Public Hearing Held on Fairground Nashville’s NASCAR Future

The latest step towards a potential NASCAR return to Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway played out through dramatic political theater during a Fair Board of Commissioners meeting at the Karl Dean Ballroom in Downtown Music City on Tuesday night.

Speedway Motorsports Inc., which also operates nearby Bristol Motor Speedway, is seeking to obtain the lease to the facility owned by the City of Nashville and Davidson County.

Such an agreement would see Bristol Motor Speedway become the de facto promoters of the historic short track, and pending an eventual renovation project, clear a pathway for all three NASCAR national touring divisions to return.

The agreement would also see SMI operate the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway monthly local and regional racing program.

That requires a majority vote of endorsement from both the Fair Board and City Council, but before that can happen, the process requires Speedway Motorsports to engage local community groups and hear concerns from Davidson Country residents.

That public comment forum took place on Tuesday with residents for and against speedway renovation taking the floor to address the Fair Board.

Pro speedway renovations speakers included NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Darrell Waltrip, 2019 Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway champion Jackson Boone and Sutherlin Marlin House, the daughter of NASCAR legend Sterling Marlin.

Waltrip and Marlin’s formative years took place at Fairgrounds Speedway before embarking towards NASCAR.

“Look, this is a golden opportunity,” Waltrip said. “This is a great opportunity for the speedway. This is a great opportunity for the fairgrounds.”

The meeting also included the most comprehensive plan from Speedway Motorsports executive Jerry Caldwell yet, featuring details concerning infrastructure, community value and the provisional parameters of a lease agreement.

The full meeting in its four-hour entirety can be viewed below, with the main takeaways below it.

TERMS AND LOGISTICS

Speedway Motorsports was represented by Bristol Motor Speedway Executive Vice President and General Manager Jerry Caldwell on Tuesday night.

Caldwell says SMI is proposing an initial 10-year lease at $1 million per year with four renewal options at five years a piece to 30 years in total.

“We believe and hope this would be a 30-year agreement,” Caldwell said. “We would put a 10-year agreement on the front end. Our belief is that it gives us a long-term agreement for us to work, but after 10 years, ask if it makes sense for everyone. For both sides.”

A long-term agreement would give SMI a realistic runway to earn a return on the investment needed to modernize the facility and secure a NASCAR national touring comeback to Music City.

The current Nashville Fairground charter limits the promotional group to 10 race weekends per year. Speedway Motorsports Inc. would honor that number, with one of the 10 dates becoming a NASCAR weekend, and the other nine serving the local and regional racing community.

That includes the venue’s signature event, the All-American 400 weekend, headlined by Super Late Models and Pro Late Models.

Caldwell established a curfew of 10 p.m. for local and regional racing events and 11 p.m. for NASCAR in his provisional proposal. A major part of SMI’s proposal has included event date and track testing transparency for the nearby neighborhood.

SMI has pledged no more than 20 midweek test dates, which is consistent with the current number of track rental slots permitted under the COVID-19 guidelines, and one of those days could be for a NASCAR tire compatibility session.

While a detailed parking plan has not yet been released, Caldwell did present a rough outline that would see the speedway offer shuttles to and from nearby hotels, remote parking areas, ride share options and on-site parking options

It’s not part of the proposal, but there are parcels of commercial land across the street from the fairgrounds property that could become available for the right price.

The proposal also addressed areas of concern such as pollution, noise mitigation and community outreach programs.

“We expect to develop long-term community partnerships,” Caldwell said.

That includes a partnership with Community Speedway Charities, STEM education through motorsports with nearby schools and partnerships with non-profits.

Caldwell also pledged to pay event staff and regular worked $15.50 per hour.


RENOVATIONS UPDATES

Caldwell’s latest proposal also included updated renders on what a revitalized Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway could look like.

The SMI executive said the speedway has fallen into a state of disrepair over the past several decades and it only made sense to modernize it to align with its new neighbor — the new Major League Soccer stadium.

The new speedway design features a modern covered grandstand, an updated take on its current retro stylings, with a video screen on the backstretch, a new tunnel in Turns 3 to replace the one currently on the backstretch and sound mitigating barriers that extend around the racing surface.

The sound mitigation element has been an important part of this process in recent months, with the nearby neighborhood citing noise as a major nuisance in living next to a race track, albeit one that has promoted motorsport events since 1904.

“What we have heard in every public meeting is that this is very important,” Caldwell said. “We’ve heard this from Mayor (John) Cooper and various other city officials too.

“We have looked hard to find the best experts we could.”

Enter WJHW, Inc. chairman Jack Wrightson, who has worked with NASCAR at Daytona, Charlotte and Indianapolis, and other sporting venues like Wrigley Field in Chicago, which is also embedded in a neighborhood.

Wrightson and Caldwell detailed a provisional plan to build a concrete sound barrier around parts of the speedway but have not contracted a partner for such a project yet.

