NASCAR wrote an age-old melody in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s one
you’ve certainly heard, the one about heartache and redemption, conflict and resolution.
You can hear it now: You were mine and we had it good until you found somebody new,
and left something good for better-looking and more refined. Then I got myself together
and put the shine on, and other people started courting me, and here you come
a’runnin’ back. We were always good together, weren’t we?
You’ve heard that one, right?
Well, NASCAR is living it. The NASCAR Cup Series left Music City in July 1984, found
sweeter, bigger, and in some cases, more refined, markets. The sport exploded. And
with the growth, former partners like Nashville, Wilkesboro, NC and Rockingham, NC
fell by the wayside.
But Nashville shaped up, kept its overalls and Red Wings and banjos, and added some
tailored suits and Lucchese boots and telecasters. Honkytonk truth blossomed and
surged to the top of the charts among America’s fastest-growing cities. And in 2021,
NASCAR staged the best comeback Nashville has seen since Johnny Cash.
In 2022 the city was electrified by the sport. I was there all week and attended several
scheduled events, and the energy was palpable. It’s a long gone melody reborn. It
sounds like open throttles and cash registers. (That sentence was for those of you old
enough to recall when throaty carbureted motors ruled the road and bills and change
dug from linty Wrangler pockets rung the registers.)
NASCAR has momentum overall, an industry-wide resurgence evident since the
season’s dawn at Daytona back in February. In markets like Nashville that have been
underserved in the past couple decades, that sense of rebirth is especially noticeable. I
cannot wait to see what happens in Wilkesboro in the next couple years.
NASCAR and Nashville were born for each other. Southern culture that has evolved.
The fact that there were so many years — decades! — without Cup Series racing in
Music City is ridiculous and difficult to understand unless you know the sport’s previous
When the Superspeedway was built, in 2001, it was owned by Dover Downs — not
International Speedway Corp. or Speedway Motorsports, the two dominate track
ownership groups in Cup racing. Therefore NASCAR never felt terribly incentivized to
offer them a Cup date — and didn’t.
Yes, NASCAR threw Nashville Superspeedway a morsel to find its way home, offering
multiple Busch Series and Truck Series events to decent crowds. But the big boys
stayed away. If you attend a concert, you appreciate the opener and their body of work
and maybe their potential.
But you paid to see the headliner. Cup is NASCAR’s headliner.
Back then, as well, the sport’s leadership was adamant to keep the season schedule
traditional, and rarely altered race dates from year-to-year. In fact, we rarely ever heard
about track movement unless a new facility opened, such as Las Vegas Motor
Speedway or California Speedway.
So until NASCAR president Steve Phelps and EVP Steve O’Donnell, and SMI
president/CEO Marcus Smith and several other integral folks currently leading the
NASCAR industry decided to aggressively plug back in to history and tradition, and
more traditional markets, I didn’t think they’d go back. NASCAR worked in concert with
the Nashville Superspeedway ownership group at the time, Dover Downs, to move a
date to Nashville. (Speedway Motorsports now owns the facility).
I’m so glad they did. At this point, this much is clear: NASCAR will go to whatever
markets they believe will grow the sport long-term. Nashville is Exhibit A. The city even
hosts NASCAR’s season-ending awards ceremony now — as it should.
Prior to June 2021, the NASCAR Cup Series had not raced in the Nashville market
since July 14, 1984 — the final Cup race ever at Nashville Fairgrounds, won by Geoff
Bodine. Thirty-seven years. Crazy.
The race drivers, teams and sponsors and media — everybody! — love the Nashville
market, one of the burgeoning business and commercial real estate landscapes in
America. Hotels popping up in and around downtown like wack-a-mole. And they’re full.
I stayed at the SoHo House last week. It is a brand new, stunning facility, adapted from
an old hosiery mill. It is the nicest hotel room I’ve ever had. Anywhere. The ceiling was a
hardwood floor. Broadway is buzzing. Figurately and literally. Neighborhoods peripheral
to downtown are expanding rapidly.
But there’s an interesting dynamic at play, here. The Superspeedway is out in Lebanon,
about 30 minutes outside of downtown. The Fairgrounds are just across I-40 from the
Gulch, one of those fancy new exploding Nashville neighborhoods. And Fairgrounds
Speedway is a short track, where legends were born and confirmed.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., for one, told me he believes the Fairgrounds and the
Superspeedway can coexist. But he wants the sport to race at the Fairgrounds more
than anywhere in the country. And he’s not alone. Here is Sunday’s Ally 400 winner
Chase Elliott, the son of a Fairgrounds winner, in his post victory press conference:
“Look, I wish we were at the fairgrounds, but I’m glad we’re at least in the market, “ Elliott
said. “This is a cool town. It’s a great place to be. It’s a great place to race. It’s a town that I
think embraces us, and we embrace the people that are here, and they stuck it out.
“ I didn’t think the race was terrible tonight. At least we could get up off the bottom and
move around, which I thought was encouraging. It was way more racy than I thought it
would be. But it still doesn’t mean I prefer this over the Fairgrounds, and what that could be.
“I don’t want people to get a sour taste about that. It’s just that racetrack and the history of
that racetrack and its location is just something that we’re never going to replicate again.”
Nashville Superspeedway president Erik Moses and his staff are doing a really good job.
They took a deceased racetrack and put the paddles to it, got their hands dirty and put on a
really good show Sunday, despite unfair weather obstacles. But racers want more short
tracks. They want to feel history-injected speed and short track physicality course through
their veins. They want to say they won where their heroes won. Where their dads won. And
again: Nashville Fairgrounds is center-city in a rocket-boosted market, a rarity in Cup
racing, says Elliott.
“For the most part all these facilities that we have are 45 minutes to an hour outside
whatever said market is we’re trying to reach,” Elliott continued. “If it’s Michigan or here or
Atlanta is 30, 45 minutes south of the city.
“All these places we go, Homestead is an hour outside Miami. All these places we go you’re
drawing from an area that is 45 minutes to an hour away. With the fairgrounds you’d be
drawing from an area that is 15 blocks away or so.
“Correct me if I’m wrong on that, but it’s a hell of a lot closer than it is here, and that’s just
not something that in today’s society, you’re never going to build a racetrack in a city like
that again. That’s why I think as an industry we need to take advantage of that. We don’t
need to let that place die.”
Elliott is not wrong. There’s a brand new soccer stadium at the Fairgrounds. There is new
infrastructure in and around the Gulch area of the city, just 15 minutes from the
Fairgrounds. Traffic flow can be devised and honed, but obstacles remain, such as noise
frustrations for nearby residents. I’d have to imagine that if NASCAR committed to racing
the Cup Series at the Fairgrounds, some concessions might be made.
Nashville Fairgrounds is “too good of a place, too good of an opportunity for us to not be
utilizing that in my opinion,” Elliott said. “I think it would be the best location and best event
of the year if they could pull that off.”
So it appears NASCAR is here to stay in Music City. More hits remain to be written.
The question is, where?