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VOL. 44 | NO. 27 | Friday, July 3, 2020

Days of slumber

How, why NASCAR is breathing new life into long-dormant track

By Tom Wood

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What goes around comes around. That karma-like phrase, popularized in the 1970s, will take on new meaning for area auto racing fans next June when the NASCAR Cup Series returns to the Nashville market for the first time in 37 years.

Last held in 1984 at the old Nashville Fairgrounds short track, the 2021 Cup Series race (NASCAR’s premier division) will be held at the 1.33-mile Nashville Superspeedway in Wilson County, marking the first time since 2011 that a race has been held at the Gladeville oval.

The “extremely tentative” date is Sunday, June 20, which would be Father’s Day weekend, and could also include a Truck Series race Friday and an Xfinity Series race Saturday, if all goes as planned.

Call it the second lap of the Tennessee track’s checkered checkered-flag history. It was built by Dover Motorsports in 2000 for a reported $100 million and then ended its run a decade later after sagging attendance due to hosting only IndyCar and lower-tier NASCAR races.

“It’s a new beginning for us, and I think that’s what we’re so excited about – that we’re coming as armed as much as we possibly can be with the Cup Series,’’ says Mike Tatoian, president of Dover International Speedway and chief operating officer of Dover Motorsports, Inc.

“And these guys are the greatest stock car drivers in the world. We’re excited.’’

“This facility was built in anticipation of someday hosting a Cup Series race. We didn’t think it would necessarily take 20 years for it to happen, but it was the right time,” Tatoian adds with a chuckle.

“We certainly wanted to be part of the solution and contribute to what I think will tremendously enhance the schedule – and that is having a presence with the Cup Series in Nashville in 2021.”

Return was fast-tracked

For the Nashville race to happen, Dover agreed to move one of its two sanctioned races from the famed Monster Mile track in Delaware, where the company has annually hosted two NASCAR Cup Series races since 1971. But attendance had dwindled in the last two decades from a high of 135,000 in 2001 to 83,000 in 2009 to its current 54,000.

In a sport where rumors run as fast as the cars and leaks gush like oil after a crash, word never got out ahead of the June 3 announcement. It caught the sports world, the media and even three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip by surprise.

Waltrip recently discussed the Superspeedway’s revival with retired Tennessean sports writer Larry Woody who writes for Middle Tennessee Racing News and other publications, including The Ledger.

“My reaction? I’m thrilled. I’m excited. And I’m shocked. I never thought this would happen,” says Waltrip, 73, a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and former Fox racing analyst.

Mike Tatoian, president of Dover International Speedway and COO of Dover Motorsports, Inc.

-- Photo By Tom Wood | Nashville Ledger

Tatoian says the roundabout return to the Nashville market began a couple of years ago with industrywide discussions about ways to improve the sport’s schedule, “and Nashville wasn’t in the discussion at that time.

“It was in December of this past year when we were (in downtown Nashville) for our NASCAR Champions Week and there was so much energy and excitement in the marketplace. And, obviously, if you look at the TV ratings for NASCAR Cup Series races, Nashville is always Top 10, Top 5.

“So we know there’s a market there,’’ he continues. “We know Middle Tennessee is an amazing place from that perspective. And NASCAR had talked to us and made the request that would we consider moving one of our races from Dover to Superspeedway. So they approached us.”

Tatoian says the move would have been announced earlier in the year if not for the pandemic and other factors.

“Thanks to the collaboration of Dover Motorsports and our broadcast partners, we are excited to bring NASCAR racing back to Nashville, a place where the passion for our sport runs deep,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps says.

“The Nashville market is a vital one for our sport and bringing NASCAR Cup Series racing to Nashville Superspeedway will be an integral building block in helping us further deliver on our promise in creating a dynamic schedule for 2021.”

Waltrip says the Superspeedway has a better chance to succeed this time with major league drivers headed to town.

“The difference is a Cup race. Those lower series didn’t appeal to area fans,” Waltrip observes. “The fans had got used to seeing the big names run at the (Nashville) Fairgrounds and they weren’t interested in anything less.

“I believe when the stars come out (at the Superspeedway), the fans will follow.”

Dover’s loss is Nashville’s gain

Race weekends are worth $50-$75 million in economic impact for a community, Tatoian estimates.

