Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville

Photos: Aaron Farrier of Paradigm Racing

Sterling Marlin won’t let Parkinson’s Disease keep him from racing

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Racing has been Sterling Marlin’s life for more than a half century. Over the last six months, faced with serious health issues, the hope of racing has been the one constant that has helped keep the 62-year-old’s spirit alive and motivated.

Since 2012, Marlin has battled Parkinson’s Disease, a debilitating neurological malady that slowly robs an individual of movement in various body parts, particularly use of the hands.

Earlier this year, the 1994 and ’95 Daytona 500 champion underwent several surgeries – including a four-stage deep brain stimulation procedure that delivers electric pulses to brain cells – to slow or reduce some of the disease’s progression.

However, Marlin suffered serious side effects, including excess fluid on the brain that required another procedure.

While the surgeries sidelined Marlin longer than he anticipated, they have paid off as the Columbia, Tennessee native hopes to be back behind the wheel of his No. 14 Late Model on Saturday at his home track of Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville for the first time since last fall.

“I feel really good, I just want to race the car, I’m ready to go,” Marlin told NBC Sports in a phone interview Tuesday. “I’m having more good days now.

Sterling Marlin shown during racing action last year at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville. Photo: Aaron Farrier of Paradigm Racing

“(Racing at Nashville will) mean a whole lot. I’ve been through a lot over the past six months. I thought we were going to be ready by the first race in April, but we were far off from it.

“It’ll be good to come back and have a race. The last time I won a race in Nashville (last August), I led every lap, won the race. Then we were leading the next race (in November) before it started raining.”

But instead of worrying about tires and fuel mileage and car setups, Marlin spent much of the first half of the year with his surgeries and several follow-up exams.

“It’s been a long process, really,” he said. “(The deep brain stimulation) was a little scary. They had to go into my brain or I could have died. I dodged that bullet, but it was pretty touch-and-go there for a while.

“My family has been there through thick-and-thin. I was lucky I had the surgery. I lost a lot of weight but I’ve been able to put 17-18 pounds back on.”

Marlin tried to make his racing return at Nashville nearly a month ago. He was ready to go physically and emotionally, but his race car developed clutch problems that prompted him to withdraw rather than run the risk of costly repairs if the clutch suffered even greater damage during competition.

The clutch has been repaired and once again, Marlin is ready to put the pedal to the metal. If all goes well, he hopes to do another two more races at Nashville before the season ends and, if additional sponsorship comes about, won’t rule out one-off races at other tracks.

“Racing is all I’ve ever done since I was 10-12 years old,” Marlin said. “I enjoy doing it and see how fast we can go. Hopefully, we can get back to where we were last fall and see what happens.

Sterling Marlin is ready to get back in his race car this Saturday at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville. He needs just two more race wins there to become the Speedway’s winningest driver. Photo: Aaron Farrier of Paradigm Racing

“We’ve got a good car, a good sponsor and we’ll give ‘er hell.”

If all goes well both health-wise and racing-wise, Marlin hopes to continue racing as long as he can.

“I was still winning last year and we were fast every race and led a lot of laps,” Marlin said. “If I can still do it and enjoy doing it, I’ll keep doing it.

“But if all I can do is run 20th, then I won’t do it anymore.”

According to The Tennessean newspaper, Marlin needs two more wins to become the winningest driver in Fairgrounds history.

And if he wins his comeback race on Saturday? He already has a plan, he said with a laugh:

“If I win, I’ll climb the fence like John Force,” Marlin said, referencing Force’s fence climb into the grandstands after winning his 150th career race last weekend.

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Friday 5: Chase Elliott too busy looking ahead to relish Watkins Glen win

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chase Elliott is relaxed and comfortable. About an hour after he sat in a Blackhawk helicopter and toured the city from a few thousand feet above, he’s in a Chevrolet Camaro at Fairgrounds Speedway.

