News & Media

Caraviello: Nashville's demise leaves town, trophy in limbo

August 06, 2011, David Caraviello,

For Sam Bass, it feels like a reaction to a death in the family. Which in a way it is, given how closely NASCAR's officially licensed artist is associated with Nashville Superspeedway, the race track that has traditionally awarded Bass-painted Gibson guitars as trophies in Victory Lane -- and on Wednesday announced it would not pursue sanctions for 2012 races, a polite way of saying it's shutting down.

"I have been just absolutely overwhelmed and blown away by the fan support -- people writing me emails, people sending me Facebook postings and everything else, just expressing almost their condolences for the news," said Bass, who operates a gallery adjacent to Charlotte Motor Speedway. "And it is something people are really worried about."

Gibson hopes to continue tradition

Gibson Guitar Corp., makers of the guitar trophy awarded for years to winners of Nashville NASCAR races, hopes to continue the tradition in some form despite the announcement this week that Nashville Superspeedway will not pursue sanctioning beyond this season.

"We were all saddened by the new regarding the Nashville Superspeedway closure and hope the best for the employees and their families," said Dave Berryman, president of the company that's been based in Nashville since 1984.

"Gibson has enjoyed a longstanding relationship with NASCAR and throughout the years we have received so many positive comments regarding the Gibson Custom Shop Les Paul Trophy from the drivers, sponsors and fans that it would be a shame if we didn't continue this tradition in some fashion, possibly expanding the platform so even more could enjoy it."

-- David Caraviello

That sentiment is understandable, given the iconic nature of Nashville's guitar trophy, and the legacy of NASCAR racing in a city that held its first national-series event in 1958. It's unfathomable to think that the capital of the country-music industry, a city that launched the careers of Darrell Waltrip, Sterling Marlin, Bobby Hamilton, Jeff Green and countless others, will no longer have a NASCAR track. But that's where things seem to be headed, with Nashville's historic fairgrounds facility barely holding on as a late-model venue, and the newer superspeedway effectively closing its doors.

The latter isn't entirely unexpected, given the attendance woes suffered by the superspeedway, and the fact that parent company Dover Motorsports recently shut down two other tracks -- Memphis Motorsports Park and Gateway International Raceway outside St. Louis -- for similar reasons. The 25,000-seat facility in Lebanon, Tenn., was built to be expandable to 150,000 seats in the hope that one day a Sprint Cup race would arrive. It never did, and the track couldn't make a go of it hosting only Nationwide or Camping World Truck Series events. Now it will likely be put up for sale.

"They've just never have been able to put any butts in the seats out here," said Waltrip, a Kentucky native who now lives in Nashville. "You watch any race, whether it was Nationwide, Trucks or IndyCars, you know, 5,000-6,000 people was about all that ever showed up for those events. You just can't survive at a track that size without selling it out every now and then. And I don't think they ever came close. ... Everything that you want in a race track is there, but for whatever reason, the Nashville community just never embraced it. And they've just struggled with that, attendance-wise. I'm not surprised. I've wondered how they've hung in there as long as they have, actually."

How can this happen in Nashville, a city with a NASCAR tradition as strong as any in the South? The beloved short track out at the fairgrounds is one of the oldest of its kind in America, scraped out of the ground in 1904, and host of Cup-level events from 1958 until age caught up with it in 1984. Nationwide and Truck races were held at the fairgrounds off and on until 2001, when the big concrete track opened up outside of town. Chad Chaffin, a Nashville native who competed for 15 years in NASCAR's national divisions, thinks the failure of the superspeedway has less to do with the city than it does the newer track's business model.

"We used to have the Busch Series and then the Truck Series, they went to a lot of tracks like the fairgrounds, where these tracks had weekly racing, and their big event would be the Nationwide or the Trucks," said Chaffin, a two-time champion at the fairgrounds speedway. "But you see these tracks that are trying to survive with these races alone, and really, it's a tough pull. You see Gateway and Memphis, and now Nashville. Pike's Peak. These tracks cost a lot to build, cost a lot to maintain, you've got to have staff 365 days a year, and you only have a few days where they're open. And without that [Sprint] Cup TV revenue money and the 100,000 people that come for those races, I guess it's just hard to make it."

And yet, it seems clear that Nashville NASCAR fans raised on short-track action out at the fairgrounds never really warmed to the big track outside of town, a factor that may have played a role in its downfall. Chaffin said locals didn't embrace the concrete surface at the 1.3-mile tri-oval in Lebanon, and felt the races got a little too predictable -- as evidenced by Carl Edwards winning there five times, including both Nationwide events this year. Plans for a short track and a drag strip on the property were never realized. At the same time, the fairgrounds track staved off extinction again and again. It's a shadow of its former self, now hosting only a handful of late-model events annually, but as long as it's open the superspeedway suffers by comparison.

