Sports

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines: Nashville's Historical Role in Auto Racing

A racecar rounds the fourth turn on the half-mile Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway during an “open practice” day in late October. / Photo by Bill Hobbs Photography billhobbs.com

The Nashville racetrack in 1911 / Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Nashville racetrack in 1911 / Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

If the dirt below the track at Nashville’s historic Fairgrounds Speedway could talk, it would tell stories of great racing going back more than a century – first on horses, then in cars – stories that don’t need to be just in the rear-view mirror of history.

Country music has its “Mother Church” – the Ryman Auditorium. Auto racing has several temples and cathedrals, too – Indianapolis, Daytona, Bristol and Talladega, to name a few.

One that belongs on that list: Fairgrounds Speedway, which began life more than a century ago as a dirt track for racing horses. In the latter part of the 1800s, Nashville had at least six different horse tracks. The most famous: Cumberland Park, where the current race track is located. Cumberland once hosted the largest purse in the world for horse racing.

But while Tennessee’s northern neighbor would become the home of equestrian racing, Cumberland Park took a different road starting in 1904 when the first automobile races were held there. In June of that year, local drivers raced “horseless carriages” on the 1 1/8th mile dirt oval and, that fall, race drivers fresh from the St. Louis World’s Fair held the first professional automobile race at the track. Speeds were reported to have reached an incredible 60 mph during that first race.

Automobile racing quickly supplanted horse racing at Cumberland Park, in part because the state of Tennessee outlawed gambling in 1906, and the track property was merged with adjacent fairgrounds. It has hosted auto racing ever since.

The track was converted to a half-mile paved oval in 1957, paving the way for it to host NASCAR-sanctioned races. Lights were added in 1965 – the same year the grandstands burned – and the track was lengthened in 1969 to just under 6/10ths of a mile.

A race car driver zooms past the grandstand during an “open practice” day at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in late October, one week before the season-ending All American 400 / Photo by Bill Hobbs Photography billhobbs.com

A race car driver zooms past the grandstand during an “open practice” day at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in late October, one week before the season-ending All American 400 / Photo by Bill Hobbs Photography billhobbs.com

Today, Fairgrounds Speedway is the second oldest operating racetrack in the United States, only one year younger than the Milwaukee Mile, which held its first race in 1903. Indy, one of auto racing’s grand cathedrals, is four years younger than Nashville’s track.

They were racing at Nashville for 57 years before Bristol Motor Speedway opened – 55 years before Daytona International Speedway was built.

During the track’s glory days, legends such as Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip and others raced there, but the golden era ended in 1984 when Fairgrounds Speedway lost its two annual Winston Cup races. Conventional wisdom says the track stands no chance of ever hosting another of NASCAR’s top racing series, now called the Sprint Cup.

Nashville's Fairgrounds Speedway today / Photo by Bill Hobbs Photography billhobbs.com

Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway today / Photo by Bill Hobbs Photography billhobbs.com

Fairgrounds Speedway hosted at least one Cup-series race from 1958 to 1984, but today, it is often said that the facility is too old, too small, and too weighed down by dysfunctional governance and problematic politics to ever again host big-league racing.

Only the last part of that is true, says Darrell Waltrip, and if that ever is repaired, “the sky is the limit” for the historic track. No one has won more races at Fairgrounds Speedway than Darrell Waltrip, whose racing-royalty name graces three car dealerships in Franklin, 15 minutes south of the track.

The grandstand at Fairgrounds Speedway / Photo by Bill Hobbs Photography billhobbs.com

The grandstand at Fairgrounds Speedway / Photo by Bill Hobbs Photography billhobbs.com

“I got my very first Cup win there in 1975. It was on Mother’s Day weekend. My whole family was there – it was a great weekend for me to get my first Cup win,” Waltrip recalls. “What makes it special is the same thing that makes Indianapolis special – it’s the history. It oughta be on the National Register of Historic Places – that’s how important it is.”

Of the 42 Cup races there, Richard Petty won nine and Waltrip won eight, including five of six between 1981 and 1984. Counting NASCAR, USAC, ASA, and local track races, Waltrip holds the all-time track record for wins with 67.

The Nashville track was, Waltrip says, a perfect short track – a little over half a mile long and “multi-groove,” meaning cars could run side-by side, which makes for exciting racing.

Race driver Sterling Marlin, the Columbia, Tenn. driver who won the 1976 Music City USA 420 and was three-time track champion from 1980 to 1982, won a total of 51 races at the Nashville racetrack. He once described it as “the best race track in the country” and “the best short track laid out ever – you can run side by side for 100 laps.”

“If everybody worked as hard to improve it as they have to destroy it, we’d have a first-class facility,” says Waltrip. “At one time, it was the premier short track in the country.”

Tennessee is one of only two states whose state fairgrounds feature a race track – and Tennessee’s track is one of auto racing’s oldest and most historic tracks. It would seem to be a setup rife with opportunity to capitalize on history and provide a state fair experience that is near-unique in America, if all of the right leaders and entities had the same vision for the future of the Speedway.

