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Racing History Takes A Beating In Nashville

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, October 27 2009
Richard Petty gets ready to fire up his Plymouth for a race at Nashville's Fairgrounds Speedway in 1971. (Photo courtesy of Tammy Brewington)

Richard Petty gets ready to fire up his Plymouth for a race at Nashville's Fairgrounds Speedway in 1971. (Photo courtesy of Tammy Brewington)

Larry Woody | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Nashville – She was once fast and frisky and known throughout the nation for her wild Saturday nights, but now she’s faded, forlorn and almost forgotten.

After this weekend all that’ll be left are the memories.

Historic Fairgrounds Speedway is closing its gates, ending a 51-year-run as one of the most fabled short tracks in the sport’s history.

“It’ll be a sad occasion,” said track president Danny Denson who is operating the Nashville Metro-owned facility this season. “I imagine we’ll see a tear or two.”

Added Denson: “This old track is racing’s Ryman,” referring to the legendary downtown Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry. “Nashville is losing its history.”

City officials have decided to “re-develop” the 114 acres that the track sits on, giving up not only auto racing but also the annual State Fair, Christmas Village and other long-time entertainments.

Officials claim the events are not profitable, although Denson and others dispute that contention.

“We don’t receive any tax dollars so we can’t lose any taxpayer money, which is more than most city-owned facilities can claim,” he said.

But officials’ minds are made up. Nashville Mayor Karl Dean said the Fairgrounds will officially shut down June 30. Denson said there is no way he can operate for a half-season next year, which means Sunday’s All American 400 will the final race.

Included in the lineup are Ross Kenseth, 16-year-old son of NASCAR star Matt Kenseth, and Chase Elliott, 14-year-old son of popular Bill Elliott.

Denson noted that Nashville’s racing roots run deep.

“Nashville has a longer history in the sport than Indianapolis,” said. “But apparently history doesn’t count for anything any more.”

The first recorded race was run at the Fairgrounds in 1904 by the Nashville Automobile Club. Such notables as Barney Oldfield raced there, and in 1958 the paved five-eights-mile track was built.

Until 1984 the track hosted two annual Grand National (now Sprint Cup) races, and the giants of the sport trooped to Music City – Petty, Pearson, Baker, Allison, Wallace, Parsons, Yarborough, Elliott, Waltrip, Earnhardt …

The track provided training for such prominent future administrators as Eddie Gossage (Texas Motor Speedway president), Ed Clark (Atlanta Motor Speedway president) and Tom Roberts (PR service).

The Fairgrounds was the home-track proving ground for such rising NASCAR stars as Darrell Waltrip, Sterling Marlin, Bobby Hamilton and more than a dozen other area racers who went in to compete in the Cup series.

“No weekly track in the county has a richer history and tradition than this one,” Denson said. “Now it’s about over. It’s a sad day for Nashville and a sad day for racing.”

– Larry Woody can be reached at lwoody@racintoday.com

Editor’s Note: Larry Woody, a senior writer for racintoday.com, has been inducted into the Fairgrounds Speedway Hall of Fame.

Woody, 62, covered his first race at the track in the late 1960’s for The Nashville Tennessean. After college graduation and a tour in Vietnam as a combat infantryman he returned to the paper and spent 40 years traveling the country as a racing reporter and columnist. He retired from the newspaper two years ago, having received the McLemore Award as the nation’s premier motorsports journalist.

“I’m honored to be in the same Hall of Fame as Darrell Waltrip, Sterling and Coo Coo Marlin, Bobby Hamilton, Marty Robbins and so many other great Nashville drivers and racing personalities,” Woody said. “They weren’t just my story subjects – they were my good friends.

“After a half-century they’re closing the old track but they can never take away the memories. It’s been a heckuva ride.”

– Jim Pedley

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, October 27 2009
11 Comments

11 Comments »

  • Mike Davis says:

    ive been attending races here all my life starting in 1963, im 50 years old now and have so many wondeful memories and great times at this track. i feel like this track is part of me, part of my life. have met so many friends here and we would all gather down in turn one, sitting in the lower bleachers together. i sure am gonna miss this place. ive seen so many great races, who can forget the great finish with Darrell Waltrip and Bunkie Blackburn, and the 777 of the great Marty Robbins ( Devil Woman ). Coo Coo and Red Farmer, all the great battles they had here. Charlie Binkley tearing the fence down on the front stretch in the Permatex 300. so long Fairgrounds Speedway. we love you and will miss you greatly.

  • morton says:

    Robert Harmon is right the All American is a joke. Not a 400 lap race and only thing it has going for it, it is Nashville. It is sad to see a place like that close but when you operate a facility as good as Nashville like a 3rd rate track this is the end result. Sorry Folks just the truth.

