NASCAR and Nashville, they seemingly go together. A sport with roots in the Southeast and a city known for its’ history of country music. Surprisingly maybe to some, Nashville has not always been in NASCAR.
As a matter of fact, fairly recently NASCAR was nonexistent in the “Music City.” Now that NASCAR in Nashville is alive and well, let’s take a look back at the history of NASCAR in Nashville.
1958-1984: Cup Series at the Fairgrounds
In 1958, NASCAR’s Grand National Division, now known as the Cup Series, made their first trip to the city of Nashville. The 0.5 mile Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway hosted the 37th race of the 1958 Grand National season. Joe Weatherly won the race which 32 cars entered, and a new NASCAR mainstay was born.
From then on, the Fairgrounds became a yearly visit for NASCAR, and, from 1973 onwards, the track hosted two races per season. One race was usually hosted in April or May, while the second race was hosted in July or August. The addition of lights in the 1960s meant that night racing became popular at the venue.
The track was also high-banked as much as 35 degrees during its’ history, similar to another famous Tennessee race track. It currently sits at 18 degree banking to this day. Drivers such as Richard Petty (9 Wins), Darrell Waltrip (8 wins), and Cale Yarborough (7 Wins) dominated at the race track.
Unfortunately, the track would not be in NASCAR forever. The track changed hands in ownership multiple times throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, and NASCAR left. Former track owner Gary Baker, who bought the track back in 1985 to try to bring NASCAR back, gave his thoughts to Paul Skrbina of The Tennessean.
“I was sick,” Baker said. “I knew the potential. We could have kept the Cup date in the mid-1980s,” he said. “Instead, I’m on the outside looking in.”Gary Baker in The Tennesseean
Baker also expressed to Skrbina that he desired to build a superspeedway in Nashville, and that he understood why NASCAR left. However, NASCAR was not totally done with the Fairgrounds quite yet.
1985-2000: Lower Divisions in and out of the Fairgrounds
Despite NASCAR leaving, the Nashville Fairgrounds still hosted their summer racing schedule. NASCAR made a brief return in the late 1980s with two Xfinity Series races won by Waltrip and Rick Mast. However, it was in the 1990s that NASCAR returned more permanently.
NASCAR was expanding in the 1990s and so was Nashville. NASCAR was all about expanding to big markets at this time, and Nashville showed significant potential. Therefore, NASCAR returned to the Fairgrounds on a more permanent basis in 1995 with the Xfinity Series, and the Craftsman Truck Series was added to the weekend for the 1996 season.
While the Fairgrounds remained on the schedule, both places continued to grow. NASCAR was reaching its’ peak, and Nashville now had the Tennessee Titans and the Nashville Predators. The 0.596 mile Fairgrounds with 15,000 seats was not enough, even for NASCAR’s lower divisions, and NASCAR moved to the suburbs.
2001-2011: The Rise and Fall of Nashville Superspeedway
Dover Motorsports Inc., then owners of Dover International Speedway, constructed a new, state-of-the-art race track in Lebanon, Tennessee, Nashville Superspeedway. While still an intermediate race track similar to those built during this time, it had some unique characteristics.
Just like Dover, the race track was concrete. The race track was also 1.333 miles long, slightly shorter than other 1.5 mile tracks built such as Texas, Chicagoland, Kansas, and Las Vegas. As a result, the track could host NASCAR and IndyCar.
During that first year in 2001, the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Craftsman Truck Series, and IndyCar Series each hosted their first races. Greg Biffle, Scott Riggs, and Buddy Lazier won these races. NASCAR rewarded the track with a second Xfinity date in 2002.
The racing product on the track was not that bad. There were some good moments, most notably the 2004 Xfinity Series race where the top-four cars wrecked out, allowing Michael Waltrip to win. However, the track began to falter at the end of the decade.
In 2008, the Indy Racing League merged with Champ Car, reunifying open wheel racing in the United States. Because of both that and increased safety concerns about IndyCars on superspeedways, Nashville was left off of the schedule for 2009.
In 2009, at-track attendance also began to decline. The Xfinity Series races, which used to bring in well over 30,000 people, could only bring in 25,000 and 30,000 each in 2009. In 2010, the attendance fell below 20,000.
Withe the lack of local support, and no hope of a Cup Series date, Nashville Superspeedway hosted its’ final race weekend in 2011. However, it did not go out without a bang, as it hosted one of the most iconic pre-race prayers of all-time.
2012-20: NASCAR Hiatus, and Slow Return
With no race at Nashville Superspeedway, NASCAR was out of Nashville completely once again. There seemed to be no real potential for the track to return or NASCAR to return to the city. That changed later in the decade.
In 2015, the ARCA Menards Series returned to the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. In 2018, NASCAR officially bought ARCA, meaning that, technically, NASCAR was back in Nashville. In 2019, NASCAR put their foot further into the door.
NASCAR hosted their annual Awards Banquet in 2019 in Nashville, and it was a huge hit. Events such as “Burnouts on the Broadway” brought in throngs of people, and NASCAR in Nashville seemed to be a huge possibility.
The Nashville Fairgrounds was looking at massive renovations to bring NASCAR back, but local and political opposition meant it would not be renovated in-time for NASCAR to return. Dover Motorsports still owned Nashville Superspeedway, and their other track, Dover, was struggling.
With NASCAR now out of contracts with their current race tracks, they took advantage of schedule flexbility. Nashville Superspeedway was added back to the schedule in place of one of the Dover races. The race was scheduled for June, the traditional time of year for its’ second Xfinity Series race.
2021-Present: NASCAR Returns
In 2021, NASCAR racing returned to Nashville. A sell-out crowd greeted the Cup Series stars to Nashville Superspeedway. Kyle Larson stunk up the show, leading 264 laps, but that was minimal compared to the impact this race had.
It was the first inaugural race that season to have no weather issues. It symbolized both NASCAR’s return to one of their oldest markets and NASCAR’s willingness to expand their schedule. Something that had been missing from NASCAR for years.
NASCAR returned in 2022 to another good crowd, but rain spoiled most of the day. Regardless, NASCAR was back in Nashville, and it seemed it would stay for a while.
With the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway renovations still in flux, the future of NASCAR in Nashville is unclear, but it’s bright at the same time. NASCAR belongs there, and hopefully it stay for a long time.