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Nashville is working to bring NASCAR back to historic Fairgrounds Speedway

Whenever Music City comes up on the NASCAR schedule, texts fly to see who’s spending an extra day or two in town to enjoy all the options.

After another successful race this weekend at Nashville Superspeedway in nearby Lebanon, work continues in the hope of bringing NASCAR back to the area at one of the country’s oldest, most historic tracks: Fairgrounds Speedway, within sight of downtown.

“It has such a special place in motorsports and in this city,” Jerry Caldwell, the president of Bristol Motor Speedway in East Tennesseee, said of the Fairgrounds track. “And one of the many things we think that makes Nashville great is the way they embrace their roots.”

The grandstand of the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway

The Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway grandstand is viewed Friday, June 23, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. After another successful race this weekend at Nashville Superspeedway in nearby Lebanon, work continues in the hope of bringing NASCAR back to the area at one of the countrys oldest, most historic tracks: Fairgrounds Speedway, within sight of downtown.  (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Nashville has long ignored the track that opened in 1904 despite a city charter mandating that racing continue on that spot.

NASCAR ran its last Cup Series race at the half-mile oval in 1984, but the lengthy list of drivers wanting this track back on the schedule ranges from Hall of Famers Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to current drivers Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr. and Zane Smith.

“This is the best short track in the country,” Waltrip said. “It just needs to be upgraded. It hadn’t had anything done to it in so long. That’s why it’s going to cost a few dollars to get it upgraded. But when this track is upgraded, this will be a showplace.”

Elliott has been a longtime advocate of NASCAR returning to the Fairgrounds. He thinks it would be the “best stop on our schedule, hands down,” and he won the 2022 Cup race at the Nashville Superspeedway.

“It’s nice to be in the Nashville market kind of, but it doesn’t hold a candle to what that could be and what it should be,” Elliott said.

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Finish line of the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway

The Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway is viewed Friday, June 23, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. The speedway needs more than $40 million of renovations to improve safety and operational success at the track according to facility analysis conducted by a motorsports venue consultant. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

The challenge is Nashville has spent only what’s necessary to keep the doors open for late model racing since dropping off NASCAR’s Cup Series schedule. One study said $41.9 million must be spent just to keep the track safe for drivers and fans; Nashville had to spend $400,000 to get electricity working last year.

The Fair Board that runs the track and Mayor John Cooper have a different vision with talks for this deal starting with Bristol six years ago.

The mayor signed a renovation deal in March 2021 with Marcus Smith, the president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, which now owns both the superspeedway and the half-mile Bristol track that is a mainstay on NASCAR’s schedule. Smith’s company renovated North Wilkesboro Speedway, which hosted the NASCAR All-Star race in May after its last Cup race in 1996.

Currently, paint flakes off the Fairgrounds’ cantilevered roof over the grandstands. Concrete stairs are cracked with bolts so loose bleacher seats rock back and forth. Cinder blocks on the end of the grandstands show the strain of age.

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Grandstand of Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway

The grandstand of Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway is viewed Friday, June 23, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. NASCAR ran its last Cup Series race at the half-mile oval in 1984, but the lengthy list of drivers wanting this track back on the schedule ranges from Hall of Famers Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to current drivers Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr. and Zane Smith. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Asphalt on the track must be repaved, and the tunnel rebuilt and expanded so haulers can access the infield. A sound barrier wall is planned opposite the grandstand with similar material used in the roof to protect residents in the gentrifying neighborhood surrounding the fairgrounds.

The outer wall is too short and lacks a SAFER barrier. The catch fence in front of the grandstand also isn’t tall enough for today’s NASCAR standards, so it must be replaced and extended much further around the track.

Preserving the track’s history matters to Smith, and Steve Swift, Speedway’s senior vice president of operations and development, said that’s been made clear.

“This track’s older than Wilkesboro, so that creates a whole different dynamic that we really want to hold on to and make sure that it happens,” Smith said.

The plan must be approved by the Nashville City Council. The agreement involves Nashville issuing $50 million in bonds with Bristol responsible for renovations, upkeep and signing a 30-year contract to lease and manage the track.

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Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway

A safety fence at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway is viewed Friday, June 23, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. NASCAR ran its last Cup Series race at the half-mile oval in 1984, but the lengthy list of drivers wanting this track back on the schedule ranges from Hall of Famers Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to current drivers Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr. and Zane Smith.  (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Nashville is racing a clock to finalize the deal. The mayor isn’t running for reelection with a new council being seated later this year.

John Ingram, the billionaire owner of Nashville’s Major League Soccer team, sent a letter to council members, saying two 30,000-seat facilities separated by about 100 feet would be a “recipe for disaster.” GEODIS Park opened last year as part of a massive renovation of the fairgrounds.

Councilman Zach Young said the race track proposal is no surprise to Ingram and that “poll results are off the charts” showing taxpayer support for a deal that switches upkeep costs from the public to people using the track.

“This track has been here 119 years, and we cannot turn our backs on our history and the culture of our city,” Young said.

NASCAR really likes Nashville, moving its awards banquet here in 2019. Dover Motorsports, which built and opened the superspeedway in 2001 in Lebanon — a 36-mile drive east of Nashville — brought the Cup Series racing back to the area in June 2021 by moving one of its two races to the superspeedway.

Grandstand at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway

The grandstand of Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway is viewed Friday, June 23, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. The speedway needs more than $40 million of renovations to improve safety and operational success at the track according to facility analysis conducted by a motorsports venue consultant.  (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Speedway Motorsports bought Dover in November 2021, and the 1.33-mile concrete track hosted its third Cup race Sunday night. Ross Chastain won for hometown Trackhouse Racing in a sold-out showcase on NBC under the lights.

Caldwell said they think the Nashville market can easily handle two NASCAR races a year. Waltrip would love to see NASCAR race at the Fairgrounds one night and the superspeedway the next. Earnhardt agrees there is room for both tracks.

“My appreciation and the appeal to the speedway for me has increased quite a bit over the last two years we’ve been there,” Earnhardt said. “So while I’m looking forward to whatever the future may hold for the Fairgrounds, I feel like the speedway has earned its position and earned its place.”

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