“Unfortunately, Delaware is going to feel a little bit of that,” Tatoian says. “On one hand, we feel really proud that we for over 50 years had two Cup races (in Dover). And so, that’s an amazing accomplishment for the community, and we feel from a company perspective that we certainly strengthen our company by coming here and operating in Nashville.

“But there’s no question from an economic development, economic benefit (that) having only one race in Dover, it does have an impact. And we realize that. And what we really think about is what we did for 50 years as opposed to what we’re not able to do going forward.”

The now-vacant Nashville Superspeedway grandstands will likely be full next June when NASCAR is scheduled to return to Nashville.

-- Photo By Tom Wood | Nashville Ledger

Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto calls the move “uplifting” and says it will provide much-needed hotel, gasoline and sales tax revenues for the region.

“It’s a tremendous lift for us right now with everything going on in our world and definitely in our county, where we had the tornado and then, of course, COVID-19 hit at the same time,” Hutto acknowledges. “We talked about how the significance of it to that kind of event just like we have another Wilson County Fair, which is in the Top 50 in the country.

“So we’re happy about that and happy about the entertainment it will provide. … I’ve had lots of calls and people saying, ‘hey, how can we help?’ … It’s been a good buzz.”

Jason Johnson, Wilson County’s convention and tourism bureau director, hopes the Cup Series race is just the beginning of a long and prosperous relationship.

“When something like a race weekend comes in, it provides a lot for the community and there’s a lot of outreach from the racetrack that can go into the community. And that’s what I definitely want to help partner with,” Johnson says. “We’re thinking about this more than just the two or three days that they’re out there to race. We’re hoping to make this a relationship of more events going on.”

That’s the big-picture plan, Tatoian says. Everything from other motor sports events to car club shows and auto auctions to music concerts and art festivals will be considered potential clients.

“Since we’re opening up the track, it does open up opportunities to any sanctioning body that would be interested in racing at our facility,” Tatoian says. “We’re kind of excited to open this facility to Middle Tennessee to be used for so many different (events) — and whether it’s motor sports related or music festivals or auto auctions or — the sky’s the limit.

“We’ve got a beautiful property here and our rule is anytime any facility sits empty, it’s one less day it’s generating income. So it behooves us to be as accommodating as we can be. And having the NASCAR Cup Series here is really what triggered it. So we’re interested in any sanctioning body that would be interested in us.”

Getting up to speed

The clock is ticking on getting the track race-ready. Tatoian, who in mid-June brought in both NASCAR and Dover engineers to assess the facility, projects that $8 million to $10 million will be spent for upgrades. He credits the track’s lone full-time employee for the last decade – Don Huebner – for maintaining the property.

Kyle Busch qualifyig for the Federated Auto Parts 300 in 2009. It was a NASCAR Nationwide Cup race.

-- Shutterstock.Com

“So it’s not as if it’s been completely unattended. It has actually been attended to quite nicely. We’re not starting from ground zero; we’re starting from a structure that is a terrific structure that is 75% or 80% ready today,” Tatoian continues.

He briefly outlined specific work areas over the next 11 months.

“One is to be Cup-ready – NASCAR Cup Series-ready – and that is primarily focused on safety for the drivers, timing and scoring, track condition, SAFER walls, things that are important from a competitive perspective to make sure that we can race safely and competitively,” Tatoian explains. “And we’re already pretty close to that now, with the nice concrete track. And that’s really kind of NASCAR focused.”

The grandstands can hold 25,000 fans, and Tatoian says 10,000 temporary seats will be added for the Cup Series race. Tatoian notes that many upgrades may not be visible to fans, but they will be appreciated just the same.

“The other portion would be, from our perspective, making sure we have good infrastructure, utilities, electric, water, sewage, all the basic needs for as big facility like this,” Tatoian adds, pointing out that one of the track’s lighting system poles (which allows for night racing) might need repair.

“And then the third bucket is what do we need to do from a fan’s perspective? Because over the last 10 of 20 years, the sports fan consumer’s behavior has changed. One thing is with phones, Wi-Fi. Well, 20 years ago, Wi-Fi wasn’t nearly as prevalent as it is today. Or the need for fiber Wi-Fi.

