The NASCAR race next door

To Nashville racing fans, bringing NASCAR races back to an improved Fairgrounds grandstand is a welcomed economic opportunity, but to many neighbors it carries the potential for greater disruption in a residential area. 

By: - February 22, 2023 6:02 am
Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, photographed by John Partipilo.

Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, photographed by John Partipilo.

On days when the racetrack is in use at the Fairgrounds Nashville, Nicole Trammel braces for the ongoing, loud hum of the circling race cars. And, when Nashville Soccer Club fans flock to the new Geodis Park just a block from her house for game nights, gridlocked traffic can add 30 minutes to her drive home. 

“It’s very annoying, especially if you just need to go to the grocery store and get only a few items,” said Trammel, who has lived by the Fairgrounds for a decade. On race days, “you can hear the cars running all day long.” She added, “I make sure I’m on a different side of town if there is a game or a race.”

On the same Fairgrounds campus where soccer games are played in a 30,000-seat stadium, Nashville Mayor John Cooper is making a push to renovate the city’s historic racetrack in a deal with Bristol Motor Speedway, a subsidiary of Charlotte, N.C.-based Speedway Motorsports LLC. The project, estimated at close to $84 million, would double the grandstand’s capacity to 30,000 people, bring NASCAR Cup races back to a resurfaced track and provide another venue option for the city’s ever-growing tourism and entertainment sectors. 

“We finally have an opportunity to complete the 21st century vision of a comprehensive Fairgrounds campus,” Cooper’s senior adviser Ben Eagles said. The Fairgrounds has a rich history in Nashville and with this plan, it can be a unique asset in the world of sports and entertainment.”

Cooper’s administration has touted the proposed deal with Bristol as an economic opportunity and a positive step for the long neglected site. But many residents living near the track, who describe insufficient infrastructure during soccer games and already disruptive noise levels on race days, are wary of the new racetrack proposal.

Diamond Bell, organizer with Stand Up Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Diamond Bell, organizer with Stand Up Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“We don’t really have the first 30,000-seat venue that just arrived figured out yet,” said Shay Sapp, representing neighborhood group South Nashville Action People. “That’s a whole ‘nother level of impact on the quality of life that the residents in the Wedgewood-Houston-specific community just don’t see enhancing or improving or coexisting with their current way of life.” 

The racetrack debate comes alongside Cooper’s push for a new, $2 billion football stadium, prompting criticism that entertainment and tourism needs are taking priority over more important issues. Cooper, who will not be seeking reelection, has pledged to focus on public safety, homelessness and East Bank redevelopment in his final months, raising questions on how a new speedway aligns with those goals and the city’s greatest challenges.

“What about these homeless people, what about education, what about underpaid teachers, roads, potholes, all of these things that people are screaming,” Stand Up Nashville organizer Diamond Bell said. “And yet, we are sitting here talking about a Titans’ stadium and a speedway.”

The push for an improved speedway

Racing fans in and around Nashville, many of whom have watched racing take the backseat over the years to football, hockey and, most recently, soccer, have celebrated the prospect of an improved, high-profile track. At several Fair Commissioners Board meetings, racing enthusiasts described memories made at the track, the impact the track has had on their or their children’s upbringing and their disappointment in its current state. 

“No city in this country has a racetrack like the Fairgrounds with such historical significance,” Jesse Yeager said at a December public hearing. “At a time when our city is growing and eliminating so many historical places, there is a unique opportunity here to not only restore but preserve such an important piece of our city’s history and culture.” 

The racetrack is one of the nation’s oldest motor speedways, with harness horse races held there in the 1890s, Eagles said. Auto racing began in the early 1900s, and Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt each raced on the track. Since NASCAR quit operating at the speedway in 1984, few improvements have been made.

In a 2011 referendum, more than 70 percent of voters supported maintaining the Fairgrounds, securing Metro’s legal obligation to maintain the track and keep it active. Over the years, the facility has accrued a backlog of needed repairs and upgrades, including track resurfacing, new driver and fan protective barriers and bathroom improvements, city officials and attendees have said.

