Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday April 25, 2011
Actions may speak louder than words, but when combined, they’re a dangerous force to be reckoned with. The written portion came in the form of a final petition, 45,000 signatures strong, presented at a town hall meeting where action was on the agenda. People packed tightly inside the room, clung together to the point it made sardines claustrophobic as the decision of a racetrack’s future came together. Guns blazing on both sides, the stage was set for the climax of a grassroots movement we rarely see, friends and neighbors bonding together to save a stock car landmark whose future lay threatened by bulldozers and those all-important recovery buzzwords: economic development. To win out, it took four hours of heated debate, but in the end passion and persistence proved worth it; a short track forever a part of NASCAR history was given a dramatic, second lease on life against the wishes of the city’s own mayor. Despite not holding a Cup race in over a quarter-century, a dedicated band of racing fanatics had formed the ultimate stock car David vs. Goliath story; come hell or high water, they were determined to ensure racing survived in their backyard.
Which is why, just on the other side of town they’re perfectly content leaving another racetrack to die.
When the topic of NASCAR’s roots comes up, Nashville isn’t always near the top of anyone’s list. But it should be. The Nashville Fairgrounds was a Cup Series mainstay on the schedule from 1958 on, legends like Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, and David Pearson visiting Victory Lane on its treacherous, half-mile high banks. It was here local boy Darrell Waltrip scored his first NASCAR victory, joining the late Joe Weatherly (who triumphed in that inaugural year) while countless others, like Sterling Marlin used their local experience in the form of track championships to break into the sport’s highest level. The Big Boys left for good after 1984, on to bigger and better places with more grandstands but the love for the sport didn’t just stay alive, it thrived; in fact, the second-tier Nationwide Series returned for a stint there from 1995-2000.
That’s why Music City proves the perfect case study for how NASCAR’s cookie cutters have crumbled before us, the best laid plans for new ideas torn apart by the worst type of fan reaction: indifference. Nashville Superspeedway, based in “nearby” Murfreesboro was built in 2001, one of the last of the great intermediate construction projects: a five-year long explosion of oval-building across the country designed to capitalize on stock car racing’s fanatical growth. From Fontana, California to “Chicagoland” to Kansas City to Las Vegas, these 1.33-to-2-mile superspeedways were supposedly the perfect “next-level” combination, fit for both open-wheel and NASCAR racing while offering the space to expand their at-track audience to well over 100,000 fans.
The Nashville Superspeedway didn’t start with that many seats; the plan was for 50,000, half of which were temporary bleachers until the Cup Series added that track to the schedule – an addition, of course, that never came. In its place, they were left with the Nationwide Series and the IRL, both of which enjoyed a temporary run of success, for a time – Nationwide peaked at an average of 41,500 fans per event in 2007. But that modest, 50K goal was never reached for a track that’s failed to gain traction well, ever with the surrounding locals. Instead, Dover Motorsports, Inc. is forced into a tough decision soon, one of many for these “cookie cutter” ovals that may occur as quickly as the end of this year: after drawing an average of 17,500 fans per event the last year-plus, is it time to cut their losses, shutter their investment and stop the bleeding of red ink all over their financial statements?
The track, to be fair has had its moments, including a five-car wreck on the last lap that handed Michael Waltrip an improbable victory in 2004. But by and large, the on-track action at the Superspeedway, spread out over nearly three times the racetrack as the Fairgrounds has never fully matched the atmosphere generated by the smaller ovals. Just last Saturday, Carl Edwards won a race in which four of the six cautions were for debris; just two cars were involved in accidents, contact was of the limited to none variety and only 16 of 43 starters ended the race on the lead lap. Not exactly the sparks-flying, history-making moments envisioned by the track’s creators, right?
Except maybe those moments were never envisioned, dollar signs dancing through executives’ heads as larger track sizes meant the possibility of more people pouring through the turnstiles. Racing proved secondary to profiteering, a multi-million dollar mistake of forgetting people won’t spend money on entertainment unless, of course, there’s actually something to entertain them. Advances in engineering this decade also met with the dreaded consequences – an aerodynamic push around other cars – and suddenly the perfect parade broke out where a race was supposed to be. That won’t work, no way, no how, no matter how much money you poured into that circular asphalt.
Nor will these supposed “convenient locations” for cookie-cutter tracks, located in some cases over an hour away from the city they’re supposed to represent. Some have survived based on that alone, tracks like Las Vegas lacking in on-track action but whose fan base is so starved for racing, they’ll take virtually anything as long as the Cup guys come and visit. Compare that to Nashville Superspeedway, which sits almost 40 minutes from Nashville itself, three hours from Knoxville and four from Memphis in a region already densely populated with other, unique racetracks – all of whom have Cup dates. Even a “sister” track in Kentucky is better situated, its Sparta location off the beaten path but within 45-90 minutes of three major Cup-deprived cities: Lexington, Louisville and Cincinnati.
So make it too big for racing? Check. Build it where people won’t come? Check. Now the third piece of the puzzle comes out of Nashville’s control, the deterioration of cars within its main draw (the Nationwide Series) to the point no local superstars can slip into a one-race deal there. That was the key to minor league racing in the old days, from South Boston to Indianapolis Raceway Park: a ride could open up for a local star or a headliner from a different series that would pop in and mix it up with the Big Boys. Instead, as is well documented by our own Bryan Keith this morning the Big Boys have risen into a league of their own, demoting series regulars to secondary status and removing many fans from having a direct rooting interest in what’s going on at the track.
This formula doesn’t just apply to Nashville: no less than this year’s Chase debut facility, Chicagoland Speedway fits the same, ugly template of long-term viability problems. Fontana has already lost a date due to attendance, while Homestead-Miami is inching towards critical condition; whispers persist the season finale could be moved within the next few years. Considering the capital for each of those projects, well into the millions, any type of track shutdown would be a massive loss.
Yet at the same time, the people within the Nashville community are showing how much they still love racing. The “Save My Fairgrounds” campaign, documenting a proposal to tear down the old track singlehandedly kept it from facing demolition. Local activists, including former driver Marlin are actively seeking the right management and sponsorship combination to leave the racetrack secure for decades. It’s a reminder that if NASCAR taps back into the right market, there’s thousands if not millions of recently uninterested fans there for the taking.
It’s just they’re not biting on the bait of entertainment in the middle of a field, cars single-file when their local short track offers far better. NASCAR needs to realize that in this upcoming era of schedule realignment, recognizing the value of the South Bostons and the Fairgrounds and all these little speedways that left fans salivating at the end of every weekend afternoon.
And as for Nashville Superspeedway? The ugly ending is near to a failed experiment, the first act in a domino effect that could take several, agonizing years to unfold. The Fairgrounds story is one NASCAR has to learn from; otherwise, the ugly future of Nashville Superspeedway could represent the means to an end.
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