The Race is On

Will the fate of the Nashville Fairgrounds and its speedway be determined in part by their musical roots? [From the September/October issue of Nashville Post magazine]

The links between country music and auto racing go beyond the superficial. Yes, both are largely rural, southern cultural constructs, and yes, they share similar fan bases because of those roots. And both exploded into the national zeitgeist at roughly the same time in the 1990s.

But the ties are deeper and more personal than that, too. Country icon Marty Robbins famously raced cars – and owned Bob Reuther’s team when the Bullet won Nashville's first track championship. In recent years, high-powered music executives including Curb Records’ founder Mike Curb and Big Machine Records’ founder Scott Borchetta have started auto racing teams.

But the place where those links are most real – Nashville’s fairgrounds speedway – is in danger of becoming a memory.

Metro Nashville sees the Nolensville Pike/Eighth Avenue corridor as the city’s newest growth hot spot. Long-dominated by the Fairgrounds and its speedway – these days, officially called the Music City Motorplex – the thoroughfare is spotted with pawn shops, tattoo parlors, used car lots and, in recent years, scores of grocery stores and other retailers catering to Nashville’s Hispanic and Kurdish communities.

But where some may see a manifestation of Nashville's immigration melting pot, Metro Nashville Mayor Karl Dean sees an opportunity to build and adorn a southern gateway to the city.

Step one: Find a new use for the fairgrounds itself. By all accounts, this year’s edition of the Tennessee State Fair was the last at the old site as Metro takes over the property at the end of 2010. Other fairgrounds events – the monthly flea markets, the popular Christmas Village and the gun shows, for example – will have to find new homes.

And Metro has to figure out what to do with the property other than “something else.” A series of brainstorming sessions led by the Nashville Civic Design Center seems to be the first step in what design and development types call “the re-visioning process.” A report summarizing the task force’s findings was set to be released at press time. Results from those sessions are expected later this year.

So, as yet, there’s no set plan for the future of the fairgrounds – though, from a business perspective, clearly some kind of mixed-use development with Class A office space could help draw corporate headquarters projects that have, in the past decade, headed farther south to Cool Springs and Williamson County. Those relocations were so proliferate that now Cool Springs appears to be “full.”

That’s a fine project – one that is supposedly the preference of Nashville’s power elite – but that still leaves the unanswered question of what to do with the race track, which is technically owned by the city, but leased to private individuals.

Former track operator Danny Denson let his contract run out and unceremoniously “closed” the track by canceling the last scheduled race in 2009. It was largely seen as the death knell for the oval, but Nashville racing fixture Tony Formosa Jr. stepped in to take over operations for 2010, promising to fight for continued racing there.

It's a valiant fight to grab hold of Nashville – and racing – history and not let go. Racing in some form or another has been held on the grounds since the 19th century, when the competitors rode horses, not hot rods. Nashville was a stop on NASCAR's top circuit for years – with the big race earning the winner a guitar, a tradition that continues at the newer Nashville Superspeedway in Wilson County. Many of racing's legendary families have circled the oval for decades – Waltrips, Marlins and Hamiltons.

Despite this and pleas from racing legends like Darrell Waltrip and Sterling Marlin, it is  unlikely racing will continue at the fairgrounds for much longer, even though Formosa says that’s the best use of the track property.

“I believe in my heart that it’s not over and I believe that we can bring it back,” he said.

And the effort has earned attention from outside the typical Nashville racing royalty. Dale Earnhardt Jr., in town to film a commercial in August, said he was willing to put some muscle – and maybe even some laps – behind Formosa's fight. He said he'd even get behind a special, fundraising race to boost attendance and dollars.

A prior NASCAR commitment prevented Earnhardt from racing in Nashville in early September. But a one-off race was no guarantee of any long-term stability for the track anyway.

Gentrification in the area has brought the in-movers, who are more apt to complain about the noise that is de rigueur at race tracks. And it’s unlikely companies such as HCA would put a multi-million dollar headquarters behind a racetrack. City and development officials will have a hard time selling any kind of high-dollar project adjacent to a 50-year-old concrete oval – even one with such a storied history.

If the track’s racing history can’t save it from being the plot of “just another“ piece of office space, maybe its music history can.

The fairgrounds speedway was the setting of what eventually became Fan Fair – which eventually turned into the CMA Festival behemoth. Up-and-comers and established stars performed on the infield. Even Robert Altman’s 1975 film Nashville shows characters watching a race – being held simultaneously with a concert.

Music Row insiders say turning the property into a music venue is an idea worth vetting. After all, since the closure of Starwood Amphitheater, the Nashville area has lacked a large-scale outdoor performance space. But though a music-based solution has been thrown out at public meetings, proponents are just having a hard time convincing anyone to listen.

Nonetheless, it’s an idea that promises to stay in the forefront of upcoming considerations. During the Nashville Civic Design Center-led visioning sessions for the future of the fairgrounds, participants named “music venue” as the thing they’d most like to be included in the new look.

The mayor’s office is mum on any ideas for the future of the race track – and likely will remain so until the touchy-feely “visioning sessions” are complete. With the state fair – and racing – on pace to continue this year, little can be done on the tract – or to the track – until the end of the year.

“The hope is after these meetings are over, to start looking at the master plan process and really hone in and specify the uses for this property moving forward,” says Alexia Poe, Metro Nashville economic development director, who is spearheading the fairgrounds project for the mayor’s office.

If ripping up a century of Nashville leisure history is necessary for the city to take a great leap forward, the powers-that-be would be wise to look back and see the race track as a piece of music history – and a new venue as a vehicle to keep what will likely be the flagship project of South Nashville from becoming just another anonymous office park.