What about these homeless people, what about education, what about underpaid teachers, roads, potholes, all of these things that people are screaming. And yet, we are sitting here talking about a Titans’ stadium and a speedway.

– Diamond Bell, Stand Up Nashville

Butch Spyridon, CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., has emphasized the deal as an opportunity to improve what has become an “eyesore and embarrassment” for Nashville, to expand venue choices for events and to mitigate current sound levels.If we are going to have a speedway and that’s what the public said they wanted,” he said, “why not make it better?”

Bristol Motor Speedway operates 11 tracks, including the Nashville Superspeedway in Lebanon. Partnership talks between Bristol and Nashville leaders have been underway for six years, with Bristol owners drawn to Tennessee and Nashville locations, the track’s downtown proximity and its “tremendous history,” said Bristol President Jerry Caldwell.

Under the proposed deal, the Metro Sports Authority would issue $50 to $60 million in bond obligations, an estimate based on revenue projections that could also vary depending on interest rates and construction costs, Eagles said. The debt would be paid for by rent and other payments from Bristol, ticket tax and sales tax revenue, portions of event revenue, sponsorship revenue and naming rights revenue, and rent payments from the NCVC, which would also bring events there. The NCVC also has committed $17 million to pay for construction and pre-development design, and Tennessee lawmakers have approved another $17 million contribution from state coffers. 

The NCVC’s contribution comes from about a $30 million budget surplus driven by the local tourism sector’s faster-than-expected recovery from Covid disruptions, Spyridon said. The nonprofit receives one third of Nashville’s hotel occupancy tax revenue, dollars that must be spent on tourism promotion. 

Bristol would be responsible for maintenance and operations. Some excess revenues would flow to a capital projects fund for repair and improvements and Bristol would pay for costs beyond that fund. 

The agreement also requires Bristol to bring a NASCAR Cup race every other year to the track on average, which tourism officials forecast will yield significant local spending. A report from Oxford-based Tourism Economics estimated an $8 billion economic impact over a 30-year period in Nashville and $800 million in tax dollars from the project.

Long-time racer Ronnie Campbell takes his car for a drive on the Fairgrounds Speedway. Photo: John Partipilo)
Long-time racer Ronnie Campbell takes his car for a drive on the Fairgrounds Speedway. Photo: John Partipilo)

Proponents argue, rather than competing for public resources, the proposed BMS deal would help relieve the city’s general fund of obligations to maintain and improve the track, while also bringing in more sales tax dollars outside the racetrack to fund state and local services.

“Unlocking state and private investment — like this proposal does — is how Nashville can expand our offerings as a city while allowing general fund dollars to support priority initiatives like higher teacher pay, more resources for first responders, improved infrastructure and more,” TJ Ducklo, Cooper’s spokesman said.

But to critics, the deal leaves too much at risk for the city’s general fund and the neighborhoods around the track. The concern is that if revenues fall short of projections, the city would have to dip into its general fund or the NCVC would bring more events there to make up for those gaps. To surrounding neighborhoods that could mean even more disruptions tied to traffic and noise. 

You are going to want to have more events to make up revenue,” Sapp said. “Those events aren’t going to be good for the community.”

Metro Council Member Colby Sledge, who represents the Fairgrounds’ district, is opposed to the current Bristol proposal in part because of the potential events it could yield. He said he has “no interest in bringing NCVC and the chaos of Lower Broadway to our neighborhoods.” 

The agreement before the Fair Commissioners limits race weekends to 10 each year and 20 weekday practices. About 80 event days are envisioned, 21 of which are race-related, for a total of about 100 active days or nights, 41 of them race-related. As many as three concerts, with 10 p.m. curfews, are forecast and a transportation plan predicts two events a year hosting 30,000 people and five events hosting as many as 15,000.

At present, 25 practices and 19 race-rated days are allowed, for a total of 44 race days, plus a few concerts, runs and bike events are typically held, according to Fairgrounds officials. Both scenarios are in addition to current activities at the neighboring soccer stadium, which included 17 games and more than 100 events in 2022, according to posted schedules and the Mayor’s office. 

