Speedway Motorsports has struck a deal that paves the way for NASCAR’s return Nashville and for weekly racing to remain at the venerable short track.
Michael Schwab, Nashville Tennessean
Speedway Motorsports went public Tuesday on a potential $60 million renovation project at the Nashville Fairground to bring NASCAR back to the historic racetrack.
The group has been courting Mayor David Briley’s administration for months to clear a way for Nashville to hold a NASCAR race on the fairground campus, which is also the home of the new Major League Soccer stadium. Talks have gone on behind closed doors, keeping the public and the Metro Board of Fair Commissioners in the dark.
After a terse request last month from commissioners for Speedway Motorsports to “bring a real proposal to the table,” the group made its first public pitch Tuesday, showing initial insight on renovation ideas.
“We’re not here to sell you guys on racing in Nashville. We just believe we can help take the racing to the next level,” said Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president of Bristol Motor Speedway.
“We believe we can create a guest experience like nowhere else in the country with soccer and racing co-existing and offer an unparalleled experience.”
A rendering shows what a revamped racetrack at the Nashville fairgrounds could look like if NASCAR comes back to the city. (Photo: Submitted)
Caldwell’s presentation featured ideas for a 30,000 seat-capacity structure, an expanded concourse, premium seating, pedestrian tunnels and sound barriers at an overhauled racetrack.
But the feasibility of a major upgrade has been questioned. The potential roadblocks include how the project will be financed and concerns about the placement of a mixed-use apartment building and parking lot, 20 feet from the racetrack entrance.
Now, the group says it has found a solution to the financing question so only one hurdle remains — what to do about the building in such close proximity to the track.
Caldwell asked the fair board to consider and help facilitate conversations on how to address what they see as a public safety issue that would also make the flow into and out of the racetrack difficult.
A discussion would also include negotiations of a financial structure and input on the needs of the fairground.
“This is your racetrack,” Caldwell said. “This racetrack belongs to the people of Nashville. We see tremendous potential … and are willing to offer our resources and experience in partnership with you.”
The board voted for Fairgrounds Director Laura Womack and board member Jason Bergeron as representatives in the ongoing talks.
Board Chairman Ned Horton called it “exciting potential” after hearing Caldwell’s pitch, thanking him for sharing ideas.
Nashville SC has made its position clear on the current design of the fairgrounds upgrades.
“Our group has worked diligently over the past eighteen months to engage with stakeholders, the Fairgrounds staff and the architects to design a stadium and surrounding development that safely serves the property and future users of the Fairgrounds,” Zach Hunt, a spokesperson for the MLS ownership group, said in a statement.
“The Mayor and Metro Council made the boundaries for our project very clear and we’ve maintained our commitment to building a first-class venue within those boundaries.”
The NASCAR project vision
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To make a speedway project work, Speedway Motorsports would also need space for grandstand expansion at the south end of the track — a difficult ask as the move would take out part of Fair Park. A mock-up also shows the north end of the racetrack structure encroaching on Wedgewood Avenue.
An overhaul of the fairgrounds is already underway to make room for the $275 million soccer stadium and surrounding mixed-use development. The new expo center and fair buildings, which are moving to the northeast end of the site, are expected to be operational by August.
Fair Park recently opened on the underutilized, flood-prone south end of the fairgrounds that is flanked by Brown’s Creek. It includes eight multi-use soccer fields, a 1.3-mile greenway, a dog park and other amenities. The fields, made of fiber-reinforced turf, also will be used for temporary parking for fairgrounds events.
But the renderings, Caldwell said, are just that — renderings. They would take into consideration the needs of the fairgrounds and their concerns in future conversations.
“We have to work through that and make sure they have all the facts so they can build their proposal from there.” Womack said after the meeting.
“We’re just trying to get a direction established. What the scope is, what our needs are … obviously with everything that’s going on at the campus, there’s timing considerations and footprint consideration,” she said.
Other images briefly flickered during Caldwell’s presentation featured tall tops, lit up info boards, a coffee stand and a leather-tufted sofa in a room with Americana decor.
A graphic featured tunnels at the north and south ends of the racetrack structure with sound walls and video boards along the eastern wall.
“It’s really important for us to be good neighbors,” Caldwell said. “We are the extension of the community. We’re only successful if the community is successful.”