"The racing fans in Nashville -- and I don't know how to say this diplomatically -- I don't think they ever really embraced the superspeedway," Chaffin said. "When they first built the superspeedway, they were going to put in a short track, they were going to close the fairgrounds. Those plans never happened. The Nashville fairgrounds fans, they lost their date, and then the track stuck around, so we had the short track downtown and the big track out of town, and they never built the drag strip, never built the short track out there. So I don't think a lot of your short-track fans out there ever really embraced the superspeedway like they may have had the fairgrounds actually been plowed under. ... For whatever reason, I think fans here want to see NASCAR back at the fairgrounds."

Waltrip agreed. "I think one of the things that could have happened, I think it was a bit of animosity when they left the fairgrounds and built that race track," he said. "I think a lot of the old, traditional race fans resented that. And the fairgrounds struggled ever since then. There is a connect of the fairgrounds and downtown here, and I think that a lot of the old race fans and even some of the newer ones just maybe resented the fact that they took everything away from the fairgrounds and moved it out there."

None of that, though, takes away the sting felt by those close to the superspeedway. Bass began his relationship with the track in 2002, when he started painting the Gibson guitars that had traditionally been given to Nashville race winners going back to the fairgrounds days. Gibson builds the guitar, sends it to Bass to be painted, and the artist ships it back to the manufacturer, where the electronics and hardware are installed. The whole process, Bass said, takes about 150 hours, explaining why some were so stupefied when Kyle Busch smashed one a-la Pete Townshend in 2009. Recently, Bass began presenting the guitars in Victory Lane.

"I'd be devastated if the tradition of me painting guitars came to an end because the race track went away," said Bass, who had the idea after painting a Brooks and Dunn guitar presented to Dale Earnhardt in 1998. "But I can't emphasize enough how much I feel that is a great town, a great racing facility, and I would think it would be very attractive to new ownership who might take a little bit different approach at things to bring the people there. I definitely think it's been hurt by the economy in a big way. Maybe somebody else has some different ideas about what they could do with it, and take a chance to keep racing alive there in Nashville."

Toward that end, some hold out hope for a revival of the fairgrounds track as a NASCAR facility. It's an absolute long shot, given that the track hasn't hosted a national-series event since Randy Tolsma won a Truck race there in August 2000, and would require upgrades including the addition of the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barrier. Then there's the political climate, and the ongoing battle the city government -- which owns the fairground, and by extension the track -- is waging to have the place shut down and redeveloped. Residents hate the noise, and the mayor envisions a commercial park. Chaffin and Bobby Hamilton Jr. recently won the right to hold seven late-model events at the fairgrounds this year and next, although Hamilton is now the sole promoter at the facility.

"The racing fans in Nashville -- and I don't know how to say this diplomatically -- I don't think they ever really embraced the superspeedway."


Chaffin, still a big supporter of the fairgrounds track, calls the two-year extension a "stay of execution." But with the demise of the superspeedway, he's not alone in wondering if the fairgrounds can recapture the magic it once had, where fans would crowd under the covered main grandstand to watch the sport's best battle it out. Everybody knows it's a distant possibility. But some local record company bigwigs with NASCAR ties are supporters of the fairgrounds, Chaffin said, and he believes fans would respond to a return of NASCAR racing to its Nashville roots.

"We're in a battle just to keep the place open," he said. "I don't know if this potential NASCAR opportunity would tip the scales to help the track or not. Even if we could get the date, there's a lot that's got to happen. You've got to have purse money, corporate involvement, SAFER barriers, scoring loops. You'd probably have to put in temporary seating or more seating. Whether it can happen or not is a different story. But I can tell you, the buzz in Nashville [on Wednesday] was, people were thinking this could be great. We could get NASCAR back to Nashville."

It's a tantalizing possibility, of course, but one that may never be realized given the sport's direction toward more modern facilities -- like the superspeedway, whose demise has prompted speculation over what might become of the guitar trophy should NASCAR in Nashville go the way of North Wilkesboro and Rockingham. There are no guarantees, given that some sort of agreement would have to be struck between another race track and Gibson, which has been headquartered in Nashville since 1984. But if it had to go anywhere, Bass wonders about another Tennessee track: Bristol, which in addition to its NASCAR popularity was recognized by Congress in 1998 as the birthplace of country music.

"Keeping it in Tennessee," Bass said, "would only make sense."

Of course, so does the idea of NASCAR racing in Nashville, a city whose culture and tradition seem to mirror the sport as well as any other. For the moment, though, nothing is assured. The impending closure of Nashville Superspeedway has left Bass' painted guitars and the Music City both stuck in the same position -- a kind of racing limbo, waiting to see if there's a place for them in NASCAR in the years to come.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.