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$60 million Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway renovation plan revealed

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Speedway Motorsports Inc. officials on Tuesday revealed their long-awaited $60 million renovation plan to bring NASCAR racing back to Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway.

This is the first public revealing of the renovation plan after several closed-door meetings between SMI officials and representatives of Nashville Mayor David Briley’s administration.

“This is your racetrack,” said Jerry Caldwell, Bristol Motor Speedway executive vice president told Metro Board of Fair commissioners, according to The Tennessean. “This racetrack belongs to the people of Nashville. We see tremendous potential … and are willing to offer our resources and experience in partnership with you.”

SMI’s plan would increase seating capacity of the .596-mile short track from its current size of 15,000 to 30,000, as well as include an expanded concourse, premium seating, pedestrian tunnels and sound barriers, according to The Tennesseean. Caldwell also revealed a financing plan that could be done through revenue bonds and revenue generated through the use of speedway property.

A previous funding plan by SMI for $54 million in bond payments and $2 million in a city cash subsidy was rejected by Briley’s administration, which wants the project to be a private investment and not include any funding from taxpayers, according to The Tennessean.

One other major obstacle remains: a new $275 million Major League Soccer stadium – and surrounding mixed-use development that would include private residences – will have one of its abutting walls only 20 feet from the Speedway’s main entrance. It has been a stumbling block that neither the city, the soccer team nor SMI have been able to reach a compromise on.

Nashville SC, the group that will bring MLS soccer to the city and is behind construction of the new stadium, has remained adamant that its plans are set in stone.

Our group has worked diligently over the past eighteen months to engage with stakeholders, the Fairgrounds staff and the architects to design a stadium and surrounding development that safely serves the property and future users of the Fairgrounds,” Zach Hunt, a spokesperson for the MLS ownership group, said in a statement, according to The Tennessean.

“The Mayor and Metro Council made the boundaries for our project very clear and we’ve maintained our commitment to building a first-class venue within those boundaries.”

Metro council member Robert Swope told The Tennessean, “We have a chance, if we redo the speedway along with this (soccer stadium), to turn this facility into the crown jewel of Nashville. But that only happens if you bring an operator like (Speedway Motorsports) to help with the speedway renovations.”

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Will concerns cause roadblock for NASCAR return to Nashville?

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Plans to bring NASCAR racing back to Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway may have hit a speed bump.

According to The Tennessean, financing to upgrade the .596-mile racing facility, as well as potential encroachment of part of a new $275 million Major League Soccer stadium complex, have led to a number of unanswered questions on the viability of bringing NASCAR back to Music City.

Nashville Mayor David Briley’s administration has expressed concern over how Speedway Motorsports Inc. and current Fairgrounds race operator Tony Formosa will fund plans for upgrades and improvements to the track facility, the newspaper reported.

“To date, (SMI) has not presented an option that was either practical considering the planned MLS stadium or financially feasible considering the mayor’s insistence on private investment in any proposal,” Briley spokesperson Thomas Mulgrew told The Tennessean.

The newspaper said the latest financing proposal includes possible legislation that would allow state and city tax revenue generated from NASCAR events at the racetrack to go toward paying for facility improvements and upgrades.

But a potentially larger sticking point in bringing NASCAR’s national series back to the Fairgrounds is construction of the adjacent soccer stadium. The footprint of a mixed-use apartment building and parking garage that would be part of the stadium project would come as close as 20 feet to the front entrance of the racetrack.

Formosa expressed concern to The Tennessean that such a close encroachment may prevent the ability to hold races on the track if stadium plans are not adjusted, particularly for safety reasons, as well as limiting ability for future track expansion or further improvements.

You have to have that open for emergency vehicles, and for people to enter,” Formosa told The Tennessean. “That’s the main gate.”

Officials of SMI, which owns eight NASCAR tracks, including Bristol Motor Speedway, site of this weekend’s Xfinity and Cup races, are hopeful both the financing and stadium encroachment issues can be resolved.

Locating one of the mixed-use structures next to the race track entrance will pose an obvious challenge to staging major events of any kind, both operationally and from a public safety standpoint,” BMS general manager Jerry Caldwell told The Tennessean.

A return to Nashville isn’t just important to SMI, it’s equally as important to NASCAR. The sanctioning body will hold its Cup awards banquet Dec. 5 in Music City, moving it from Las Vegas. 

There is a great amount of interest from the motorsports industry to bring NASCAR back to the Nashville fairgrounds,” Caldwell told The Tennessean. “The drivers and fans love the idea of returning to one of racing’s most historic and important tracks and cities.

We frequently hear from drivers, race teams and fans inquiring about when Nashville will be on the NASCAR schedule. … Major racing in Nashville is one of the hottest interests among drivers and racing fans.”

