NASCAR in Nashville? Speedway operator eyes new day for track – The Tennessean
Drivers who are competing in the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup tell us what it means to be a champion.
Backed by three prominent Nashville businessmen with long ties to racing, promoter Tony Formosa is pushing Metro to give him a long-term contract to operate the Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville, which he said will help return the facility to its former glory.
Formosa has owned the contract to operate and promote races at the fairgrounds since 2010, but other than one two-year deal, he’s been on year-to-year contracts. He said the time is right for a long-term agreement, which would allow him to put money into upgrades and ramp up efforts to bring back NASCAR-sanctioned races to Nashville.
His plan comes with the endorsements of music mogul Scott Borchetta — who has co-owned professional racing teams for many years and is a former champion at the racetrack — along with NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip and real estate executive Bill Freeman.
The three businessmen say Formosa deserves credit for promoting the track under less than ideal circumstances and that they would financially back his plans at the track should he secure a long-term deal.
Borchetta, Waltrip and Freeman have supported Formosa through advertising dollars in recent years. Formosa’s family has been involved in racing at the fairgrounds since the track’s inception in 1958.
“If you have a broken down old house and the wood’s rotten on it, and the foundation’s kind of crooked on it, the best thing you can do is keep it nice and clean and keep a fresh coat of paint on it,” Formosa said. “So that’s what we try to do. I honestly feel like — I’m positive of this — if there were some major improvements to the speedway it would improve the attendance.”
Formosa listed a series of upgrades he says the racetrack needs — from new safety walls to cosmetic improvements such as bathroom upgrades. His plan at this stage is light on details and doesn’t have a price tag for the possible improvements. Formosa’s team is in the final stages of completing a response to Metro’s request for proposals for a new operator, which would answer some of those questions.
Metro has already committed $15 million in capital dollars to upgrade the fairgrounds, some of which will go to improvements to the racetrack’s grandstands. Metro has extended the deadline for responses twice, most recently moving the deadline from May 3 to June 6.
Mayor Megan Barry said earlier this year that “for too long we have held back the chances for racing to be successful by limiting the term of the contract.” Metro’s request for proposals states that a longer contract period may be necessary and asks applicants to propose a contract term and explanation for anything greater than five years.
Earlier this year, Barry identified the fairgrounds as her preferred location for constructing a professional soccer stadium for Major League Soccer. A group of businessmen led by John Ingram is pursuing bringing an MLS franchise to Music City.
Formosa said it may take at least a 7- or 10-year deal to lure NASCAR back to the track. NASCAR’s top racing series left Nashville in 1984. Formosa said he’s spoken to NASCAR officials about a return to Nashville at least twice over the last four years.
He said the fairgrounds’ short 5/8-mile track appeals to fans and could be a good fit for a lower-level NASCAR race.
“But they book at least three years out and anything less than that (in terms of a contract length) won’t do anything,” Formosa said.
In a statement released through a spokesman, NASCAR acknowledged it has had discussions about bringing a lower-level series to Nashville.
“NASCAR has a long history in the Nashville area and our fans there are as passionate as any place we race,” the organization said in its statement. “NASCAR races are in demand, and we’re pleased with our current lineup of racetracks. Many of the discussions related to racing in Nashville have centered around the popular regional and touring series events.”
The support of Borchetta, Waltrip and Freeman will no doubt be noteworthy to Metro officials, including the board of directors for the fairgrounds, which will vote on the new contract. Borchetta is the co-founder and CEO at Big Machine Music Group. He’s co-owned racing teams and enjoyed a championship career as a driver at the Nashville track.
Waltrip, whose path to racing stardom began in Nashville, is one of the most accomplished drivers in NASCAR history. Freeman, who ran against Barry for mayor in 2015, and his real estate company Freeman Webb have been long-time sponsors at the track.
After previous Mayor Karl Dean’s effort to redevelop the fairgrounds failed in 2011, Davidson County voters passed a referendum later that year to effectively preserve racing, the flea market and other events at the 117-acre property south of downtown.
“He’s done an incredible job keeping this place going through political battles and everything else,” Waltrip said.
Freeman added that a one-year deal will prevent the racetrack from achieving its potential, because it doesn’t make sense for a track operator to commit capital dollars if they won’t be able to enjoy the financial rewards. The city’s contract allows for an unspecified split on revenue generated from racing.
“What we’re hopeful is we get a longer term lease and let Tony make the improvements and improve the track for the fans and the city,” Freeman said.
Borchetta’s company has been a sponsor for many years, most recently serving as the naming rights backer of Big Machine Family Day on April 2 at the fairgrounds.
“Tony is a great, innate promoter,” he said. “He knows how to put people in the stands here. If you look at where the track was, where attendance was, what the car count was in comparison to now, it’s night and day.
“When I came to Tony originally I had a very specific mission and idea, and we bought into it together. And we’ve got one of the best series in the Southeast. To do what he’s done with a 1-year lease is extraordinary. So now it’s time to invest back in Tony and his family and let them show Nashville what they can do.”
Fair board chairman Ned Horton agreed that a longer term lease would be logical for a group wanting to put money into upgrading the facility. Horton said he didn’t want to comment on any potential response to the request for proposal that is outstanding, but added that he thinks Formosa has done a good job.
“Personally I think we’ve had a positive relationship with Tony,” Horton said. “I don’t have much to add beyond that. I’m not an expert in the racing business or what the opportunities are there. He’s very passionate and stepped in when other weren’t willing to. But as far as commenting on his business operation, I don’t really have input there.”
The fairgrounds short track is the second oldest automobile racetrack in the country, and the property has held car races there since 1904, according to background information in Metro’s request for bids.
Reach Nate Rau at 615-259-8094 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tnnaterau.