But they don’t. They haven’t been for more than two decades now. The conflict has evolved over time, but in the main it is a matter of control. Racing promoters can’t risk investing too much into the track since they don’t own it. Some city leaders have allowed the track to decline through simple neglect while others in recent years have openly declared war on its existence, calling for ending auto racing at the fairgrounds, moving the state fair elsewhere and redeveloping the property.

A race car is a blue-and-white blur as it zooms past at historic Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway on a late October Saturday when drivers were running practice laps and testing their cars a week before the All American 400 race. / Photo by Bill Hobbs Photography billhobbs.com

A race car is a blue-and-white blur as it zooms past at historic Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway on a late October Saturday when drivers were running practice laps and testing their cars a week before the All American 400 race. / Photo by Bill Hobbs Photography billhobbs.com

Overall, the people of Nashville support keeping the fairgrounds and track. Indeed, voters of Nashville called a halt to their leaders’ war on the track by passing a city charter amendment that protects the whole Fairgrounds and its “traditional activities” including auto racing, the expo center, flea market and state fair.  This amendment protects against the mayor’s push for demolition and redevelopment of the entire property as a corporate office park and “mixed use development – the constant battle between the city, the fair board and race promoters is what drove NASCAR away.

“What the racetrack needs is for the Mayor and the Fair Board to form a more workable relationship with the promoter. And then it could be one of the premier short tracks in the country,” Waltrip says. But until that happens – if it ever happens – no promoter is going to invest the kind of money that is needed to boost Fairgrounds Speedway back to its rightful place in auto racing, he says. And that’s a lost opportunity because, while mile-plus “super speedways” are increasingly common, auto racing is regaining some of its love of short tracks, Waltrip says.

Currently, only three of the 26 races in NASCAR’s top racing series, the Sprint Cup, are run on short tracks – Bristol, Richmond and Martinsville – with the rest on superspeedways.

But racing is realizing it still needs short tracks because they are where young drivers hone their skills, Waltrip says. “NASCAR and the promoters are waking up to the fact that the short tracks are important in the development process. They are part of the development process that had been eliminated – and I think it’s coming back.”

Whether Fairgrounds Speedway plays a starring role in the resurgence of short tracks is an open question. In late 2011, Nashville’s Metro Board of Fair Commissioners picked racing promoter Tony Formosa to operate auto-racing events at the Speedway in 2012. The track appears to be making progress under Formosa’s management, but it’s not without glitches because of the way the track is governed and its relationship to the fairgrounds. A series of races planned for Fairgrounds Speedway during the 2013 Tennessee State Fair had to be cancelled. Formosa blamed the Tennessee State Fair Association, whose lease controls the entire Fairgrounds & Expo Center property including the Speedway during the annual fair, saying in a letter announcing the cancellation that, “after ten days of contract negotiations with the TN State Fair Association, we have been unable to reach an acceptable agreement regarding the percentage of gate and concession fees from the association for this event.”

Fairgrounds Speedway seemed like an anachronism when Dover Motorsports opened Nashville Superspeedway in Gladeville, about 30 miles southeast of Nashville, in 2001. The track hosted NASCAR Nationwide Series and Truck Series races for several years, and even a 200-mile IndyCar race for seven years, but it closed in 2011.

Waltrip says the failure of Nashville Superspeedway doesn’t mean racing can’t make it in Nashville – in fact, it provides the chance to shift the focus back to the little historic track smack in the middle of the city. “It’s an iconic speedway, and it sits in the middle of town – the location is what makes it attractive to developers, but it’s also part of what makes it so special,” he says.

A racecar rounds the fourth turn on the half-mile Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway during an “open practice” day in late October. / Photo by Bill Hobbs Photography billhobbs.com

A racecar rounds the fourth turn on the half-mile Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway during an “open practice” day in late October. / Photo by Bill Hobbs Photography billhobbs.com

With the right working relationship between the city, the Fair Board and the promoter, the track could once again host some NASCAR events – perhaps Nationwide Series or Truck Series races, he says. Right now, the biggest race on the track’s schedule is the annual All-American 400, which Waltrip calls one of the most prestigious short-track races in the country.

To regain some of its former NASCAR glory, Waltrip says the track needs to be resurfaced and needs some other improvements. “It needs some cleaning up and some fixing up, and it would be the perfect track,” he says, adding there is no shortage of people interested in helping revive the track if the city would get behind it.

“The problem is not finding someone who wants to do something at the Fairgrounds,” he says, adding that the promoters now running the racetrack “are doing the absolute best job possible.”

“The way I see the facility today – the facility needs to be improved – make it a multi-use facility with the racetrack as the centerpiece. If everyone got on the same page, the sky’s the limit.”

This story is available thanks to the sponsorship of Curb Foundation