That's Racing: Déjà vu for area NASCAR fans

Friday, June 13, 2008 at 1:39am

A flamboyant California multimillionaire rolls into Music City, buys into a pro sports team, then suddenly hits a financial wall and declares bankruptcy.

That’s the fix the Predators find themselves in with the revelation that co-owner William J. “Boots” Del Biaggio III has filed for bankruptcy in his home state of California.

For Nashville racing fans, it’s a case of deja-phooey.

Rewind to the spring of 1984. Shortly after acquiring control of Nashville Speedway, colorful California millionaire Warner B. Hodgdon filed for bankruptcy. He included the track among his assets.

That was the beginning of the end of big-time NASCAR racing in Nashville.

NASCAR, understandably unwilling to do business with a racetrack that was mired in a California bankruptcy battle, bailed.

It yanked the two Grand National (now Sprint Cup) races that Nashville had held for almost three decades. Today those races would be worth around $100 million apiece to the local economy.

The similarity between the Predators/NASCAR debacles is eerie. Both roads were paved with good intentions.

Gary Baker, who initially owned the track lease, wanted to build a superspeedway on what is now the Cool Springs property. He needed a capital investor and Hodgdon — a real estate tycoon who was heavily involved in NASCAR — seemed to be a perfect fit.

Hodgdon partnered with Baker as the track co-owner, but eventually finagled the lease all to himself.

Del Biaggio likewise was seen as something of a savior when he purchased 27 percent of the Predators, an outlay that helped a group of local investors acquire the team and keep the team in town.

The ownership group claims Del Biaggo’s financial problems will have no impact on the team.

Nashville race fans were given the same assurance in 1984.

Don’t worry, they were told, as soon as the bankruptcy mess gets cleared up NASCAR will bring the Cup races back. That was 24 years ago. We’re still waiting.

Baker, like former Predators owner Craig Leipold, was owned money from Hodgdon from the track sale when Hodgdon bottomed out. Baker quickly launched a two-prong effort to regain control of the track and to keep Nashville’s Cup dates.

He succeed in the former – he was awarded the track lease – but he couldn’t pull off the second.

Nobody knows if the impact on the Predators will be equally devastating, but obviously it’s not good news for a franchise that was already battling attendance problems.

Auto racing, a part of Nashville’s sports culture for more than 100 years, never recovered from the Hodgdon episode. Hopefully the Predators will have better luck surviving their Del Biaggio blunder.

Larry Woody is a veteran sportswriter in Nashville and has covered auto racing for almost four decades.

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