What’s slowed down the Superspeedway?

Monday, August 10, 2009 at 12:00am
Loss of top-tier event and sagging attendance leaves more questions than answers for Nashville Superspeedway. Photo by Jude Ferrara/The City Paper

When Gladeville’s gleaming $100 million Nashville Superspeedway opened in the spring of 2001 it was supposed to be Phase I one of a grand plan to build one of the nation’s premier racing complexes on the sprawling Wilson County site.

Today those architect drawings gather dust — no drag strip, no dirt track, no short track.

The Indy Racing League skipped town this year after a seven-season run, hope for a NASCAR Sprint Cup race has evaporated and none of the track’s three lower-level NASCAR races sell out.

Last Saturday night the track concluded its ninth season with a third-tier NASCAR truck race that drew an announced crowd of 25,000 — best of the season but half the venue’s original capacity.

So, this begs the question: Is the track in trouble?

“No, not at all,” insists Cliff Hawks, the track’s vice president/general manager who earned a reputation as a marketing whiz when he directed the Titans Personal Seat License campaign.

“Certainly we face some challenges, as do a lot folks in our sport and throughout society in these difficult economic times. But I remain very optimistic about the future of this racetrack,” he said.

However, Terrell Davis, an executive with SpeedWeekly Magazine who has chronicled area racing for many years (and broke the story when the Gladeville site was chosen) says the Superspeedway’s future is tenuous.

And he wonders if it still will be operating in two years.

“To be fair, lots of other tracks around the country are struggling with attendance due in part to the economy,” Davis said. “But let’s face it: the Superspeedway wasn’t selling out back when the economy was good. Now on top of a stale economy the track has lost its big IRL race, lost its NASCAR test dates and has no chance for a Cup race.

“It’s not Cliff’s fault. It’s nobody’s ‘fault.’ It’s just a fact of life.”

Race relations

NASCAR, despite refusing the Superspeedway a Sprint Cup race, wants to maintain a presence in the Nashville market and has no plans to abandon the track.

“This facility is second to none and Cliff and his people do a great job,” said Wayne Auton, NASCAR’s truck series director. “Personally this is my favorite stop on the entire circuit. I always enjoy coming to Nashville with its country music and great racing history.

“NASCAR and Nashville have a great relationship and I see it continuing.”

A decade ago when Dover (Del.) Motorsports purchased the 2,000-acre site, plans called for a 1.3-mile superspeedway, an infield road course, a world-class drag strip, a dirt track and a replica of the famous 5/8-mile Fairgrounds track. Officials hoped to eventually secure a Cup race; concrete bays were poured for a future Cup garage and the front-stretch designed to accommodate 100,000 additional seats.

The Superspeedway opened with a “mere’’ 50,000 seats — 25,000 permanent grandstand seats and 25,000 temporary scaffold bleachers. That inaugural NASCAR Nationwide race was not a sellout (the first indication of trouble) and most of the temporary seats were dismantled.

If the track landed a Sprint Cup race, 150,000 seats probably could be filled. But NASCAR pulled its two annual Cup races from Nashville in 1984 and shows no intention of bringing them back.

“We have no control over scheduling,” Hawks said. “That’s entirely up to NASCAR. As we’ve said from the start, all we can do is work to make this the best racing facility possible and be ready to seize an opportunity if one presents itself.”

Hawks said plans for the site’s other tracks have not been abandoned, but rather “shelved’’ while attention is concentrated on the Superspeedway.

Losing Danica and Dario

The loss of the IRL race too was a major blow.

Featuring such international stars as Danica Patrick, Helio Castroneves and Franklin resident Dario Franchitti, the IRL was the track’s showcase event. But it left town after last year’s race, citing a desire for fresh venues.

On the heels of the IRL departure came a NASCAR decision to abolish testing as a cost-cutting measure. Leasing the track to teams for testing had been a lucrative source of revenue.

Truthfully, it’s hard to pinpoint the track’s attendance problem. It is not completely due to the current sour economy because the Superspeedway didn’t draw well from the beginning. And while attendance is down at many other tracks, just 250 miles away Kentucky Speedway routinely fills its 72,000 seats for the same races that draw 20,000 at Nashville.

