NASCAR and Nashville Fairgrounds One Step Closer to Reunion

Matt Weaver
·6 min read
Photo credit: Fairgrounds Nashville
Photo credit: Fairgrounds Nashville

From Autoweek

NASCAR is one step closer to returning to Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.

The city of Nashville and Davidson County (owners of the State Fairgrounds property) and Speedway Motorsports Inc. have entered into a letter of intent to renovate the .595-mile high-banked oval in advance of a potential NASCAR comeback.

The letter of intent was signed on Friday by Mayor John Cooper, SMI President and COO Marcus Smith, Bristol Motor Speedway president Jerry Caldwell and short track advocate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and is pending Fair Board Commissioners and Metro Council approval.

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The letter of intent clears a path for SMI’s Bristol Motor Speedway to become the long-term promoters and managers of the Fairgrounds Speedway facility -- while also assuming financial responsibility for its renovations and maintenance.

"The goal of the partnership is to bring our historic racetrack back to life as a valuable and exciting part of the Fairgrounds," said Mayor John Cooper in a press release. "We have an obligation to maintain the track, so it is smart for Nashville to engage a strong, long-term partner from the auto racing industry to operate it successfully.

"The business terms in this LOI protect Nashville, with multiple revenue streams to make this a financial success. We can put this landmark back on the national stage. I look forward to working with the Fair Board and the Metro Council in the months ahead."

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The renovation plan has been designed to come at no expense to taxpayers and 'even generate excess revenue from what is currently a money-losing operation.'

The press release states that the renovation of the Speedway will be supported by multiple revenue streams, including user fees and taxes paid by attendees of events at the track, lease payments and a potential naming rights agreement.

The baseline agreement anticipates revenue to also be generated from non-racing entertainment events like concerts.

Speedway Motorsports Inc. reached a similar letter of intent with previous Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville promoter Tony Formosa in 2018. That agreement never cleared the mayoral level as the Formosas were at odds with the Fair Board over financial matters.

The city terminated the leasing agreement with the Formosas in November 2019.

Bob Sargeant’s Track Enterprises, a successful grassroots promotional entity with over 30 years of experience, is the current leaseholder and has promoted races at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway over the past calendar year in conjunction with D&D Events. In a text message exchange with Autoweek, Sargeant says his team has been working with SMI in advance of what comes next.

Photo credit: Obtained by The Tennessean
Photo credit: Obtained by The Tennessean

WHAT COMES NEXT

The more prominent complication moving forward for any renovations to take place at Fairgrounds Speedway is the continued development of a Major League Soccer stadium.

Political proponents of both the speedway and stadium have been locked in a continued dispute for years over how the two entities can share the 117-acre property while also using it for the State Fair and Flea Market.

Davidson County residents voted 2-to-1 in a 2011 referendum to preserve racing, state fair and flea market activities on the property.

A provisional draft plan for the facility includes expanded grandstands in Turn 1 that encroaches upon the recently constructed community park.

The current frontstretch grandstands would likely need to be replaced, but any demolition of current fairgrounds property would need 27-vote approval rather than a simple majority of the 40-member council – a byproduct of the 2011 referendum.

The provisional site plan calls for seating at the speedway to be expanded to 30,000, making better use of the current space between the grandstands and the frontstretch, which is currently occupied by a presentation stage.

The stage, like the grandstands, would need 27-vote approval to be removed or demolished.

Speedway supporters have made noise mitigation a priority of any renovation activity. Sound Fighter, a company out of Shreveport, Louisiana produces noise reducing walls and barriers, and has been recommended to Mayor Cooper and Speedway Motorsports Inc.

In recent months, the renovated speedway plan has called for expanded concourses, breezeways and premium seating as well.

Council Member Colby Sledge, whose district includes the Fairgrounds, has on several occasions called any plans that encroach on the community a park a ‘non-starter’ from his standpoint. The topic will be taken up during the next Fair Commissioner Board’s meeting on March 9.

Photo credit: Icon Sports Wire - Getty Images
Photo credit: Icon Sports Wire - Getty Images

WHAT IS THE CURRENT PLAN?

For now, here is what Speedway Motorsports Inc. has pledged to provide leading up to the March 9 meeting.

  • Metro would issue no more than $50 million in bonds for racetrack renovations, as is already specified in the Capital Improvements Budget. Debt service and project-related expenses would be fully covered by revenues generated from racing and non-racing event activities held at the track, including lease payments, and taxes and fees generated by track event patrons.

  • Under a lease and management agreement, BMS would pay Metro an annual lease payment for track management and operations and share a percentage of revenues from events. Additionally, for four weeks a year, BMS would lease all Fairgrounds property (except for the MLS stadium and commercial developments) for $1 million annually to host major racing events.

  • BMS, which possesses decades of major auto racing design, construction, and operations experience, would serve as development manager for track and facility renovations. Improvements would include safety upgrades, spectator amenities, and new ancillary facilities for both racing and non-racing experiences.

  • Noise mitigation would be an integral part of the redesign and track improvements.

  • BMS is committed to an extensive community engagement process with neighborhood residents and Nashville organizations.

  • The new operating model for the speedway will provide the neighborhoods around the track with schedule certainty so residents know in advance when racing and practice will occur.

  • BMS will renovate the racetrack to meet NASCAR safety and design standards necessary to host national series events and modernize NFS as a multi-function facility for non-racing special events to generate tourism-related revenue that is healthy for Nashville.

Smith is prepared to work alongside the Fair Board and Nashville SC to create a sports and entertainment complex that meets the requirements of the 2011 referendum and the ambitions of both the NASCAR and MLS communities.

“We can work together to transform Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway into an amazing multipurpose entertainment destination,” Smith said in the press release. “We’re ready to roll up our sleeves and go to work to fully restore the speedway, recruit national events and breathe new life into a venue that has a legendary status in auto racing history.”

What this vision means for the speedway’s monthly track program, and special events like the historic Super Late Model All-American 400, was not made clear in the letter of intent.

NASCAR will return to the Nashville region is June with a triple-header weekend at Nashville Superspeedway in nearby Lebanon -- a D-shaped 1.33-mile track that hosted the Xfinity Series and Truck Series from 2001-2011.

It remains unclear how the future of the short track aligns with the revival of the Dover Motorsports owned Nashville Superspeedway.

Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway hosted the NASCAR Cup Series from 1958 to 1984 and the Xfinity and Truck divisions until 2000.