A major step toward bringing NASCAR Cup Series racing back to Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway was taken Tuesday when the Metro Fair Board was presented with lease and development agreements between Metro and Bristol Motor Speedway to restore the historic racetrack.
The 118-year-old Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway is the second-oldest continuous operating track in the U.S. behind Indianapolis Motor Speedway and predates Nashville’s iconic Ryman Auditorium by one year, but it hasn’t hosted a NASCAR Cup Series race since 1984. There was a time between 1958 and 1984 when the track hosted two NASCAR Cup races each season.
Nashville Mayor John Cooper agreed in principle last December with Bristol Motor Speedway to overhaul Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.
Bristol Motor Speedway president and general manager Jerry Caldwell presented the proposal Tuesday. Butch Spyridon, CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., attended the meeting to support the proposal.
The proposed renovation, pending approval by the Fair Board, Metro Sports Authority and Metro Council, would enter Bristol Motor Speedway into a long-term contract to lease, manage and maintain Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.
The proposal would fund track renovations and ongoing maintenance, according to BMS officials, and would not require any investment from the city’s budget or obligation debt.
“We’re going to continue conversations with the Fair Board, we’re going to continue conversations with Metro Council and this is a big step in that process,” Caldwell said. “This is a big step in being able to revitalize that great venue and turn it into something that can not only save what is there, but make it better for the community as a whole, the racing community and the folks who live around it.”
The proposal would complete the reimagined Nashville Fairgrounds campus and transform the speedway facility into a year-round, multipurpose venue.
Nashville Fair Board chair Sheri Weiner said members of the board would be given time to review the deal and monitor public reaction before the board meets again in December.
“It is a long read,” Weiner said. “It is detailed, it answers lots of questions that we’ve had. I look forward to us having the opportunity to hear from the public once they’ve seen it and get this nailed down so that we exactly know what we’re working on, what we’re working with. And importantly what its impact is going to be on the neighbors and its impact on the tax payers.”
What’s the cost?
The proposed lease would be for 30 years. The project would be funded by an up-front contribution of $17 million by the State of Tennessee and a $17 million contribution from the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.
Metro Sports Authority would issue 30-year revenue bonds to finance the renovation. Revenue streams for debt service and facility maintenance include rent payments, taxes paid by venue patrons, sponsorship agreements and event revenue.
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Speedway Motors Sports Inc., the parent company of BMS, owns 11 NASCAR Cup Series tracks, including Nashville Superspeedway, home of the Ally 400 NASCAR Cup Series race, in Lebanon. Caldwell said the standard economic impact on a city with a NASCAR Cup Series race is $100 million annually.
He said the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp commissioned a study with Oxford Economics in London that estimated a NASCAR Cup race with other events held at the Fairgrounds venue would generate an estimated $200 million in annual economic impact for Nashville.
Proposed renovations include a rebuilt grandstand to seat approximately 30,000 spectators. Current capacity is 25,000.
The racing surface would also be renovated, including modernizing driver and spectator safety features.
Sound absorption features would be installed to reduce auto racing sounds by 50% over current conditions. BMS officials presented an analysis by the Texas-based acoustical engineering firm Wrightson, Johnson, Haddon & Williams, Inc., which stated reduction is achieved through construction modifications and muffler requirements for non-NASCAR motorsports events.
Caldwell told the Fair Board his company worked with 25 nearby neighborhood and community organizations, many of which had expressed concerns about the noise level that would be created by a renovated facility, as it developed the plan.
Additional multipurpose event facilities would also be built near the racetrack.
Along with a commitment from BMS to host NASCAR Cup races, event weekends including local racing would remain limited to 10 per year, the same as they are now.
Track rental dates would be reduced from the current level.
BMS would develop a calendar of non-racing events, including a partnership with the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., to host corporate events, festivals, concerts and other special events.
The Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp brought SRX racing and a national television audience to Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway the last two years and Spyridon said it was a mixed bag having the venue under such a large spotlight.
“It was both inspiring and embarrassing to bring the best drivers in the world to Nashville and to hear them rave about the history of this track, but have them see what the condition of this facility was like,” Spyridon said.
Former Fair Board member Jason Bergeron, a vocal critic of the deal, spoke after the presentation and questioned whether BMS could actually reduce the disruptive noise that comes from the track on race days, along with other concerns about how it would would impact the neighborhood.
“My biggest concern is making sure that the actual contracts hold (BMS) to real community impact limits,” Bergeron said. “And my biggest concern before that, is (BMS) guaranteeing the full bond debt like Nashville SC was required to? That’s the only way this deal is a fair deal for Nashville. If there is no full debt guarantee then the general fund, the tax payers are exposed. They’re on the hook.”
Bergeron is concerned more events would be added to the schedule if revenue falls short and have a greater impact on the local community.
Finishing the Fairgrounds
BMS officials pointed out renovations already have taken place at the Nashville Fairgrounds, and restoring the racetrack is the next natural step.
Recent renovations included construction of the Major League Soccer stadium Geodis Park, which serves as home to Nashville SC.
Three new expo facilities and a parking shed have also been built on the campus.
The Fair Board members will have the opportunity over the next two to three months to review the proposal and will likely host community feedback meetings where questions about the deal can be asked to BMS officials.
At the same time, Caldwell said BMS will start working with engineer and construction companies for bids to decide on a design for the facility and come up with what would be the final cost.
The goal is to have a cost established before the proposal goes before the 40-member Metro Council in 2023.
Reach Mike Organ at 615-259-8021 or on Twitter @MikeOrganWriter.