Making his first appearance before the five-member Metro Fair Board in years, racing icon Darrell Waltrip urged board members and city officials Tuesday to keep the racetrack operating in 2010.
With fellow NASCAR driver Sterling Marlin to his side, Waltrip said there are racing groups interested in leasing the track from the board for potentially one last racing season, which typically runs from March through October.
“There’s a number of groups,” Waltrip told The City Paper after the meeting. “There’s a group called ASA, the American Speed Association, that has a traveling series that is very interested in doing something here.
“I am interested in keeping the facility open, but I’m also interested in some sort of working relationship with the Fair Board to where they’re a partner,” he said.
Current track operator Danny Denson’s lease with the Fair Board expires Dec. 31. Denson still owes the board a sizable sum of money, perhaps as much as $40,000, which he said he shouldn’t have to pay because of the uncontrollable negative fairgrounds news he contends hurt attendance figures. As of Tuesday, no racing outfit is slated to operate the track after this year.
Waltrip, a three-time Winston Cup NASCAR champion who resides in neighboring Williamson County, said the track might be best suited for six to eight yearly “big events” instead of weekly races.
“Big events really make a lot of money because you draw competitors from all over the country,” he said. “You have time to promote it and really do a lot in the community.”
Waltrip’s plea came after the board voted to follow contractual obligations by giving proper notification to North American Midway Entertainment, a company the board hires to produce rides, games and concessions, about plans to cease operations of the Tennessee State Fair next year.
The board is scheduled to operate the 117-acre fairgrounds property until the end of June, but at that point Metro would assume authority. In a letter written two weeks ago, Mayor Karl Dean expressed his desire to continue scheduled events — which don’t include racing or the state fair — on the property through the end of 2010.
“The fair board is willing to consider a request from anyone for operation of the track between January and June or July of 2010, when we still have operational control of the facility,” Fair Board chairman James Weaver said, adding the board doesn’t currently have a proposal on the table.
“We want the facility fully utilized certainly in the first half of 2010,” Weaver said. “So if we get a proposal that’s reasonable, I’m sure we’ll give it favorable consideration.”
But the traditional racing season tends to run through October, leaving four months in which leasing would be outside control of the board and presumably in the hands of Metro.
In a written statement, Mayor’s Office spokeswoman Janel Lacy said, “The neighbors around the fairgrounds have made it clear they don’t want to see racing continue on that site.
“The track has lost money and suffered from extremely low attendance for years,” she added. “The current operator hasn’t been able to pay rent since June. The contract expires in December of this year, and the mayor doesn’t support keeping the racetrack open in 2010.”
The board’s vote to notify Midway is yet another indication that the fair has seen its last days at Wedgewood Avenue and Nolensville Pike.
“As we’ve said many, many times, it’s fiscally irresponsible for us to simply operate this facility until we’re totally broke, and then go to the Council and say, ‘We’re out of money,’” Weaver said.
Buck Dozier, executive director of the Tennessee State Fair, said he has met with two entrepreneurs who have approached him about potentially operating the fair next year.
One of the groups would like to lease the property during the 10-day event before taking over the fair as a nonprofit, a proposal Dozier called “problematic.” He said he hasn’t heard from the other individual in a couple of months.
“There are some people out there very interested in keeping it alive,” Dozier said.