I was delighted to hear the recent news that racing is returning to the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway next week! The last race, the All American 400, was held all the way back in November. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, races — like so many other fun activities — have been repeatedly postponed. But Metro officials have given the green flag for a race next weekend. (The race was at first announced for June 27, but has since been moved back to the Fourth of July.)
The Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway is the second-oldest racetrack in operation today in the United States, and it has played host to many famous races and drivers. Established in 1904 as a dirt track, it hosted harness horse races, motorcycle races and “horseless carriage” races. The track was paved in 1958 and began to host NASCAR races, which continued through 1984. Later in the ’80s, late-model stock cars came along, bringing celebrity drivers like Bobby Allison, Jeff Green, Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt to our track. The Speedway has hosted the ARCA racing series, the Craftsman Truck Series, the Busch Series and others — it is also one of the rare half-mile tracks left in the world of stock-car racing. Little wonder it’s been reported that the track is one of five in the nation that race fans want NASCAR to bring back.
Many of us still have fond memories of attending the races at the Speedway with our families. In my case, you might even say it was a Freeman family tradition. The night air, the carnival-style food and the finely tuned engines enthralled us and made us fans.
The early 2000s brought more change to the Speedway, with many of the bigger races moving to the Nashville Superspeedway in Lebanon. A shifting race schedule left fans seeking their race entertainment elsewhere. The political fights over who would control the racetrack started to drive off the larger-name races, NASCAR included.
In 2017, Major League Soccer began looking for a home in Nashville for an expansion team — and they were looking to The Fairgrounds Nashville. At the same time that MLS was looking to improve the fairgrounds and proposing the added soccer stadium, there were still many decisions that needed to be made pertaining to the Speedway. Should it remain? Historic or not, how could it remain if there were no races large enough to draw in spectators?
Thankfully, we’ve had some very avid racing fans and advocates working with the city to try to preserve the Speedway. One of those advocates was former track promoter Tony Formosa, who in recent years met with Nashville city officials and NASCAR officials, even partnering with Speedway Motorsports with the common goal of bringing NASCAR-sanctioned events back to the track.
Though Formosa is no longer at The Fairgrounds Nashville, his dream for the Speedway to come back to life may soon come true. Bob Sargent of Track Enterprises, who previously promoted ARCA races at the Nashville track, has been awarded a one-year contract to promote races at the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway — and thus next weekend’s race kicking things off.
Sargent is also quite interested in improving the Speedway and seeing NASCAR return. He says he’s just waiting to see what will happen, as last spring Speedway Motorsports Inc. sent the mayor a $60 million proposal to renovate the Speedway, double the Speedway’s capacity to 30,000 and provide other upgrades. Nashville Soccer Club also presented plans for a 30,000-seat soccer stadium and development of the fairgrounds. Mayor Cooper wanted the two projects to work in parallel. To that end, Nashville SC developed plans to accommodate the soccer stadium while still allowing room for the Speedway proposal/plans to be successful. The Tennessean recorded Mayor Cooper saying he was “super interested” in getting NASCAR events back once again, and now that MLS has the ball rolling, the Speedway could soon be getting its due.
Mayor Cooper has patiently waited for the right parties to come to the table, and for the right situation. He can obviously see the economic driver — pun intended — that racing will be for Nashville, especially if NASCAR does indeed return.
To me, the July 4 race is a sign of good things to come. Though the environment may be slightly different this time as the new promoters work to implement the best health practices, they’ve also added a few upgrades — like new paint, a new sound system, lights, handrails and more — to ensure everyone has an enjoyable experience. Just seeing the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway recapturing a little of its former glory and holding these races, and knowing NASCAR still has an interest in Nashville, I can’t help but feel excited. I’m going to call my boys to see if they’re ready to go!
Bill Freeman is the owner of FW Publishing, the publishing company that produces the Nashville Scene, Nfocus, the Nashville Post and Home Page Media Group in Williamson County.