A few auto racing diehards have warned that they would chain themselves to the old grandstands at the Metro-owned fairgrounds racetrack if bulldozers ever show up along Nolensville Pike to destroy the track they love.
Such talk could be hyperbole. Maybe.
Stoking much of the passion and spirited back and forth over the future of the Tennessee State Fairgrounds has been the fate of what auto racing drivers, fans and others call a historic racetrack. They contend the Fairgrounds Speedway is one of the best short tracks in the world.
Those with longstanding ties to the track have packed fair board meetings for the past three years, arguing that a greater city investment and long-term lease with an operator are all that is required to help turn around a facility that hasn’t made money in years.
“Nashville is about offering diversity and people of different interests a place to go and enjoy entertainment,” said Chad Chaffin, a driver who has taken home two championships at the Fairgrounds Speedway. “In this case, if you’re a racer, it’s a place to participate in the sport of your choice. This facility has been there so long. It’s something we can’t move. We can’t build another one.”
On the other side are fairgrounds neighbors from the group South Nashville Action People, who say the racetrack brings insufferable noise to the surrounding community. Neighbors have launched the website www.neighborsforprogress.org, which features a video purportedly capturing the noise from a neighbor’s perspective on a Sunday afternoon.
“This is what you hear from inside my house,” nearby resident Clay Kottler says in the video, the sound of high-speed cars roaring in the background.
If it wasn’t already, the racetrack is certainly at center stage now that the Metro Council is set to consider a bill that would initiate its demolition but keep the expo center and state fair at the fairgrounds for at least one more year. The crucial second of three votes on that bill is Jan. 18.
Council members introduced the proposal in December, just as Mayor Karl Dean retreated on previous plans to relocate the facility’s expo center to Antioch to pursue the immediate redevelopment of the fairgrounds site. The bill, which the Dean administration supports, would work in accordance with intentions to turn the property’s floodplain into a 40-acre park.
Metro Finance Director Richard Riebeling has said there is no cost estimate for the demolition of the track but said he guessed it would be in the “half-million dollar range.” Funds, he said, would come out of $2 million already marked for the planning and construction of the park.
Introduced by Councilwoman Megan Barry, the Budget and Finance Committee chair, the legislation already enjoys the support of eight council cosponsors. But there are at least that many definitive “no” votes. The final tally is to be preceded by a marathon public hearing that, if history is an indicator, could be dominated by racetrack preservationists. At a special council work session last weekend, a few members asked that the ordinance be deferred to allow for more dialogue. Assuming the bill isn’t deferred, a close vote is expected.
What matters for the fairgrounds
Even before Dean pulled back on his overarching fairgrounds plans late last year, the mayor’s backers had always maintained that the racetrack — not the expo center, flea market or state fair — was the primary source of all the hoopla.
They pointed then, and still do, to the group Save My Fairgrounds, backed by a well-funded public relations firm, which has become the organizational apparatus behind opposition to Dean’s fairgrounds plan. It is widely believed that racing legends Darrell Waltrip and Sterling Marlin, who the mayor’s supporters often note reside out of county, are providing a bulk of the funding. In addition, Dean’s loyalists have wondered how many of those 45,000-plus petition signatures in support of saving the fairgrounds are racing fans who aren’t also Nashvillians.
Board of Fair Commissioners chair James Weaver has called the racetrack “the tail wagging the dog” when it comes to the fairgrounds debate, pointing out that the expo center, flea market and Tennessee State Fair are to remain at the property for at least one more year until long-term locations are landed.
“So, what are you left with?” Weaver said. “The only thing you’re left with is the racetrack. This discussion that is ongoing right at the moment … this is just about racing. And that’s fine, but we just ought to say that. We shouldn’t pretend that it’s about the fair, or that it’s about the flea market, or that it’s about the expo events because it’s not. That’s rhetoric created by a public relations firm because they think it helps their position, which is fine. I’m not belittling it. I’m just calling it like it is.”