Spyridon has not released specifics on what events will be added, but mentioned Oktoberfest and Summer Lights festivals as potential ideas. Most events would be smaller, such as private parties, he said. Monster truck and car shows are also included in the forecasted schedule. 

“It doesn’t mean louder and bigger,” he said. “It absolutely will mean more events.”

After a 2022 consultant’s report showed that conservative revenue projections for the proposed speedway would fall short of expectations, Bristol guaranteed more frequent NASCAR races and higher rent payments and the NCVC increased its contribution. A consultant from the same group, CSL, said in December the current structure would generate adequate revenues for bond payments in a normal year.

Neighborhood advocates want Bristol to guarantee revenue needed to cover the city’s debt liability, similar to Nashville SC guaranteeing revenue for the soccer stadium debt if tax revenue fell short. But to deal proponents, the negotiating positions and structures of the sports are not easily compared. Soccer leaders were trying to create a new team where no stadium existed, whereas a racetrack, which must be operated and maintained, already exists, and the operator already has 11 other tracks. A 10-acre lease for private development was part of the soccer deal, but does not exist for Bristol.

Bristol officials also point to other financial guarantees they have made, including rent payments, NASCAR races and construction cost overruns. “There is a tremendous guarantee there,” Caldwell said. 

“They really have to figure out the sound”

For area residents, racetrack noise is a top concern. On nights when the Fairgrounds racetrack is in use, it is difficult for Sindhura Ponnala’s three-year-old daughter to fall asleep. Television dialogue and conversations are drowned out by the track noise that lasts for hours and can put Ponnala on edge. Ponnala said she is supportive of the racetrack and a potential rebuild, but she is among neighbors who have concerns about the current sound levels and what a new track could yield. 

“It does something to us,” said Ponnala, who lives adjacent to the historic racetrack. “Something is buzzing all the time.” She added, “They really have to figure out the sound.”

As part of the development and lease agreements, a 20-foot tall sound wall with absorbent material would be erected and mufflers would be required at all but the NASCAR races and practices. A sound report commissioned by Bristol forecast the new speedway would produce half of the perceived sound levels currently experienced at local and regional races, and sound levels at NASCAR events would be similar to the bigger, unmuffled races already at the track. While mufflers are already required on the racetrack, enforcement has been lacking and will be improved under Bristol’s management, deal proponents have said.  

“It truly can be a win for all parties,” Caldwell said. “We can reduce the impact on the neighborhood, we can take the burden off the taxpayers in Nashville and we can make this a facility that everyone can be proud of.”

To Sledge, not requiring a muffler at NASCAR races is a “non-starter.” Other neighborhood advocates have expressed skepticism that noise levels from NASCAR will be in line with current big races, where mufflers were required. Either the forecast is dubious or it raises questions on why enforcement has been so lax, said Jason Bergeron, representing the Neighborhood Impact Advisory Council. 

Bergeron has also questioned how noise, traffic and parking issues related to racing could affect both the nearby Fall-Hamilton Elementary School and the new mixed-use development included in the deal to build Geodis Park. Plans include a childcare center, a community space, retail and 335 housing units, nearly half of which are described as affordable.

“The volume of uses and events from this proposal can’t be so large that it overwhelms and defeats those community benefits,” Bergeron said at a November meeting.

Neighborhood advocates want independent sound reviews, plans for remedies and commitments to cover additional costs, should sound mitigation fall short, as well as guarantees on traffic support. Fair commissioners have also raised concerns about curfews and noise levels from concerts. The Fair board can adopt new regulations as issues arise, but if those rules materially hurt Bristol’s operations, the deal allows Bristol to terminate the lease in 30 days without any charge. That clause should be removed or at least be a catalyst to ensure all the details are ironed out prior to approval, Bergeron said.

“This proposal has such risk to go sideways if you don’t get everything in on the front end,” Bergeron said. “Then we are stuck with a speedway, where the answer is always just going to be, ‘Well, we’ve got this now and we’re here and we are going to have to live with it.’”

