That's Racing: Once more ‘round the track, for old time’s sake

Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 1:00am

She’s starting to show her age — sagging here and drooping there, and some say she’s lost the spark that once made her wild weekends the talk of the town. But just because she’s… well, mature, doesn’t mean she’s not still frisky.

Fairgrounds Speedway celebrates her 51st season opener Saturday night with a mix of melancholy nostalgia and a whiff of new-era promise.

“This old track had just about died of neglect,” says Danny Denson, a Nashville auto parts dealer who earlier this year was granted a one-year lease to operate the Metro-owned facility. “This used to be the hottest ticket in Nashville, especially twice a year when the Grand National (now Sprint Cup) guys like Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough and Dale Earnhardt came in. Even on regular weekends the grandstands would be packed. I want to bring back that excitement.”

Back then where were no Titans, no Predators. And since 1984, when the city frittered away its pair of mega-Cup races, the going has been rough. Local Saturday-night racing has become an anachronism, a yesteryear sport going the way of white socks, crew cuts and vinyl records. It’s disco in a rap age.

Ironically, NASCAR’s big-league boom has contributed to the decline of grassroots racing. Televised races keep luring fans away from their home-track grandstands. Weekly racing is struggling to survive, not just in Nashville but at historical old tracks around the country. Venerable Birmingham Speedway recently folded, and Fairgrounds Speedway was wheezing on life support when Denson came to the rescue.

Nostalgia’s fine and dandy but it won’t pay the light bill.

“Can we do it?” asks Denson. “We won’t know till we try.”

He plans to take a page from the promotional playbook of Larry Schmittou, founder of the Nashville Sounds.

Schmittou set national minor league attendance records by making Greer Stadium a fun place to go. He turned a Sounds game into an event, not just a baseball game. Wacky promotions, goofy contests, country music personalities. And the fans flocked.

“Getting people back in the seats is our first order of business,” Denson says. “It doesn’t matter how exciting the racing is if there’s nobody here to watch it.”

One idea: He’s bringing back the popular demolition derbies, a smash hit on the track as well as in the grandstands.

On the track, Denson has a public relations gold mine in the Marlin family — the marvelous Marlins.

Sterling, a three-time track champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner, plans to race some, joining son Steadman in the premier Late Model lineup. Also, 19-year-old daughter Sutherlin will make her racing debut in the truck division.

“My parents took me to my first race when I was two weeks old,” says Sutherlin, whose grandfather Coo Coo Marlin was a Fairgrounds favorite in the 1960s and the area’s first nationally renowned racer. “I’ve always wanted to try it.”

If Sutherlin, with her looks, poise and personality, can drive, she could become stock car racing’s Danica Patrick. Can she make it? Who knows, but it could be intriguing.

Denson hopes fans will come out and see.

Woody is a Nashville sports writer who has covered racing since the early 1970s.

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