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Caraviello: For original Nashville track, race now is one for survival

April 23, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Caraviello: For original Nashville track, race now is one for survival

For decades they crowded into the main grandstand to watch the likes of Coo Coo Marlin, Darrell Waltrip or Bobby Hamilton run for track championships, and then came back to see many of those same drivers compete at the highest levels of NASCAR. Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway has been a part of the Music City landscape in one form or another since 1904, making it an institution every bit as entrenched as the Ryman Auditorium or the Country Music Hall of Fame. It's a fast half-mile capable of producing plenty of ruffled feathers and hurt feelings -- never more so than now.

The old track that's launched so many driving careers has been at the epicenter of a protracted civic squabble that's pitted the mayor's office against speedway preservationists, gotten a few former drivers involved in politics, and reignited age-old arguments over land use in urban areas. Time and time again it's seemed doomed, resigned to the march of bulldozers and progress. And time and time again it's survived, saved by guile and activism, to the point where some limited form of racing is guaranteed at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway through at least 2012.

"There is still a strong sentiment in this town for local racing, and that facility as a whole. It's a part of that town's heritage and a part of its history."

--CHAD CHAFFIN

NASCAR's Nationwide and Camping World Truck circuits are competing this weekend at the newer Nashville Superspeedway 30 miles outside of town, but the action there will be hard-pressed to match the drama that's revolved around the old track since 2007, when current Nashville mayor Karl Dean made redeveloping the state fairgrounds property a priority. The expo center and flea market, which also sat on the 117-acre parcel, would be moved to new locations. The fair itself would find a few home. Only one element would not be preserved: a race track that's among the oldest in the nation.

"It's not that the race track has done anything wrong," said Chad Chaffin, a Nashville native and former NASCAR national series driver who won two track titles at the fairgrounds speedway. "But ... it is on public property. We lost our Cup races in the '80s, lost our Busch and Truck race in the '90s. You've seen the track go from a nationally recognized track that hosts touring series, namely NASCAR, to a Saturday night local race track. A Saturday night race track in an urban environment such as the fairgrounds starts to meet opposition. That's kind of what we've been caught up in."

Things have indeed changed since the heyday of the fairgrounds track, which held a NASCAR sanction until 2008. Gone are the days when Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and Waltrip would win Cup events there with regularity. Geoffrey Bodine won the final premier series race at the facility in 1984. The Truck and Nationwide (then Busch) circuits stuck around until 2000, after which they both moved to the new facility in Lebanon, Tenn. Into the 1980s, the track's weekly racing scene was among the toughest in the country; Bobby Allison, Bill Elliott and Jeremy Mayfield were among those who competed there, and Jeff Green, Jimmy Means and Sterling Marlin also won championships. The fairgrounds track was one of those facilities that was a mecca for every promising driver in the region.

"Guys came from Southern Indiana, Kentucky, Alabama, all over Tennessee. They wanted to just race at the fairgrounds. They couldn't even imagine racing at Daytona or Darlington. They just thought, if I can make it to the 'big track' at Nashville, they felt like they had already accomplished something. It propelled drivers to bigger and better things. It was a destination for many drivers starting out. They just wanted to go to Nashville and compete and win a race at that grand facility," Chaffin said.

"This thing cannot be replaced. You cannot build another Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. It would be cost prohibitive to build a five-eighths mile track for local racing, or even some of the touring series. Tracks like this will never be rebuilt. Nobody is going to build something like this without a guarantee of major-league racing in there, and I don't think those guarantees are to be had anymore."

The race track, though, does not exist in a vacuum. Its future is part of a more complicated saga involving the entire fairgrounds property, unrest from homeowners in surrounding residential areas, and -- of course -- local politics. Mounting financial losses led the city to take control of the fairgrounds operation, and in 2007 an outside consulting firm conducted a study to evaluate how the property could best be put to use. The recommendation: move the fair and clear the land for mixed use, some combination of office space and a park, which would expand the city's tax base. For the speedway, the study was damning. Interest in racing had likely peaked, it said, and any redevelopment plan that included the track would receive so much pushback from residents that it was politically untenable.

