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Clutch issues delay Sterling Marlin’s racing return

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Four months after undergoing a third brain surgery in his battle with Parkinson’s Disease, former NASCAR Cup star Sterling Marlin’s return to racing was postponed last weekend due to mechanical issues with his car.

According to The Tennessean newspaper, Marlin, 62, was slated to compete in a pro late model race at his home track, Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville. However, issues with his No. 14 race car’s clutch prompted Marlin to withdraw from the event.

The two-time Daytona 500 champion took to social media to tell his fans what happened, as well as promising to be back “soon”

The news was disappointing for Marlin and his team, particularly since earlier Saturday he tweeted a photo of his race car to Dale Earnhardt Jr. as Marlin prepared for that evening’s event.

According to The Tennessean, Marlin “needs two more victories to become the winningest driver at the Fairgrounds.”

Also, according to the Fairgrounds’ web site, the next race there is August 10.

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Friday 5: The tale of two comments and one fine

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What’s the difference between these comments?

Denny Hamlin after the March 3, 2013, Phoenix race: “I don’t want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars. This is more like what the generation five was at the beginning. The teams hadn’t figured out how to get the aero balance right. Right now, you just run single-file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you. You would have placed me in 20th-place with 30 (laps) to go, I would have stayed there — I wouldn’t have moved up. It’s just one of those things where track position is everything.”

Kyle Busch after Monday’s race at Dover on the package for the cars: “It’s terrible. All I can do is bitch about it and fall on deaf ears and we’ll come back with the same thing in the fall.”

NASCAR fined Hamlin $25,000 for his comments.

NASCAR explained the reason for the fine by stating: “Denny Hamlin made some disparaging remarks about the on-track racing that had taken place that afternoon. While NASCAR gives its competitors ample leeway in voicing their opinions when it comes to a wide range of aspects about the sport, the sanctioning body will not tolerate publicly made comments by its drivers that denigrate the racing product.”

Six years later, NASCAR said this week that it would not fine Busch for his comments after the Dover race. Busch said this week that he was not surprised NASCAR decided against fining him for his comments because “I’m not sure I said anything wrong.”

But don’t try to dissect the comments. That’s not the place to look in examining why one driver was fined and another was not.

NASCAR’s reaction to Busch’s comments shows a calmer approach. That’s a difference between Jim France, who is now the sport’s CEO, and Brian France, who was the CEO when Hamlin was fined.

Brian France often used a simple example to explain his reasoning for fining drivers for comments, saying in November 2011: “If I own a restaurant and I say you know what, the food in my restaurant is not very good, we’re not going to accept it. It’s as simple as that.”

With that as a key component, NASCAR issued secret fines to Hamlin, Ryan Newman and Brad Keselowski for comments and actions.

When public pressure grew for NASCAR to do away with secret fines, Brian France said in January 2012 that the sanctioning body would still react to driver comments.

“If you challenge the integrity of the sport, we’re going to deal with that,” Brian France said then. “You know, we have to deal with that. And I think what’s really interesting is I can’t tell you how many owners or drivers come up to me and say thanks for doing that because some of these comments were irresponsible and unhelpful to growing the sport.”

If drivers can’t pass, they’re going to be frustrated. Some drivers noted how winner Martin Truex Jr. had the best car at Dover but it took him 240 laps to get to the front.

Truex took the lead for good with 53 laps to go. The same car that struggled in traffic — “It was definitely really hard to pass,” he said — then drove away from the field, winning by 9.5 seconds.

While the package has improved the racing at some tracks, it’s not perfect every place. The key is making changes for tracks where the package isn’t as effective.

With car owners facing additional costs with the Gen 7 car’s projected debut in 2021, they likely will be hesitant to be in favor of any expensive midseason changes. It’s 21 months until February 2021. With many details to be worked out with the new car, the question is what can NASCAR do to allow drivers to show more of their skill? If NASCAR can’t find a solution, how much longer will they allow drivers to speak up about the package?

2. Is time running out for NASCAR to go to Nashville in 2021?

In December, Formosa Productions, which promotes races at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee, and Bristol Motor Speedway reached an agreement to “explore bringing major NASCAR racing events” back to the .596-mile track.

Nearly six months later, work remains.