It’s not the No. 9 car that took NASCAR’s most popular driver to his first Cup victory a year ago at Watkins Glen International and it won’t go as fast as that car, but this is still his comfort zone. In the fast-moving world that racing is, he slows down as he circles the .596-mile track, which could see NASCAR’s premier series return some day if Speedway Motorsports Inc. and city officials can complete a deal to upgrade the facility.

Elliott tours the banked track at an easy 50 mph — he’ll go about twice as fast later — but it gives him time to reflect upon the journey that leads him back to Watkins Glen for Sunday’s race (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN). And take him back to when he was known more as Bill Elliott’s son than by his name. Back when he toured the country’s short tracks.

Chase Elliott looks out at Nashville, Tennessee, from a Blackhawk helicopter during a trip to promote Bristol’s night race. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“I feel like it’s been really everything to me,” Elliott tells NBC Sports of racing at short tracks early in his career, including Fairgrounds Speedway. “I think when anybody gets started in something, you’re going to build habits and you’re going to have tendencies and you’re going to do things from those days forward. … When you’re coming along and learning, you’re going to take that and you’re going to carry that on forever.

“I think that short track racing really made me be the driver that I am. I wish I could do more fo it. I feel that is home for me in a lot of ways. Love to go back and do some more of it somewhere down the road.”

Elliott is the only driver to win the Snowball Derby, the Winchester 400, World Crown 300 and the All American 400, the race held at Fairgrounds Speedway.

Those successes led him on a path that includes the 2014 Xfinity championship and 2016 Cup rookie of the year honors. His April victory at Talladega qualified him for the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year. But he enters this weekend at Watkins Glen in a drought.

He has failed to score a top-10 finish in his last seven starts. An engine failure ended his race early at Sonoma, crashes at Daytona and Pocono sidelined him and a mechanical issue proved too much to overcome at New Hampshire. A flat tire hindered him at Kentucky and poor pit stops led to a meager showing at Chicagoland Speedway.

“I can’t say I’m hung up on any of them,” Elliott said this week at an appearance promoting the Aug. 17 Bristol Motor Speedway night race. “Time goes on. The good news is you’re in the middle of the season so we’re not to the fall yet, which is when it really matters. I’d rather have a bad stretch now than come October.”

Elliott has been strong in the playoffs each of the past two years. He scored a top-five finish in 45% of the last 20 playoffs races and placed in the top 10 in 70% of those races. Elliott has the same number of top-five finishes (nine) in the past two playoffs combined as Kyle Busch. Elliott has one more top 10 than Busch (13) during that same time. A key difference, though, is that Busch has won five playoff races. Elliott has two wins in those playoff events.

Chase Elliott scored his first Cup career victory last year at Watkins Glen International. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Despite his recent struggles, Elliott will be viewed as among the key drivers this weekend after withstanding Martin Truex Jr.’s charge on the final lap last year at Watkins Glen before Truex ran out of fuel. The victory came after Elliott had finished runner-up eight times in Cup.

Amid the celebrating, he remembers what some told him that day about what would come next.

“Everybody is like the rest of them get easier,” said Elliott, who scored his first career Cup victory in his 99th start. “I really don’t believe that. I know we were able to win a couple more (in 2018), but I really don’t feel like they came any easier. Watkins Glen was definitely a relief. It was nice to get a win. We had been close so many times.”

The memories from last year’s victory are nice but they are just history to Elliott now.

“Obviously it was a special day,” he said, “and everybody likes to talk about that this year because of that and that’s a good thing but really just looking forward.”

The moment to reminisce is over. It’s time to go fast again.

2. Are chances dimming on NASCAR racing in Nashville in 2021?

With NASCAR targeting an April release date for its 2021 schedules and no agreement yet between Speedway Motorsports Inc. and Nashville city officials on a deal to upgrade Fairgrounds Speedway, any NASCAR race there could be a few years off.

Marcus Smith, president and chief operating officer of Speedway Motorsports Inc., acknowledged the challenge but said “we’re always up for moving quickly” if a deal is completed. Smith said he feels as the two sides are having “fine conversations.”

