After nearly a decade of overtures, near deals and rumors, the return of NASCAR to the Nashville fairgrounds is approaching the checkered flag.
Nashville Mayor John Cooper has signed a letter of intent with Bristol Motor Speedway and state legislation to create a funding mechanism is making its way through the General Assembly.
While crucial details still need to be explained, perhaps the greatest threat to the deal is community opposition stemming from years of distrust over how the racetrack has been operated and the negative impact it’s had on quality of life for neighboring residents.
To answer those concerns, Bristol Motor Speedway (BMS) executive vice president Jerry Caldwell touts his company’s proposed operating model at the fairgrounds as well as its track record running some of the country’s most renowned racetracks.
Caldwell, who said he’s concerned about misinformation surrounding the proposal, told the Tennessee Lookout that BMS will rely on actual racing days, more non-racing events and corporate partnerships to make its business plan work. Sensitive to neighborhood concerns, Caldwell stressed BMS will provide the community with a date-certain schedule so residents know which days race cars will be on the track.
Caldwell said Marcus Smith and Bruton Smith, principal directors for BMS, have pursued a deal at the fairgrounds with such vigor because of “their passion for the sport and their passion for the history of our sport.” The fairgrounds racetrack is beloved because it is the oldest continuously running short track in the nation, and because it has served as a launching pad for generations of future stars.
You really would be taking the speedway, and still being true to the number of events that have been there, so no more of that, but running those in a different way that would be able to attract different participants, and attract more people to come and enjoy it. – Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president, Bristol Motor Speedway, on his company's plans to work with neighborhood residents.
The addition of a renovated racetrack with a NASCAR race and a major operator like BMS would complete a dramatic redevelopment of the fairgrounds, including new expo center buildings, park space and the Nashville SC soccer stadium and ancillary mixed use development.
“They see, as we have said, a diamond in the rough,” Caldwell said. “They really see a tremendous opportunity in a tremendous city. They own other businesses in Nashville (auto dealerships) and have for years. And they clearly are familiar with the history around the fairgrounds, and they just continue to see this facility that’s deteriorated and has been a challenge and a headache for the community and the city for years, and years and years.”
To understand how BMS plans to operate the fairgrounds racetrack it’s important to contextualize how the track’s been run over the last decade-plus. The fair board has generally hired local operators who ran regional and semi-professional races as well as rented the track out for drivers to do practice runs. Those races created noise, neighbors say, and the randomness of when the practice runs would take place interfered with day-to-day life. A resident may have planned a backyard graduation party assuming there’d be no racing that evening, only to have a race car roaring down the track right when their special evening was supposed to take place.
But, Caldwell said BMS only plans to run 10 races annually, the same number as now, with one of those being a NASCAR race. The company would use naming rights revenue, corporate partnerships and television money from NASCAR to generate significantly more revenue than the fairgrounds racetrack has in recent years.
As for the nuisance of renting the track for practice runs, Caldwell said BMS plans to offer less than the 25 that are currently allowed under the most recent agreement. The number of such practice rentals has already been negotiated down by the fair board, and that figures to continue should the city sign off on the BMS deal. The company runs eight other race tracks with NASCAR races.
“We would work with the fairgrounds to reduce the motorsports impact on the community,” Caldwell said. “You look at a 10-race season, same as today. We would look to bring in a major NASCAR race for one of those weekends. The others, we would continue to run local racing and what we call approximately three other regional events. The All American 400 has national appeal but in our mindset it’s what we classify as a regional event, and a couple others like that. So from a motorsports standpoint on different types of races, you’re talking about one weekend that I would consider to be materially different from what’s there.
“We do think we can make all of those events more fan friendly, more participant friendly and more appealing.”
BMS wants to supplement its racing revenue by maximizing a renovated racetrack facility for other special events. He offered the example of a company in town for a convention using meeting space, or perhaps maximizing the popularity of the facility with racing fans to hold car shows. An occasional concert is also possible, Caldwell said, adding that BMS would like to collaborate with the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp.
Caldwell said BMS envisions more civic events such as cancer walks and scout meetings, as well as working with the fair board to maximize the community’s use of the renovated facility.
One proposal on the table is a tunnel to connect the speedway to the new expo center, which Caldwell said would make the venue more user friendly and especially improve events like the flea market.
“That’s the vision we see here – not more racing, but more revenue,” Caldwell said. “You really would be taking the speedway, and still being true to the number of events that have been there, so no more of that, but running those in a different way that would be able to attract different participants, and attract more people to come and enjoy it. But really, there’s an opportunity to use that facility for so many different things and allow it to become a real venue for the community.”
Caldwell said he’s sensitive to why neighbors are skeptical about any agreement that centers around racing at the fairgrounds. But, he said BMS is an established company with a strong track record of running racetracks and fitting into communities, as opposed to a stopgap local operator without the skin in the game that his company would have.
For now, Caldwell’s description of the company’s plans are somewhat preliminary because a firm operating agreement codifying the details has not been offered. Nor has a financing plan detailing how the $50 million in renovations and expansion of the 117-year-old track will be paid for. State legislation creating a ticket tax would generate much of the revenue, but indications are there would be other key revenue streams to be negotiated with the fair board.
The community will want to know impact on not just noise from racing, but also traffic and parking. If BMS plans more events to make its revenue model work, how will that affect the neighborhood? Those questions won’t be answered until a formal proposal is in place.
Critically, the process will enter a public participation phase in the coming weeks, fair board chairwoman Erin McAnally said.
“The only part of the plan that’s written in stone is May 11 (at 5 p.m.) at Music City Center we will have the first public engagement meeting,” McAnally said. “That will involve a presentation from BMS and other partners on an outline of the plan, and hopefully renderings. It’s basically like they’re throwing an idea out there, and then we will get feedback from a large group about it.
Cooper has laid out an ambitious timeline following the announcement of the letter of intent, hoping to have an agreement approved by July.
Metro Councilman Colby Sledge, who represents the area and has been a critic of racing at the fairgrounds, said that at this stage in the process he is waiting on feedback from the community.