An issue is getting an agreement done with the city by next spring when NASCAR is expected to announce the 2021 schedules. NASCAR announced the 2020 Xfinity and Gander Truck Series schedules April 4, 2019. If NASCAR aims for a similar target date, that would leave 11 months to get a deal complete.

If more time was needed, NASCAR might be able to delay the 2021 Xfinity and Truck schedules. The 2019 schedules for both series were not released until June 13, 2018. Either way, time is ticking.

“Days, weeks and months go by quickly when you’re not really paying attention to it,” Marcus Smith, president and chief executive officer of Speedway Motorsports, said. “However, it’s very possible things can get put on the right track and move along very swiftly and that’s certainly our interest.”

He says conversations are ongoing.

I think the most important part is we’ve got a strong interest and it seems like in general there is a big interest in the people we’re talking with,” Smith said.

A few issues facing an effort to get on the 2021 schedule:

Nashville elections, including for mayor, are Aug. 12. There are multiple candidates for mayor and should a runoff election be needed, it would be held Sept. 12.

Smith notes that Fairgrounds Speedway “needs some TLC.” So far a financing plan has not been finalized.

Also, the Metro Board of Fair Commissioners raised issues in its April meeting about SMI’s involvement.

While the Tennessean had reported that SMI/Bristol Motor Speedway officials have met with Mayor David Briley and his administration, the Fair Board — which oversees the track — has not had any contact.

“I think there has sort of been a transparency problem here,” said fair board member Jason Bergeron at the April meeting. “It’s been eight months and we haven’t heard any details. … It’s a little frustrating. We have no concrete proposal and there’s been no real engagement with the community.”

He later said: “I think SMI needs to bring a real proposal to the table.”

The agenda for the May 14 Fair Commission Board meeting includes a “presentation by Speedway Motorsports Inc.”

3. A new test

Cup teams return to a 1.5-mile speedway this weekend for the first time in more than a month.

Denny Hamlin won at Texas on March 31 in the most recent race at a 1.5-mile speedway. That race also saw Hendrick Motorsports lead 110 of 334 laps between Jimmie Johnson (60 laps led), Chase Elliott (35) and William Byron (15). Johnson finished fifth, Byron sixth and Elliott 13th.

Stewart-Haas Racing, which is winless this year after winning a series-high 12 races last year, placed all four of its cars in the top 10 at Texas: Clint Bowyer was second, Daniel Suarez placed third, Aric Almirola was seventh and Kevin Harvick finished eighth.

Almirola is excited to see where his team stands this weekend at Kansas Speedway.

“We’ve built new race cars going to Kansas,” Almirola said. “We built new race cars going to Texas, which I thought were in the game. We were competitive, we led some laps and challenged to lead the race at the end.

“We were in the right direction with our race cars and then we’ve taken another step in going to Kansas. Just continuing to evolve our mile-and-a-half program. Having a month off has really allowed us to kind of take as step back, go through lot of data, look at a lot of different things and build these race cars.”

4. Record streak

No, we’re not talking about Kyle Busch tying Morgan Shepherd for the most consecutive top-10 finishes in a row at 11, but what Ross Chastain has done this year.

Ross Chastain has competed in every Cup, Xfinity and Truck race this season. Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Chastain has started every Cup, Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series race. That’s 27 consecutive races and it will grow this weekend with Chastain entered in both the Truck and Cup races at Kansas Speedway.

Chastain is one of three drivers to have started more than 16 consecutive races in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks to start the season. Chastain ranks No. 1 on the list.

Kyle Busch is next. Busch started the first 22 races in the 2008 season and started the first 20 races in the 2009 season. Rick Mast started the first 16 races in the 1989 season.

5. Looks familiar

In 2017, Martin Truex Jr. had two wins, three top-five finishes, seven top-10 finishes, led 536 laps and had an average finish of 10.5 after 11 races.

This year, Truex has scored two wins, four top-five finishes, seven top-10 finishes, led 343 laps and has an average finish of 10.3 after 11 races.

Truex went on to win the title in 2017. While it’s too early to forecast anything like that this year, his start in his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing should not go unnoticed, especially heading to Kansas. He has four consecutive top-five finishes there. He won both races there in 2017, finished runner-up in the May 2018 race and placed fifth in last year’s playoff race.

Nashville Fairgrounds promoters respond to claims of contract breach

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Last week Claire Formosa, the VP of Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville, and a lawyer representing Formosa Productions pushed back against allegations made by the Nashville Board of Fair Commissioners that the company had breached its contract to run the track.