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Dale Jr. Download: Steve Phelps on NASCAR’s mistakes, future, and more

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On Sunday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced on Twitter that NASCAR President Steve Phelps would be his next guest on The Dale Jr. Download and asked fans for questions.

They responded in kind, and Phelps said he had roughly 800 Twitter notifications as a result.

What did fans what to ask Phelps about?

There’s a lot going on in NASCAR, from new schedules, to qualifying frustrations, to the influence of CEO and Chairman Jim France and the possibility of new manufacturers and on and on.

April 1 marked the start of Phelps’ seventh month in the job and he addressed those topics and more, including past mistakes NASCAR is working to fix.

Here’s a condensed version of his interview:

THOUGHTS ON CONTROVERSIAL QUALIFYING SESSION AT TEXAS

“Do I think we’ll make some changes moving forward to that? We’re going to have to. That was unacceptable if I’m a race fan and unacceptable if I was at the race track. Do I have some influence there? Yeah, I have some influence there. But I want to make sure the guys that are responsible for that particular area are doing that. Not too dissimilar to what I would do for Jill Gregory on the marketing side or Daryl Wolfe on kind of the sponsor side and business development side. You want your people to do their jobs and they’re talented people and they can do that. To the degree I can help them, I want to do that.”

MOST IMPORTANT VOICE TO LISTEN TO IN THE SPORT/THOUGHTS ON 2020 SCHEDULE

“The most important one is the fan. What does the fan want to see? What’s the product they want to see? What kind of racing do they want to see? So some of the questions last night (On Twitter) is … I think (Autoweek reporter Matt) Weaver said, ‘Hey, remind Steve that a short track is .75 miles and below.’ I am aware of that. … Fans have said that they want to see more short tracks and more road courses. I get that. And fewer intermediate tracks. We totally understand that. We tried to mix up the schedule as much as we could with the limitations that we had. Cause we had five-year agreements, 2020 is the fifth year of the agreement.

“So we had to go to all the same race tracks, but the way we kind of configured them kind of puts some emphasis on short tracks or an emphasis on road courses, or the Roval in that case. I think the Indy-Daytona switch is to provide more drama. I know we’ve been accused of manufacturing drama. I’m OK as long as there’s drama. If I’m a race team or I’m a driver, the likelihood of me winning Indy if I’m already outside of the playoffs is pretty slim. The likelihood of me winning at Daytona at the final regular-season even, at least I got something there.”

(Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

IS BEN KENNEDY BEING GROOMED TO BECOME THE FACE OF THE FRANCE FAMILY AT NASCAR?

“I’ve never had this conversation with Ben, so I’ll put myself out there. Ben has done a tremendous job in the short time he’s been here (first as Truck Series general manager and now managing director of racing operations and international development).

“He is working on kind of the competition side of where things are. He worked with Steve O’Donnell extensively on the schedule. So they were really the force of the schedule … They did a great job I think getting tracks aligned on the changes that we made.

“If that’s what Ben wants to do, run his family’s business. I think that’s fantastic. He’s smart. He’s passionate about the sport. He did drive and was a winner in Trucks and (raced in) Xfinity. … I think it would be a great natural step to have him in there. How soon he comes in and runs the place, that’s really between (CEO and Chairman) Jim (France) and Lesa (France Kennedy), his mom, and Ben.

“I wouldn’t bet against him.”

WILL NASCAR LOOK AT TRACK AGREEMENTS DIFFERENTLY SO IT’S NOT BOXED IN?

“That’s the plan. We think that having race tracks kind of be in it together with us in making changes and having a certain standard for what it looks like to run a race track, run a race at the highest level of NASCAR, I think that’s important. Could we see different tracks? Yeah, we absolutely could. What they are, where they are, there’s a ton of speculation of what would be a good race track for us to go to. We’ve heard, ‘Hey, don’t run two races on mile-and-a halfs.’ I saw that on Twitter last night. I’m not suggesting we’re not going to do that.

“I just think, listen, we have to do some things differently. Fans want us to do things differently and I think we need to do it as quickly as we can within reason, understanding that there are three legs to that stool and one of those legs are the tracks.

WHAT IS NASCAR GOING TO DO DIFFERENTLY OR WHAT IS IT GOING BACK TO?

“I think that there was, this was in an interview I did around Daytona, (where I said) ‘Hey, we made some mistakes.’ Listen, we’re not the only business that’s made a mistake. I think we chased a new fan at the expense of an existing fan. We’ll never do that again. It doesn’t mean we can’t have new fans in the sport, of course we can. But we want our new fans and our existing fans, avid, longtime, loyal fans, we want them to kind of nurture and grow these young fans or these new fans, young or old, I don’t care what they are. As long as there’s more people that are coming into the sport. We have a great sport. We want to share it.

