Neighbors Debate Racing Proposal at Contentious Hearing

Metro officials are continuing to consider teaming up with the owners of Bristol Motor Speedway with the goal of potentially bringing a NASCAR Cup Series race back to the Fairgrounds Speedway. But neighbors who attended a public hearing Tuesday expressed concerns about racing’s noise, traffic and other effects on the neighborhood south of downtown.

The public hearing before the Board of Fair Commissioners did not result in any decisions by the body that oversees the fairgrounds. But Mayor John Cooper is pushing an agreement with Speedway Motorsports Inc. — the Bristol owners — that could result in SMI paying $1 million to the city annually in rent while seeking to lure a top-tier race back to the track, which last hosted one in the 1980s. The agreement could initially last 10 years, with five-year extensions to extend the agreement as long as 30 years.

Dozens of members of the public spoke at the hearing at the Music City Center on Tuesday. Many of those who spoke in support of the proposed deal and the future of racing at the speedway said they were involved with racing at the century-old track but lived outside the neighborhood and county, while many of those who voiced opposition to racing at the track said they lived within blocks of the fairgrounds.

Ben Eagles, an adviser to the mayor, said the deal with the Bristol owners would “turn the speedway into a revenue generator and restore the track to its former glory.”

Racing already takes place at the track, as it has for generations and as is required by the Metro Charter, though the mayor and Bristol are seeking to improve the track and bring higher-profile races to the speedway. Some residents of the fairgrounds neighborhood said existing races, mostly local and regional operations, are already too loud and disruptive and that an upgrade to more popular NASCAR races would make the situation worse. But a large group of racing advocates backed the proposal.

Jerry Caldwell, general manager at Bristol, told the fair board that tentative plans would include 10 racing weekends — the same number as in recent years — but four of those weekends could welcome maximum-capacity crowds larger than those attracted by the current races. The company could also plan concerts and other events at the track under the proposed agreement.

The Tennessee General Assembly recently approved legislation that would allow the diversion of some tax proceeds from the facility to be spent on upgrades to the track, which Bristol officials said would be necessary to operate larger races there. That would include an expansion of the grandstands and the addition of sound barriers.

Caldwell said upgrading the track would be “the last piece of the puzzle to make the entire fairgrounds property a community asset.” New facilities are set to welcome the Nashville Flea Market back to the site in the coming weeks for the first time since COVID-19 shut down the monthly markets, and a stadium for Nashville’s Major League Soccer franchise is under construction on the property. A development plan also includes phase two of a park at the fairgrounds.

James Weaver, a local attorney working with Bristol, said negotiations are still underway and that further details would be provided later this month for possible votes by both the fair board and the Metro Council this summer. Some on the fair board expressed concern at the speed of the process — especially Vice Chair Jason Bergeron, who called the timeline “completely out of order” and asked for more details and more community feedback before any draft contracts are presented.

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