“The sound walls in the rendering are 20 feet,” Wrightson said. “In all the modeling we’ve done, we started at 20 feet. We’re looking at a combination of the extent of the wall, the height of the wall, which may vary as you go around the race track.”

The racing surface would also be repaved, the infield flattened, and an organizational building constructed next to pit entry in Turn 4.

HOW TO PAY FOR IT?

To pay for the renovations, Speedway Motorsports has pledged no additional racing events. Instead, SMI proposes earning a portion of a sales tax, a ‘three dollar range’ seat user fee for those who use the facility all year, rent , a million dollar naming rights sponsor for the facility and a partnership with the Nashville Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

To make up for the lost revenue from reduced track rental dates, SMI intends to promote the two concert events on the speedway property.

Commissioner Jason Bergeron pressed Caldwell on the costs, suggesting that he read that it would take levels of $61 million, $77 million or $91 million to get the speedway to reach the various intended standards, but Caldwell never confirmed any figure.

“There’s really as many figures as you want,” Caldwell said. “It’s Nashville’s facility. We’ve done some provisional modeling with the engineers on what that would look like, but we’ve started to bring those number down.”

Bergeron said that Caldwell would need to provide an actual number before a contract could be reached.

JASON BERGERON’S LINE OF QUESTIONING

Perennially the toughest Fair Board member on any promoter or prospective promoter of the speedway, and arguably an anti-speedway board member, Jason Bergeron peppered Caldwell with questions on Tuesday night.

It bordered on berating at times.

The questions ranged from follow-ups on sound mitigation, the cost of construction, naming rights, community engagement and pushing for a stance from Speedway Motorsports Inc. on a series of anti LGBTQ+ legislation working its way through the Tennessee political apparatus.

When Fair Board chairwoman Erin McAnally reminded Bergeron that Tuesday was for public comment and not for lengthy interrogations by the group of four, Bergeron pushed for more time.

“Chairwoman McAnally, I have so many more questions,” Bergeron said. “I would be happy to cut it off, but I have so many more questions for Mr. Caldwell, questions for the Mayor’s office, and what they’re doing, but I’d like the time to ask these questions if there’s more time later.”

Of the four Fair Board commissioners, Bergeron is expected to be the only ‘no’ vote.

Bergeron claims he wants to find a way to reach a deal with Speedway Motorsports, but had continually raised concerns about the timeline of reaching an agreement this summer without concrete sound mitigation information and financial figures.

“I will oppose it with every procedural means a commissioner can raise,” Bergeron said. “This timeline needs to radically change.”

Former chair board member and current fairgrounds lobbyist James Weaver said the timeline has followed the one detailed in the letter of intent signed by SMI and Mayor Cooper.

“With respect, the process set out by the letter of intent, is exactly what commissioner Bergeron is suggesting we do,” Weaver said. “I’m at a loss for why he’s unhappy other than he is just unhappy.

“The plan from the beginning is that we would present drafts, first to the fair board because it’s appropriate, and then go door-to-door to present that plan before it’s voted on.

“This is the process.”

When Bergeron voted to delay that process by a month, he was voted down by the three other commissioners.

PUBLIC COMMENT

To close out the public comment portion of the meeting both proponents and opponents of speedway renovation were given two minutes to speak.

One speaker said the noise from the track upsets her dogs and that there was no reason for NASCAR to return to Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway because there were five facilities that hosted NASCAR and Formula 1 within a 30-minute drive.

Of course, there is the new IndyCar event planned for downtown Nashville this summer and the new NASCAR Cup event at Nashville Superspeedway in Lebanon but no Formula 1 whatsoever.

“There are not enough details. This project has been in the works for over four years by Bristol’s own admission and we have very scant details,” a concerned neighborhood resident said.

That sentiment was echoed several times.

“I live a mile west of the racetrack, past I-65, and I’m still hearing them regularly,” another neighbor added.

On the other side, was NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip.

“I certainly have a vested interest in the Nashville Fairgrounds,” Waltrip said. “I ran my first race there in 1968. I’ve been coming down here a long time and there’s a couple of things that stick out.

“Marcus Smith, Bruton Smith, Jerry Caldwell, the SMI group, they don’t come any better that this. If they tell you they’re doing something, you can take it to the bank … They said you couldn’t light a superspeedway and they lighted Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“People said you couldn’t build condos on a race track, and they did. These people are visionaries. They do things for tracks and they do things for the communities.”

WHAT NEXT?

As of right now, a formal plan will likely be presented on June 8, which will come with additional public feedback from the nearby community. The current timeline calls for a resolution to come by July 12 when the contract will be considered and possibly voted upon.

When Speedway Motorsports entered into a letter of intent with the City of Nashville last month, it came with a provision that an agreement needs to be finalized by July 31 or either party can walk away from it.


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