“Other things that we can change, again I think it goes back, first and foremost, it goes back to the racing. Where are we racing? What does the racing look like? Is the car going to look more, quote ‘Stock’? I think our auto manufacturers, OEMs, would like to see body styles that are more reflective of what happens in a showroom. I think they would want to see some different types of engine packages that we could put together that would be more relevant to what would be good for them and as part of that I think we could hopefully take the three existing OEMs we have and add a couple of more. I think the winner frankly is the race fan. I believe that because it’s just more and more excitement, more and more rivalries. It would be great, for example, to have Dodge back in the sport. We’ve had discussions with Dodge, and we’d love to see them come back. So come on back.”

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

ARE MORE ROVALS IN THE FUTURE?

“You take a look at the Roval, right? Ratings were up, attendance was up. So the first, immediate reaction is, ‘Oh, we’ve got other Roval opportunities at other mile-and-half-tracks.’ I don’t think that is the answer. It doesn’t mean we won’t do that in the future at a small number. Could we support another, quote ‘Roval.’ We could. But it’s kind of like Eldora. There’s something special about Eldora. It doesn’t mean you’re going to run eight dirt races for Trucks, four for Xfinity and two for Cup. There’s a specialness that exists, and I think we have to try to get at opportunities to go to places that are different and unique from each other.

“You can go to a mile-and-half-track that looks the exact same layout as another mile-and-a-half track, but the surface is different, the weather is different and you’re going to get different results. With that said, this kind of lumping in of intermediate tracks, ‘We just have too many.’ OK. So is there an opportunity to potentially go elsewhere and shorten a number of intermediate tracks? Yeah, that’s something we can look at and we’re going to.”

DOES IT MAKE SENSE TO RACE IN NASHVILLE WITH THE AWARDS BANQUET NOW THERE AND WHAT’S NASCAR’S INVOLVEMENT IN DISCUSSIONS ABOUT FAIRGROUNDS NASHVILLE SPEEDWAY?

“Listen, Nashville is a great town for us, right? So we have two different tracks, the fairgrounds and the one outside of town. Would we like to run at Nashville again? We would. I think it’s a great town for us. I think having our banquet there is a great place to go. There was a time, a kind of thinking of NASCAR at the time, don’t embrace country music because that’s kind of the core, that’s our roots. Well, that’s a mistake. We want to embrace country music. Not only is country music incredibly popular, but it’s part of a natural tie for our sport.

“So going to Nashville I think is a great idea. What’s going to happen moving forward into 2021? Are we going to be racing in Nashville or not? I don’t know. 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.”

IS THE GEN 7 CAR ON SCHEDULE?

“As of right now, our Gen 7 car is on schedule. I think we have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of work to do with our OEM partners, and we have a lot of work to do ourselves and a lot of work to do with the race teams. I think that a 2021 Gen 7 car, body style, chassis, as well as a 2022 potential revamped engine is a distinct possibility. That’s what we’re working hard to get. We’ve got folks working on that every day as hard as we can, cause I think it would just be better, frankly. It seems a bit, you’re going to take an engine and put a tapered spacer to essentially create, quote, ‘better racing,’ right? I think that would it make sense to just build the engine to whatever the specifications are going to be? I would say the answer to that is yes.”

(Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

WHAT IS (CEO AND CHAIRMAN) JIM FRANCE DOING? HOW MUCH OF A TURN HAS HE MADE TO BE HELPING NASCAR AS A WHOLE?

“How involved? He’s involved every day. He’s maybe not out in front, in your face on the microphone granting 50 interviews. Not kind of his style. But he knows exactly what’s going on. It has his kind of guiding hand on it. Talked about Gen 7. Jim France knows all about Gen 7 and how to get there. It’s important to him.

“Jim France also knows about, ‘Hey, we need to grow our database and know who our fans are.’ Jim France is involved with something we call ‘Project Horsepower’ to try and increase ratings and attendance. That has been at the heart of our marketing efforts that Jill and her team are doing. Jim France asking all the time, ‘Hey, what’s Jill doing? How are they doing? How did we do in the ratings?’ We’re up for the year. We were up 36% yesterday (at Texas). We were on big Fox instead of FS1, but even so, our numbers and our share numbers continue to increase.

“Those are exciting things. Every single Monday, I send a note to Jim and Lesa, ‘Here’s where we are.’ That portion has certainly been a success story. He wants to know how’s the racing going. He’s been at every single event but one and that was some circumstances that he and I needed to be in Daytona so we couldn’t be at Auto Club. It’s been fantastic.”

ON REVAMPED DRIVERS COUNCIL

So the driver council right now is in a little bit of a state of flux. In a good way. … You’re talking to 10 guys, right? Most of that time the way it was made up, you had veteran drivers and then you had younger drivers because we want to have some representation across the different OEMs, future Hall of Famers plus these young kids who are coming into the sport.