  • I’m confused on what Mr. Harmon means when he says the 400 is now a joke. It’s certainly not a joke to those of us who are trying to keep this place afloat and the race alive. I’ve work here as the PR Manager since this past February and I can personally attest to the fact we’ve all given it a 1000000% effort and we’re not just rolling over playing dead…yet. We may lose it all, but we’ll go down fighting. It ain’t over yet…

    I knew and really like Mr. Bob Harmon and he was a great, great promoter, but I think Jesus Himself could be promoting this place now and it would do little good because we’re fighting against the government and all we have to rely on is our own ingenuity and some of the local press and few councilmen. So, I think our current promoter, Danny Denson, has done a fabulous job considering he and his partner have funded EVERY SINGLE DIME out of their pockets for the most part. We were given little time to secure any sponsors, so we’ve been solo over here all year. I think Danny should be commended for his effort…

  • ROBERT HARMON says:

    ITS A SSAME MY DAD BOB HARMON WAS HE WAS THE GRAND DADDY OF THE THE ALL AMERICAN 4OO WHEN IT WAS A REAL RACE AND NOT A JOKE. ILOVE RACING HATE TO SEE IT GO HAD MANY OF GOOD TIMES THERE .WITH MARK COLLIE CELERBERTY RACE IT WAS A BLAST THING I GUESS COME AND GO BUT IT WILL SURE BE MISSED LIKE UNCLE BOB HARMON ONE OF THE GREAT SHORT TRACK PROMOTERS OF ALL TIME . I WOULD JUST LIKE TO SAY THANKS TO ALL THE PEOPLE THAT HELP MY DAD GET WERE HE WAS I REALLY THANK YOU MR LARRY WOODY FOR BEING A FRIEND .

    • larry woody says:

      Robert, thanks. Your dad was a long-time friend and the last of the old-time racing promoters.
      If Bob Harmon were around today he might be able to solve a lot of NASCAR’s problems; he knew how to put fans in the seats.
      I miss Uncle Bob, just as I miss a lot of what used to make racing so much fun.
      All the best — LW

  • fighting mad says:

    ispent my whole life either sitting in the stands, working on a race car, or even owning a few race cars at that place. i along with a few thousand people have worked endless hours to get a car together just to show up and ENTERTAIN people whom work endless hours just to show up and watch, now let’s see, ENTERTAIN. isn’t that what the titans do, predators, sounds, vanderbilt, and the opry, i don’t understand how some elected official (ha) can just up and propose to shut us down out of the thousands of run down properties along the city of nashville. re-elect naw i don’t even think so. fight drugs, not the mayor, he wants to give the public a place to go smoke a fat one, well i will tell MAYOR D___. he better bulid another jail cause with the violence that will come out of this deal he will need the xtra space. drugs and drive-by’s, just building another project housing. these old country boys are not started with the fight. money don’t mean nothing. this is PERSONAL. i need an amen. cause its fixin to get dirty.

  • Wanda Williams says:

    I have been attending races at Fairgrounds Speedway since the late 1970’s. It will be a very sad day when the track closes, it is so much a part of Nashville history. But when you have a corporation like HCA interested in the property and a mayor who is not a race fan you just can’t win. Some people run for puplic office and once there they forget about the people who put them there. I was at the Fairgrounds every Saturday night this summer and they had a good crowd, and the drivers put on a good show for the crowd. Why is it that the Nashville Historic Society can’t do anything to help save the track. The try to save other things around the area some with not nearly as much history as the track. Or better yet we put Dean in office let us put the track up for public vote and let all the people have a say in what happens to it. The track has been here since 1904 and should in my opinion be on the Nashville Historic Registry. This track has been home to many great drivers and some second and third generations. It is so sad that it has to come to an end. I would also like to congratulate Mr Woody on his induction into the Hall of Fame. I also want to take this time and thank Danny Denson for a memorable 2009 season. The track will be missed but it will never be forgotten.

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  • Old Racer says:

    I do not live in the Nashville area, but I have attended the races there many times. It is a shame that politicians can manipulate things to serve their own agendas, as Mayor Dean is doing in this case. I hope the citizens of Nashville remember this at the next election.
    As for the track, I attended my first Grand National race there, as well as the last one before The Fairgrounds was dropped from the schedule, watching most of the greats in racing battle for the win. It will be a sad day when the last lap is run, but I will cling to my memories of The Fairgrounds for the rest of my life. God Bless you Mr. Woody, and congratulations on being selected to the Hall of Fame. I believe you deserve it more than anyone else, and have been a part of the Speedway for as long as I can remember. Farewell Fairgrounds, we’ll remember you always.

    • larry weakley says:

      Dear Larry, I cant begin to tell what todays news has done to me,being apart of The Fairgrounds Speedway, since i was a small boy,i saw my first race there in 1961,fell in love with the place.Im honored to be Gm of The Fairgrounds Speedway. Im very hurt over what this mayor and fairboard have done to this special place! Ive met so many great drivers and friends thru the years,im gonna dearly miss them all! Sundays race will be the worse day of my life! Mayor, You can take my race track but you cant take my memories! I love You Ole Girl!!!

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