Construction continues near Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway has spearheaded SMI’s work with Nashville’s civic leaders, including Nashville’s Fair Commissioners Board, which oversees the track.

“I continue to be very encouraged,” Caldwell told NBC Sports. “We had that great conversation with the Fair Board back in May that has continued. We’ve had subsequent conversations that are very positive and cooperative. It’s a big process.”

A Major League Soccer stadium and mixed-use development are being built near the track and putting all those pieces together also has complicated the process.

“There’s a lot going on on this property, Fairgrounds as a whole, that plays into this,” Caldwell said at the track this week. “I think what you have here (with the track) is a diamond in the rough.”

This has been a project Caldwell and SMI have invested more than a year on already. Why keep going?

“I believe it’s because of the potential,” Caldwell said. “I think Marcus and Bruton (Smith) see that. They remain very interested and understand that sometimes things can take a while especially when it’s a property owned by the public.”

3. It’s all in the attitude

Daniel Suarez didn’t like Bubba Wallace’s one-finger gesture late in last weekend’s race at Pocono Raceway and told Wallace as much afterward.

But Wallace tried to convince Suarez not to be offended by it.

“We got into it in (Turn) 3 and I told him he was No. 1 for a whole lap,” Wallace said. “Ain’t nothing wrong with that. Telling him that he’s No. 1. That’s good.

“I do it to the guys that I like and can race around. If it’s Kyle Busch or (Martin) Truex are coming up to lap us, I’ll give them the finger, hey come on by. It’s funny. We’ll talk about it and laugh at it later. Truex is starting to pick up on it. It’s funny. That’s all it was.”

4. Planning ahead

Jimmie Johnson heads into this weekend’s race with Cliff Daniels making his debut as crew chief. With five races left in the regular season, Daniels’ job is to get Johnson into the playoffs. Johnson is 12 points out of the final playoff spot. While he’s been an engineer for Johnson in the past and was on Johnson’s 2016 championship team, Sunday will be Daniels’ first time making pit calls.

One of the strengths of Hendrick Motorsports, (Chase Elliott’s) team executed almost a flawless race last year,” Daniels said of Elliott’s win at Watkins Glen. “Not only did they have a fast car, they executed phenomenal strategy, Chase’s first Cup win. There are so many notes that we can pull from there that are such a big advantage to us.

“Jimmie’s style … he’s driven so many different types of cars and trucks growing up, he’s so willing and able to adapt to the different scenarios of a race depending on track position or strategically how we’re trying to call the race.

“We will absolutely have a plan that we will try to execute through the race. With that plan, you have to have contingencies of course. … We have so many factors that we can pull from to operate from a position of strength and it’s just going to be on us to go execute throughout the weekend.”

Since stage racing began in 2017, there has been one caution in the final stage in each of the last two races at Watkins Glen.

That likely will play a key role in how Daniels and other crew chiefs determine their pit strategy Sunday. Also, the last three Watkins Glen winners — Chase Elliott in 2018, Martin Truex Jr. in 2017 and Denny Hamlin in 2016 — each won by pitting only twice in the 90-lap race.

The second stage ends at Lap 40. Hamlin made his last stop at Lap 49 in 2016. Truex made his last stop at Lap 53 in 2017. Elliott made his last stop at Lap 55 last  year.

The last time a driver won the Cup race at Watkins Glen with a three-stop strategy was Joey Logano in 2015.

5. Nearly 5 wins in a row

Martin Truex Jr. could have nearly won each of the last five races on a road course or Roval. He won three of those races.

Truex won at Watkins Glen in 2017 and at Sonoma in 2018. He was second last year at Watkins Glen, running out of fuel on the last lap while pursuing Chase Elliott. Truex was in the lead when he was spun by Jimmie Johnson in the final chicane at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. Truex won at Sonoma in June.

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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

Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville
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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.”