“The problem is then you had 30 drivers that were not represented. The difficulty is it’s not that the information we got was flawed information you got from the 10, the other 30 didn’t know what we were talking about so they felt out of the loop. Then they’re out trying to figure out what’s going on, the lobbying. So what we’re doing now, we started this last fall, is we’re going to meet with all the drivers and you’re going to do it with smaller groups. So we’ll do in groups of three or four around Richmond.

“Three or four groups around Richmond where you’re going to lump your champions and kind of veteran drivers together so they can talk and listen to where we’re going and we can listen to where they want to be. Then we’ll separate into two or three other groups of various teams. Teams will stay together for the most part. We think that’s a better way of doing it. That’s why I say the driver council is kind of in a state of flux. It’s just changing. So I would call it a new driver council, just not with a formality of what we had previously.”

Listen below for the full interview with Steve Phelps.

SMI executive discusses 2020 schedule, racing at Nashville

Photo by Richard W. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway
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Marcus Smith, chief executive officer of Speedway Motorsports Inc., says many changes have been discussed for the 2020 NASCAR schedule and that he’s optimistic to have a NASCAR national series race in the future at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.

The 2020 season marks the final year in the five-year sanctioning agreements between NASCAR and tracks. NASCAR President Steve Phelps has said that “everything is in play” when examining the Cup schedule.

“I think there are all sorts of ideas, and you always like to think about different ideas and not be constrained by the box you’re in, think creativity,” Smith said of discussions about the 2020 Cup schedule. “The thing I think will be encouraging for race fans out there is that everybody involved wants to do something that is fantastic for racing. Wherever we end up will be something that is great for racing and NASCAR and race fans.”

Smith did not reveal any specific ideas being discussed.

Smith also is looking to bring a NASCAR national series race to Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.

Speedway Motorsports and Formosa Productions are exploring a joint effort to bring major motorsports to the Nashville track. Formosa Productions has a multi-year contract with the Metro Nashville Board of Fair Commissioners to promote and manage the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. Cup last raced in Nashville in 1984.

“We’re continuing to speak to leaders in the city, to work towards the goal of being able to bring racing, NASCAR back to Nashville,” Smith said. “It’s fairly complicated, lots of people involved, lots of different parties involved. It’s a goal of ours, and I think it would be fantastic for the sport.”

Smith said that based on “construction and everything” 2021 “would probably be the soonest” the track could host a NASCAR national series event if deals can be made.

The key would be upgrading the track to NASCAR standards.

“We have a really good idea of what it would take to get it NASCAR ready,” Smith said. “There’s a wide range of what you could do. There’s a minimal level and there’s our level, so I think there’s tremendous potential for that facility. It’s a legendary facility in the world of racing, Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, and it also serves as the location for the state fair, for regular community activities. My vision would be something that would serve all those purposes for the next 50 years.”

During the Nashville Board of Fair Commissioners meeting earlier this month, Councilman Robert Swope told the Board: “Since Nashville lost its Cup races in 1984, this is the first opportunity for a major vision for the future of our track. I encourage the Fair Board, Mayor (David) Briley and all stakeholders to seize this opportunity.”

NASCAR America: Short track action is what ‘this sport was built on’

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NASCAR has changed a lot since Dale Earnhardt Jr. was born in 1974.

Through 1985 the series ran 10 short track races per year until the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway was taken off the schedule. From 1985-96 short track fans had eight weekends to anticipate.

In 1997, North Wilkesboro Speedway’s two dates were divvied up between Texas Motor Speedway and New Hampshire International Speedway.

Now there are only six short track dates and that has created a fundamental change in competition at the Cup level, according to Earnhardt.

Fan reaction after last week’s Martinsville finish when Joey Logano bumped Martin Truex Jr. out of the lead was electrifying. One has to go back to the 2017 edition of that same race and the contact between Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott for a comparison.

“(The finish at Martinsville) is something that I think I saw a lot when I was younger, even when I was a kid going to the races. This is something I felt was happening once a month,” Earnhardt said on Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America.

And he asked Dale Jarrett if that opinion was shared.

Jarrett agreed and credited the lack of short track racing as one of the causes.

“First off, we don’t have as many short tracks,” Jarrett said. “(Lower) speeds allow you to do things like (the bump and run at Martinsville). … You can’t go to Texas this weekend – and if you run into the back of somebody, they’re gonna crash hard and there’s the chance you might crash too.”

While not technically a short track – a course less than 1 mile in length – Rockingham Speedway featured the same style of racing, according to Jarrett.

“As the speeds get lower, you have those opportunities to make moments and have moments,” Jarrett added. “And quite honestly, that’s what this sport was built on.”

For more, watch the video above.

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