Darden Copeland, founder of The Calvert Street Group and the operator behind Save My Fairgrounds — the PR firm Weaver alluded to — has declined to reveal the names of the group’s donors. “I’m not going to get into who specifically,” he said. “We’re not going to get into what percentage is this person and what percentage is that person. It’s a collective effort.”
Copeland insists the opposition is about more than just saving the racetrack, but he suggested its demise would lead to the end of the expo center and state fair.
“Everyone out there has always viewed it as a three-legged stool,” Copeland said. “They all support one another. If you take away one, you take away the other two. In this case, the mayor is trying to make the racetrack the first domino to fall..”
Not financially feasible
The Fairgrounds Speedway opened as a horseracing track in 1904. It was later covered with asphalt and converted for auto racing. From 1958-84, NASCAR was the primary tenant. Along with Waltrip and Marlin, racing legends who have competed on the 0.6-mile track include Bobby Allison and Dale Earnhardt, among a host of others.
Though professional racing continued to a degree, NASCAR’s exit in 1984 led to the arrival of more amateur weekly racing at the approximately 15,000-seat speedway, which became known briefly as Music City Motorplex. In recent years, the track’s operation has changed hands from promoter Joe Mattioli III — whose family owns Pocono International Raceway — to Danny Denson in 2009, and to current operator Tony Formosa. Denson still owes the fair board about 50 percent of the lease he agreed to pay.
According to Weaver, most operators over the years have sought at least a 10-year lease in order to turn the track into a more financially successful operation. That, he said, has raised the issue of whether it’s in the city’s best interest to maintain the track long-term. The fair board isn’t convinced it is.
“Given the changes that are occurring in the neighborhood, in 12South, in and around Belmont, and near the Melrose area, it’s beyond sort of logic that in 2020, 2025, 2030, that this is the right place for a racetrack,” Weaver said. “Particularly given that the racetrack itself as an entity produces little or nothing certainly for the fair board.”
As far as revenue, Weaver said the racetrack provides approximately 6 cents per square foot while the rest of the fairgrounds — through the state fair and expo events — produces nearly $3.50 per square foot.
Riebeling, the administration’s point person for their fairgrounds plans, has a similar take.
“If you look at it next to a large chunk of the [fairgrounds] site, there’s really very little return coming from that,” Riebeling said. “So, I think from a pure financial standpoint, it’s not really something that makes good economic sense.”
Formosa, whose history at the Fairgrounds Speedway dates back to 1969, organized five races there in 2010, which he said generated an average of 6,500 spectators per event. Rather than leasing the track, Formosa rented the track for $20,000. Unlike Denson, Formosa fully paid his financial obligation.
Formosa said he would prefer to keep operating at the fairgrounds, ideally through a long-term lease. “In my eyes, it was just starting to be reborn,” he said, referring to last year’s run.
“The track has been handicapped, its potential has been limited to a certain degree, simply because here lately, there haven’t been many [events],” Formosa said. “Like last year. I proposed for a full race season, but they came back and only gave me five races. That was it. That’s all we could do.
“In order to really make this things spectacular, in order to really, really generate sponsors, generate major corporations, television coverage, big-name drivers, big-name people to come on and get involved, you have to have a [long-term] lease,”
Infuriating Dean’s fairgrounds opposition earlier this month was news that Metro had already sent out a request for proposals for an architectural firm to begin the design process of the new faigrounds park. The RFP referenced the racetrack in past tense, calling it “a former racetrack.”
In response, mayor’s office spokeswoman Janel Lacy said the park RFP “has nothing to do with the demolition of the racetrack.” In doing so, she implied that the park could actually coexist with the racetrack if the council were to elect not to destroy it. That opened the door last week for Copeland to offer a sketched-out proposal to revamp the racetrack and add new amenities to the site, including the 40-acre park and a new expo center building. The mayor’s office indicated it would not consider the proposal, which as of Thursday remained short on details.