be “too many loose ends to tie up” in time for the Fairgrounds to be included.
“But even if we miss out on 2012 there’s always next year,” he said. “I know for a fact that NASCAR wants to be in Nashville. They love this market.”
Fairgrounds Speedway opened in 1958 and began hosting NASCAR races the following season. Up until 1984 the track held two annual races in its premier Cup Series. The track over the years also held races in the second-tier Nationwide Series and third-tier truck series.
Long before the current track was built there was automobile racing at the Fairgrounds. The first recorded race was in 1904 – five years before the first race at Indianapolis. That first Fairgrounds race included celebrated driver Barney Oldfield.
“This place has an incredible history,” Hamilton says, “and it can have an incredible future.”
The track can seat approximately 16,000. That number of ticket sales, combined with TV rights and corporate sponsorships, is sufficient to make a NASCAR race financially viable according to Hamilton, who owns and operates racetracks in Ridgetop and Carthage.
Nashville attorney Gary Baker once operated the Fairgrounds track along with Bristol Motor Speedway, laying the groundwork to make Bristol the most poplar track in NASCAR. He said the Fairgrounds can recapture its glory days but it won’t be easy.
Baker said the track needs to expand seating to 40,000 and “essentially rebuild everything but the racetrack itself – the walls, pit road, the grandstands.
“That requires major capitol investment, and whether it’s private, public or a combination, a long-term lease is necessary. Unless the city will grant someone a long-term lease, you can forget it; it will be fiscally impossible to make the investment.”
As for the Superspeedway, Baker was skeptical about the track’s future from the start. He questioned the layout: a relatively flat 1.3-mile concrete surface that proved not conducive to exciting racing.
“Another problem was that Dover’s main experience had been with Cup racing,” Baker said. “With a Cup race about all you have to do is open the gates and watch the fans file in. It’s different with the lesser series. You have to work to promote those races.”
Baker, a partner with music mogul Mike Curb in a currently inactive NASCAR team, said the Gladeville track could be used for something other than racing. He noted the number of automotive industries in the area, and said the track might be suited for an R&D (research and development) and testing facility.
Given his past success as a track owner, does Baker have any interest in buying the Superspeedway (valued at around $50 million) or becoming involved in the future operation of Fairgrounds Speedway?
“I don’t know,” he said. “Right now I’ve got a lot going on, including trying to get my race team back on track. I’d have to think about it.”