On April 8, the Fair Board commission sent a letter to the Formosas informing them that it was exercising a breach clause in their contract over two items: the track breaking its designated curfew of 7 p.m. on a school night and unpaid concessions commission of $31,930 from last year.

A third issue had been resolved regarding late office rent payments for the first three months of the year.

The claims by the commission come as the Formosas and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. face obstacles in their attempts to bring NASCAR back to the short track.

“To suggest that Formosa Productions breached its contract … that’s a serious allegation and I don’t believe that’s well-founded,” said Jim Roberts, the Formosa’s attorney, during the monthly Fair Board meeting on April 16.

Roberts observed that the language of the contract does not state when the concession payments are due.

“So I would submit that it’s impossible to be in breach of a contract when there are no payment schedules to find,” Roberts said.

Roberts argued concession payments would not be due until the end of the contract on March 23, 2023.

“That’s not how things are normally done, but let’s just be honest, that’s what the contract as drafted says,” Roberts said. Roberts also claimed the Formosas were not aware the concessions payments were part of the contract and that they’d never received an invoice.

“There’s been no invoicing, I think the board needs to be aware of that, no invoicing of these concessions until last week,” Roberts said, who added the Formosas asked for the invoices and received them on April 9, but that the provided invoices totaled $28,430 and not the $31,930 referenced in the April 8 letter.

The Fair Board’s letter alleged that the track broke its 7 p.m. curfew on March 27 when Kyle Busch took part in a test session for the All-America 400.

The Board claimed this violation came after a verbal warning for curfew violation on May 10 of last year. Roberts said the Formosas have no idea what event was held on that date to warrant the warning.

Regarding Busch’s test date, Roberts claimed the Formosas understood that if they received permission from the principal of a nearby school and the neighborhood association, there would be “no objection or problem” with a late track running time.

Roberts said they have a letter from the principal and the permission from the neighborhood association allowing the test.

Formosa said she had gone to the March neighborhood association meeting and was told she was cleared to go ahead with a late track rental, as long as she had the support of the school principal in the area.

Board member Jason Bergeron mentioned a series of emails from before March 27 where Formosa was told by Executive Director Laura Womack that they’d still be limited by the curfew and he noted that the principal’s permission was not part of the contract.

“She let me know and I told her ‘OK’,” Formosa said. “It was a complete miscommunication between myself and my office staff.”

With the test going beyond 8 p.m., Formosa, who was not on site, traveled to the track and shut it down by 8:17. p.m.

Bergeron said he’s heard from people in the neighborhood “that they don’t feel like they can count on that 7 o’clock curfew” when it comes to track rentals.

Formosa objected to this assertion.

“We have these monthly neighborhood meetings for this very reason,” Formosa said. “I can tell you that I never heard an issue raised by either one of the neighborhood associations. If there were issues raised, this is certainty the first time I’m hearing about them.”

Fairgrounds Speedway faces setback with cancellation of All American 400

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Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville, a possible site for future NASCAR national series races, announced Wednesday that it has canceled Sunday’s 34th All American 400 Super Late Model race because of impending rain.

Kyle Busch was scheduled to compete in the event, which is among the top Super Late Model races in the country.

The cancellation comes a day after The Tennessean reported that the track’s operator breached its contract with Nashville Fairgrounds.

Last week, The Tennessean reported that financing to upgrade the .596-mile racing facility and other matters have led to questions about the viability of bringing a national series NASCAR race back to Nashville.

Bristol Motor Speedway and the track’s operator entered into an agreement in December to try to bring NASCAR national series events to the track.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. asked NASCAR President Steve Phelps on the Dale Jr. Download about a national series race returning to Nashville.

“Are we going to be racing in Nashville or not? I don’t know,” Phelps said. “I know that at least I’ve been told, (Speedway Motorsports, Inc. CEO) Marcus (Smith) has had discussions with the folks in Nashville at the fairgrounds. How likely is that going to happen? Right now he has no sanctioning agreement for 2021, so he can’t bring anything there. If he wants to bring something there, obviously NASCAR has to have an involvement. They are our dates. We will absolutely (get involved) when it’s time.”