“So from a technological perspective, we need to build that infrastructure, that technology, and also take a look at the property from a fresh perspective again and see where we want to go from a food and beverage perspective, from a merchandise perspective – all of the things, all of the excitement of coming to the race – not only watching the race but the excitement that surrounds the racetrack, creating that experience for our fans.”

Other key points Tatoian mentioned are hiring a full-time staff as soon as possible, marketing the event and lining up race sponsors.

He says there will be a staff of 25-30 employees with 1,000 to 1,500 workers hired for race weekends to handle parking, concessions, merchandise and other duties. Tatoian points out he’s already getting calls about sponsoring the Cup Series race.

“The exciting part, without being able to share, is when we made the announcement – this is such an incredible market – that we’ve had a wonderful response from sponsors that want to be involved with our race weekend. So that is really exciting for the industry. Certainly for us,” he says.

Track is ‘in great shape’

One thing that will not change is the concrete track surface and the 14-degree banking. There’s no repaving needed because it’s not asphalt. Tatoian anticipates only minor maintenance.

“It’s great. The concrete track itself is still in great shape. There will be – maybe the apron because there’s some asphalt and it’s had some wear and tear, or maybe where the concrete comes down and the asphalt has maybe buckled up a little bit where there’s not a smooth transition – so that’s the kind of stuff that will have to be shaved a little bit or regraded,” Tatoian says.

Keeping the track intact “is incredibly welcome for several reasons,” says author Richard Helms of Charlotte, North Carolina, a motor sports aficionado.

Helms enjoyed a 28-year career as a driver in the Carolinas before retiring in 1999. In 2013, he returned to the sport in simracing — racing cars online using computers and realistic wheels and pedals — where he has racked up 20 wins and compiled a stellar iRacing career.

“First of all, from a driver’s point of view, the Nashville track is beautifully constructed,’’ he adds. “Unlike its sister in Delaware, the banks are relatively shallow at only 14 degrees. The doglegged front stretch is reminiscent of the shorter Michigan International Speedway clones at Kansas and Kentucky.”

Helms says he is looking forward to “driving” next year at Nashville Superspeedway when it returns to NASCAR’s schedule “because that means it will be scanned and added to the iRacing stable of simracing tracks.

“It’s a driver’s track, requiring great skill (as opposed to superior horsepower) to navigate it successfully,” he adds. “You really have to get up on the wheel at the Nashville Superspeedway to go quickly. Because it’s a driver’s track, competition tends to remain fairly close, with lots of side-by-side action fans crave.”

And that’s what fans crave for the real Superspeedway next June.

Tatoian says NASCAR will put together a race package “that will specifically be built for this track. That is critical.”

He says the difference between his group’s role and that of NASCAR.

“Our responsibility is everything that happens off the track. So everything that we can create from food, beverage, entertainment – it’s like going to a NASCAR Experience or a fair. And everything that happens on the track is NASCAR’s responsibility,” Tatoian says. “The track will remain as it is today. But they are focused on creating a (rules) package that will lend itself to some great, exciting racing.”

Tatoian says the SAFER barriers that were installed during the track’s first decade will need to be upgraded because the technology has changed.

“So that is a critical one that we have to get right. There may be some other SAFER barriers that will have to be installed and then the foam that’s inside there, that will have to be replaced.”

Waltrip is confident that the Superspeedway will be up and running at full speed for the Cup Series debut.

“I think any issues with the track are fixable,” Waltrip tells Middle Tennessee Racing News. “The rest of the facility is state-of-the art, including a great lighting system. I see no reason why its Cup races can’t be successful.”

Waltrip says he’ll be glad to help track officials anyway, anytime.

“This sport has been my life,” Waltrip explains. “To see it return to Nashville will be something really special. And frankly, it’s something I never expected to see.”

One who may call on Waltrip’s services is Johnson, the Wilson County tourism director. A lifelong NASCAR fan, Waltrip was Johnson’s favorite driver and he still has DW memorabilia.

“It’s going to be great. I grew up in Kentucky and I grew up NASCAR,” Johnson says. “My dad would take off with my uncles for the August race in Bristol on their motorcycles. … I can remember how on Mondays, waiting for my dad to get home and see what T-shirt he brought me home that day. I’ve got a box in my attic right now of old Darrell Waltrip T-shirts. … He was always extremely friendly and approachable.”

Indeed, what goes around comes around — even if it takes two decades.

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