Woody: Is NASCAR Dead In Nashville?
By Larry Woody | Senior Writer
NASCAR pioneer Gary Baker once described Nashville as “Daytona without the beach.”
With its rich country-music base, Nashville and NASCAR went together like biscuits and gravy. But in recent years the biscuits have crumbled away – country music’s not country any more – and the racing gravy has curdled and dried up.
Nashville Superspeedway, the gleaming track located 35 miles out of town in the suburbs, has ceased operation. After opening a decade ago amid hoopla and high hopes, the track failed to draw, and last August owner Dover Motorsports pulled the plug.
The track was racing’s field of dreams – except that after they built it they didn’t come.
At the same time, venerable old Fairgrounds Speedway, located in the inter-city, is wheezing on life support. It wobbled through its 54th season this summer, and is scheduled to run a handful of local races in 2012. After that, its future is in limbo.
“It’s sad to see the state of racing in Nashville, especially for those of us who witnessed it in its hey-day,” says Baker, who at one time operated Fairgrounds Speedway and owned and operated Bristol Motor Speedway.
“When you think about the racing potential this city had, and how it was all thrown way, it breaks your heart. At one time Nashville was a ‘destination city’ for race fans. Now all of that promise is gone.”
Through 1984 the Fairgrounds track hosted two annual sold-out NASCAR Cup races, drawing the greatest drivers in the sport. But in 1984 the city-owned track became bogged down in management problems and NASCAR – already looking for new venues at more modern facilities – pulled Nashville’s two Cup races at the end of the season.
NASCAR didn’t entirely abandon Music City and its enormous fan base (consistently ranking in the nations’ Top 10 TV markets). It sanctioned some lower-tier races at the Fairgrounds, which also hosted the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series for local-division racing. And when Dover built the Superspeedway, NASCAR promptly awarded the track a race in the Nationwide Series and truck series (and eventually two of each every season). Fans held out hope for a Cup race, but as those hope faded with each passing year, so did attendance for the lower-level events.
Today’s Nashville sports scene is dominated by the NFL’s Titans and to a lesser degree the NHL’s Predators. NASCAR has blinked out, like a neon sign at closing time.
No track graduated more drivers to NASCAR’s big leagues than the old Fairgrounds: Coo Coo Marlin, Darrell Waltrip, Marty Robbins, Smut Means, David Sisco, Sterling Marlin, Bobby Hamilton Sr., Jeff Green, Jeremy Mayfield, Jeff Purvis, Chad Chaffin, Casey Atwood … and the list goes on. Ageless Red Farmer was born down the street from the track.
And not just drivers; some of the sport’s future top executives also got their start at Nashville: Atlanta
Motor Speedway president Ed Clark, Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage, and such PR gurus as Tom Roberts and Joe Carver. Also Music City was home to popular NASCAR flagman Doyle Ford and technical inspector Walter Wallace.
Nashville was producing stock car drivers before NASCAR was born. “Bullet Bob” Reuther and “Preacher” Hamilton (Bobby’s grandfather) were racing long before Bill France Sr. convened his famous 1946 meeting at Daytona’s Skyline Hotel. The colorful Reuther went on to race on France’s beach course.
Nobody epitomized the harmony of NASCAR and country music like Marty Robbins. He competed periodically in the Cup series – driving “Devil Woman,” his famous purple-and-yellow car – as well as in the Fairgrounds’ Saturday night fender benders. One night a race was delayed by caution after caution and finally Marty came roaring into the pits and began to unbuckle his helmet. Preacher Hamilton, his crew chief, rushed over and asked what was wrong with the car.
“Nothing’s wrong with the car,” said Marty, “but we’re runnin’ late and I’ve gotta get to the Ryman to play the final set on the Opry.”
Country music stars were commonplace on pit road and race drivers hung out backstage at the Opry.
In the old days Nashville was a favorite stop on the circuit for many drivers. Richard Childress and Dale Earnhardt had a particularly huge following and were always treated to supper and spirits at a Music City hangout during each visit.
Nashville promoter Jimbo Donoho produced a record, “NASCAR Goes County,” featuring songs by Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip and Buddy Baker. A photo of the racing rivals gathered around a microphone in a Music Row recording studio is a classic.
Those were giddy days, glory days, fun days, and now they’re over. The Cup races are long gone and even NASCAR’s second- and third-tier races appear lost. (Dover says it is keeping its “options open” regarding the future of Nashville Superspeedway, but it’s doubtful that the gates will ever re-open.)
The hum of NASCAR engines, for decades as integral a sound in Nashville as the twang of guitars, has fallen silent, perhaps forever. The racing music has died in Music City.
– Larry Woody can be reached at email@example.com Comments