Deal proponents point to a pending traffic plan from Bristol that will guide car flow, as well as more parking spaces that will be available in the racetrack’s infield for both soccer and racing events if the deal is approved. Most events will be smaller than soccer games, and, at NASCAR races, many fans will be coming from out of town and will take shuttles from hotels.

“We want to make sure it’s a really good experience for everyone so that people want to come back,” Caldwell said. “We can improve it for all those other events that are taking place.”

Unlocking state and private investment — like this proposal does — is how Nashville can expand our offerings as a city while allowing general fund dollars to support priority initiatives like higher teacher pay, more resources for first responders, improved infrastructure and more.

– TJ Ducklo, spokesman for Mayor John Cooper

“Not Metro’s only option”

The 2011 referendum results do not call for NASCAR-scale races or 30,000-seat venues, a point emphasized by some neighborhood leaders. Wedgewood-Houston has grown and changed since the 1980s when NASCAR races were held there and since the referendum vote. They argue improvements could also be made at a smaller scale to serve local and regional racing needs.

Certainly you have to continue racing at the Fairgrounds, but it’s not Metro’s only option,” Bergeron said. 

Speedway upgrades could range from $14 million to $46 million over the next 30 years, according to a report released Feb. 9. Multiple Fair commissioners, including Chair Sheri Weiner and Vice-Chair Jasper Hendricks, have said the study fell short of the cost analysis they were seeking and have asked for more information.

While Metro Council could elect to fund upgrades outside of a Bristol deal, the city would lack the new dedicated revenue streams, the revenue boost from NASCAR races and the state and the NCVC contributions. The calculus has drawn some parallels to the debate over a new Titans stadium, in which renovation estimates, based on the Titans’ renovation plan, rival the cost of a new $2 billion stadium that would receive sizable contributions from the state and team owners. 

“Is it possible for the city to fund maintenance and improvements of the Fairgrounds speedway without bringing in NASCAR? Potentially, but not without the vast majority of costs falling on resident taxpayers and competing for funds with neighborhood priorities like education and public safety,” Eagles said. 

Residents near the track "don’t see (NASCAR races) enhancing or improving or coexisting with their current way of life.” said Shay Sapp with South Nashville Action People. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Residents near the track “don’t see (NASCAR races) enhancing or improving or coexisting with their current way of life.” said Shay Sapp with South Nashville Action People. (Photo: John Partipilo)

After the Fair Commissioners Board votes on the Bristol deal, the matter will go before the Metro Sports Authority and Metro Council, where it needs 27 votes of approval. Along with Cooper’s term ending this year, Spyridon will be retiring in June, and two Fair commissioners  — Weiner and Hendricks — are running for Metro Council seats, which means at least some new leaders would oversee the speedway development if the deal is approved. If the deal’s outcome is not determined by the end of Metro Council’s August term, the legislation will be reset under a new council and a new mayor. 

Cooper’s decision to not seek reelection has no impact on the speedway project, Ducklo said. He also pushed back on criticism that other needs should come before sports venues, pointing to several investments Cooper has overseen in affordable housing and education, including school budget increases and the addition of several new schools. Relieving the general fund of track maintenance would help support those priorities, he said. 

While many who live in the neighborhood have voiced opposition to the deal, there are also several residents near the Fairgrounds who support a NASCAR-level track there and who see it as a potential boost to property values. 

“It’s going to be positive to the area,” said Mike Romano, who lives by Fall-Hamilton school, adding that sound and traffic were not big concerns for him. “I’m not worried about it.”

Several other residents in the area, like Trammel, said they wanted more information on the proposed deal before they take a position. In the meantime, Trammel urged city leaders to listen carefully to residents’ concerns. 

“Just be cognizant of where people live, and their livelihood. Some people have babies, some people are older,” Trammel said. “I know it’s going to bring money to the city, but is it worth sacrificing people living a decent lifestyle?”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jamie McGee
Jamie McGee

Jamie McGee covered economic issues for The Tennessean and prior to that, was a reporter for the Nashville Business Journal. Her stories have been featured regularly by USA Today, and she received a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant. She has written for Bloomberg News and The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., and has a Masters in journalism from Columbia University.