He also added that any other events held at the racetrack would be up to the fair board and Nashville residents. Some slides offered up a few ideas, showing how a renovated track would look if it hosted a future fair at the site or a holiday event.
The project’s finances
Caldwell said Speedway Motorsports wants to be 50/50 partners with the fairground and can take on just one event per year or take on a role of full operator.
Their “capacity is flexible,” if the facility is up to standard, he said.
In February, the group had pitched as several options to the Briley administration a plan that called for $54 million in bond payments and $2 million in cash from the city.
But Briley rejected a deal involving funding from taxpayers, according to his administration, which previously said the mayor is insistent on private investment in any proposal.
Now Speedway Motorsports is pitching a public-private partnership to revitalize the racetrack. The $60 million project would be funded through revenue bonds and revenue generated through the use speedway property, according to the pitch.
The Metro Board of Fair Commissioners is pressing on the Speedway Motorsports to “bring a real proposal to the table.”
Yihyun Jeong, The Republic | azcentral.com
One possible solution to the financing conundrum involved the state. The legislature took up a proposal to have any racetrack project be funded by racetrack patrons.
The state legislation, which was put on hold, looked to redirect tax revenue generated at future NASCAR-sanctioned races to help pay for upgrades at the racetrack.
The bill — filed by state Rep. Kirk Haston, R-Lobelville, and state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga — mirrored similar legislation for professional sports facilities in Memphis and Nashville. It would redirect state and city sales tax generated at any NASCAR-sanctioned event and use that revenue to pay for debt issued for track upgrades.
The push will be back on the table next year, according to the group.
NASCAR in Nashville
If an upgrade to the fairground racetrack happens, when will NASCAR come to Nashville?
Sanctions for NASCAR races at current tracks are in place through 2020. But in 2021, “there will be changes,” according to NASCAR President Steve Phelps, who spoke at their headquarters in New York earlier this month with Associated Press Sports Editors.
For Nashville to gain a race, he said, another track will lose one.
“I think it’s unlikely that we would have more (racing dates on the schedule), so if we’re going to race at different racetracks and we’re going to go to the Fairgrounds, then that needs to come from somewhere. That needs to come from an existing track,” Phelps said.
He said NASCAR needs to do a “better job” by working more closely with its racetracks and help sell more tickets and “put on the best show we can.”
“We overbuilt, there’s no question that we overbuilt,” Phelps said. “It’s like, well, if someone wants to come and we have demand just build another seat. And I think that was a mistake. I think we have been slower than we should have been in trying to right-size our own facilities.”
Nashville’s short track will add well to NASCAR’s portfolio, Caldwell said after his presentation.
“Short tracks produce great racing. They always have, they always will,” he said. “We think this can be returned to welcome NASCAR back and produce that exciting short track racing … and create another entertainment venue for folks in the community.”
Council member Robert Swope said Metro is a “very unique position,” with the expansion of the fairgrounds, the addition of the MLS stadium and the mixed-use development.
“We have a chance, if we redo the speedway along with this, to turn this facility into the crown jewel of Nashville,” Swope said. “But that only happens if you bring an operator like (Speedway Motorsports) to help with the speedway renovations.”
Council member Colby Sledge, whose district includes the fairgrounds, has said he is not in favor of adjusting a site plan that has already gone through more than a year of public input and review by several Metro boards and commissions
Swope said it would be “insane” to send any part of the MLS deal back to Metro Council. But it can all be possible, he said, if all parties “compromises a little bit.”
In a public referendum in 2011, Nashville emphatically voted to amend the city charter to guarantee that auto racing remain at the fairgrounds, along with the flea market and a fair.
“If you want to argue with 71 percent of the constituents of Davidson County, go ahead,” Swope said. “Good luck.”
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FAIRGROUNDS: Speedway Motorsports, ‘Bring a real proposal to the table’ for NASCAR
MLS STADIUM: Project potential roadblock for NASCAR’s return to Nashville
FUNDING: Who’s paying for NASCAR upgrades in Nashville? Speedway Motorsports floats $54M public option
Yihyun Jeong covers politics in Nashville for USA TODAY NETWORK – TENNESSEE. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @yihyun_jeong.
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