There’s no shortage of race fans in Middle Tennessee — they flock to Cup races at Bristol, Talladega, Atlanta and other venues, and Nashville-area TV race ratings are consistently among the nation’s highest.

“That’s the problem,” Davis said. “We have all those Cup races within driving distance, and fans go there instead of attending the lower division races at the Superspeedway. People keep asking me when we’ll get a ‘NASCAR’ race; by ‘NASCAR’ they mean ‘Cup.’”

And, as Davis noted, the racing has not been particularly exciting either.

“I don’t know if it’s because of the design of the track or the concrete surface or what,” he said, “but frankly there’s just not been a lot of action.”

Pulling the plug?

Although Davis thinks otherwise, it seems doubtful that the track will be shut down. Dover Motorsports has a huge investment to recoup and a little income is better than none.

As for the notion of selling the facility — you’d have to come up with an answer for “To whom and for what?” If Dover Motorsports, with a four-decade history of racing success, can’t make it work, who can?

The land on which the track sits is valuable but as for the track itself — where most of the $100 million is sunk — there’s not much that can be done with a racetrack except race on it.

It’s not even suitable for concerts or other public uses.

If Dover can’t sell it and can’t close it, the only choice would be to plug on and hope for better days ahead. Yet some worry about the plug being pulled.

“As a life-long race fan I’m pulling for the track to make it,” Davis said. “But looking at the situation realistically, it’s going to be an uphill battle.”

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


10 Comments on this post:

By: courier37027 on 8/10/09 at 5:35

Ah, yet another project whose primrose path predictions exceeded reality. I remember Larry Woody getting on air back in the day and telling us how close Nashville would be to getting a Winston/Nextel/Sprint Cup series race. NASCAR's France family would crawl on hands and knees to Lebanon TN, begging this track to allow just one weekend to showcase racing's premier circuit. With seven tracks and a packed schedule, maybe just maybe this superspeedway would create the nine-day week to accomodate fans.

By: idgaf on 8/11/09 at 2:16

I'm guessing that the idioic no smoking policy has a lot to do with sagging attendance.

I won two tickets to a race and sold them just for that reason.

They could have had smoking/non-smoking sections but no the wackos want complete control over other people. Well I exercised my control and I bet others did too.

Remember when it was called the "Winston Cup Series"?

Screw the dirt people and those that cater to them.

By: idgaf on 8/11/09 at 2:22

btw ticket prices are to high too.

By: courier37027 on 8/11/09 at 7:39

Kill two birds with one stone by moving Nashville Sounds to speedway infield.

By: idgaf on 8/11/09 at 8:14

Not a bad idea courier.

By: idgaf on 8/11/09 at 8:24

NASCAR is missing the boat with overcapacity by not divideing the races into two circuits , one for super speedways and the other for short tracks . They can double the amount of races and already have the venues to handle them without takeing away from existing facilities.

It would increase television revenue too. Both can keep their Bush races too. (are they still called that?)

By: Nashvols111 on 8/11/09 at 10:29

Ticket prices are too high for a family. I can go to the Atlanta cup race and be within $100 including hotel for what I would pay at Lebanon.

By: cookeville on 8/11/09 at 2:29

Marketing also has a lot to do with it. It should be played up big time in every town within at least a hundred miles of the track, and the drivers should show up for autograph sessions in some of the towns and their show cars should be visiting. Here in Cookeville, you wouldn't have known there was a race going on and the track is only a 40 min. drive away.

By: idgaf on 8/11/09 at 3:37

The drivers of today are full of themselves unlike those in the past like Petty, Cale, Walthrip (Darrel) and the rest of the good ole boys.

By: slzy on 8/11/09 at 11:41

i don't think smoking sections had much to do with it,but,the lack of tobacco money in promotions and prize money,and sponsorships has hit every form of motorsports worldwide,from F1 to MotoGP motorcycles.

cookie cutter cars,irrelevance to the show room models,no desire or ability of the factories to win[that played out in the late 80s],generations away from daytonas and talledagas,the aging of the car culture,24 hour tv,all these things ticket prices and more,plus a seen it all before have slowed things,indeed.