The blows kept coming. A task force determined in 2010 that the site was "not appropriate for car racing because of the loud noise, which impedes neighborhood quality of life." That same year another outside study blamed the speedway for affecting potential development of the area. The president of Nashville's chamber of commerce said redevelopment of the property could generate $2.5 billion in economic impact. Residents wanted a park for which the city had already appropriated money. "The race track actually is standing in the way of something wonderful happening in this neighborhood," the head of the area's neighborhood association said at a 2010 presentation on the issue. The track proved ineligible for the National Register of Historic Places because its original grandstand had burned down and been rebuilt.

It all took on the air of a fait accompli. The fair and the expo and the flea market would all be moved, the mayor promised, and the speedway razed. "The only facility that will cease to operate is the race track," the mayor's spokesman told Nashville's local newspaper in January, after a preservation group offered a counterproposal that included a 14-foot-high sound abatement wall around the facility. It got personal -- to proponents of the speedway, Dean was a transplanted Bostonian who didn't understand racing and didn't understand the culture of Nashville, a city with a heritage in the sport that rivals any other in the South.

Which may explain why the mayor somewhat misread the level of opposition to his plan. The folks at the flea market, it turned out, didn't want to move either. And earlier this year, the preservation group Save My Fairgrounds -- which counts Waltrip, Sterling Martin, and Nashville-based race team owner Mike Curb among its backers ? help prod 2,970 people to show up for the council meeting where the vote to demolish the race track took place. The measure failed by two votes, and council passed a two-year stay of execution while it studies a master planning process to try and determine what to do with the property.

"I think he underestimated us," Darden Copeland, spokesman for Save My Fairgrounds, said of the mayor. The plan now is to make sure the pro-speedway group gets a seat on that planning council, and try to unseat Dean when he comes up for reelection on Aug. 4. That seems a long shot -- the mayor's opponent, a councilman sympathetic to the speedway's plight, is woefully behind in campaign cash, although Marlin did host a fund-raiser for him last weekend. If that bid fails, the last chance is to try and turn the future of the track and fairgrounds into a ballot referendum, and let the voters determine its fate.

"This buys us time to get the issue on the ballot," Copeland said. "That, I think, is how we win."

Meanwhile, amid the politics and posturing, a little racing will take place. As part of the two-year extension, council agreed to allow a limited amount of racing at the fairgrounds track in 2011 and '12. On Wednesday, Chaffin and current Truck Series driver Bobby Hamilton Jr., a pair of local boys with deep connections to the Nashville racing scene, won the right to promote those events. They're working under very strict rules -- just seven race days each year, five at night and two in the afternoon, and all the cars have to be outfitted with mufflers to try and cut down on the noise.

"The neighborhood input and concerns, especially in regards to noise, are being addressed," said Chaffin, who won a pair of Truck Series events in 2004. "We will have to use mufflers on the race cars. We have some time restrictions. We have some really strict noise restrictions for practice that takes part during the week. We have some pretty stringent guidelines we have to meet, and some pretty definite curfews as to how late we can practice and stuff. It's what we have to do. We want to conduct races, and we're in an urban environment, and we have to play by the rules that are laid out before us."

The issues threatening Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway -- residential encroachment, homeowner complaints, the looming specter of redevelopment -- are old problems that have crushed many a local track in their path. What makes the fairgrounds facility unique is that it's somehow weathered them all for this long, despite a chief executive who's made it his mission to see the place torn down. No one knows what will happen after 2012. Much of the speedway's fate is out of its hands. But for now, Chaffin and Hamilton have plans to revive an old state fair race that could fill the track's 15,000-seat grandstand. There's a NASCAR touring series the new promoters would love to see come to town. There's an effort to meet residents halfway.

And, after fighting off what seemed immediate eradication, there's hope.

"I don't think we can save the fairgrounds speedway just by doing a good job," Chaffin said. "But I do believe that if we do a good job, we will do all that we can to keep it alive, and right now, that's all we have. There is still a strong sentiment in this town for local racing, and that facility as a whole. It's a part of that town's heritage and a part of its history. That fight is not over. ... Now, the question is, will this fight be ongoing? Will we have two years of racing and then go back to fight again? That we don't know. All we can do is our very best job with the track. And I can tell you this -- if we don't do a good job with the track, the chances of it being around are very minimal."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.