The All American 400 Super Late Model race was set to run last fall before it was postponed by rain and rescheduled for this weekend. Sunday’s forecast for Nashville, Tennessee, calls for a 100 percent chance of rain, according to wunderground.com

“The forecast is awful for this weekend and we don’t want the racers and fans to have to spend the money in travel costs to come here for nothing,” said Claire Formosa, VP of Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville, on the track’s Facebook page. “Many of the drivers were coming from a long way, so we wanted to do this early to help them out. We are now going to focus on our regular season opener next Saturday and get prepared for the 35th All American 400 this year.”

The All American 400 is scheduled for Nov. 3, 2019.

This decision comes after questions about certain actions by the track promoters.

The Tennessean reported this week that Laura Womack, Nashville Fairgrounds director, notified track operators Tony and Claire Formosa in a letter that they have 30 days to remedy issues.

According to the newspaper’s report, Womack said that the Formosas:

# Failed to pay rent on time.

# Owe $31,930 from concessions revenue from the 2018 season.

# Violated track rental curfew on March 27.

The Tennessean reported that the track’s rent for January to March was paid April 4.

Womack requested that the Formosas appear at the Fair Board meeting April 16 to address the matters.

Claire Formosa told the Tennessean that “there are some things that we are aware of that we have taken care of, like the office rent. The other two things … there is a lot more to it than what is being stated in the letter.”

 

 

 

Deal reached that could bring NASCAR back to Nashville Fairgrounds

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A deal has been reached between track operator Formosa Productions and Bristol Motor Speedway that could lead to the return of NASCAR to the Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville, BMS announced Wednesday.

The deal is “an agreement to explore bringing major NASCAR racing events” to the .596-mile track.

The two entities will work “on a long-range plan of significant track improvements and high-profile race events that could include NASCAR events upon the facility meeting standards.”

The deal must be approved by Nashville’s Metro Board of Fair Commissioners.

“Tony and our team both see the same bright future for Fairgrounds Speedway,” said Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of BMS, in a press release. “Nashville has a special reputation as one of the most exciting tracks in the history of motorsports, and the region has a remarkably large and passionate fan base. The motorsports industry – the sanctioning bodies, drivers and race teams – is excited about Nashville’s potential to be a regular site for major events. With Metro supportive of that vision, we are eager to start working tomorrow with the city, Tony (Formosa) and other stakeholders at the Fairgrounds and beyond, to develop a first-class racing facility and program.”

2018 was Formosa’s first year in a five-year agreement to run and promote the track after beating Bristol Motor Speedway’s bid to operate the track last year. Bristol is owned by Speedway Motorsports, Inc.

“This is terrific news for fans of racing and drivers all across the country and will bring a brighter future for Nashville Fairgrounds,” Formosa said in a press release. “I’m excited to work with Bruton and Marcus Smith and the Bristol team who I feel will bring this historic facility back to where it belongs. Today marks an exciting new beginning for the Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville.”

Autoweek reports that if the deal is approved it would see Claire Formosa, vice president of Formosa Productions, become a full-time employee at BMS as a liaison between the two tracks.

Tom Formosa told the Metro Board of Fair Commissioners in October a deal was “still very premature” according to a report by The Tennessean that said a possible deal could lead to the Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series competing on the track.

Fairgrounds Speedway last hosted a Cup race in 1984 and Xfinity and Truck Series races in 2000.

Marcus Smith, the CEO of SMI, said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “SiriusXM Speedway” that “there is potential” for Cup to make a return to the track.

“That is really dependent on how big the vision is we all settle in on,” Smith said. “My preference is to always go big. If we really set our sights on it, that would be the ultimate goal.”

Smith said the track, located roughly four miles from downtown Nashville, “would be a great place” to try holding a mid-week race.

But before any of that can happen, the track would need to see some major improvements.

“I love the classic style, the huge canopy that hangs over the grandstand,” Smith said. “I think there’s a lot of the character and the history you want to preserve. But you have to bring it up to current specs with proper crash wall, with SAFER foam, a catch fence and network-worthy lighting. There’s a lot that needs to be done.

“The good news is we’ve done it before.”

Smith said work on the track would “ideally” begin in 2019. The earliest any major changes to the NASCAR schedule can occur is 2020.

Smith also said the partnership between SMI and the Formosa’s has “gotta be long-term” and “that’s the only way it really makes sense to do the things we want to do.”

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