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Spinning Through Music City: NASCAR’s Back and Forth History With Nashville

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What’s Happening

With cities and tracks dipping in, out, and around the NASCAR schedule, the landscape of the schedule is crazier than ever. One market that has had a particularly tricky time being a part of NASCAR’s calendar is Nashville.  With both on and off-track news, Nashville has maintained a consistent headline in NASCAR media.

The early years

NASCAR has raced in Tennessee since 1956, where Newport Speedway would host the young series’ maiden voyage in the Volunteer State. But much like many tracks lost to the early days of NASCAR, the track’s time hosting NASCAR only lasted two races, with Fireball Roberts winning both the 1956 and 1957 races. This departure occurred because, in 1958, NASCAR would travel two hours and 30 minutes west to Nashville.

Fairgrounds Speedways would play host to NASCAR’s introduction to Music City. The track had been hosting races since 1904. Like many tracks found at fairgrounds around the country at the time, it hosted diverse racing styles. The track was originally a 1-1/8-mile track. But, by NASCAR’s arrival in 1958, the track was down to a 1/2-mile long. Short enough to flair tempers, bend fenders and thrill spectators.

That first race, the Nashville 200, was won by Joe Weatherly and began a yearly racing tradition that lasted until 1984. In 1973, the track began hosting two races yearly, races that were dominated by names like Yarborough, Petty, and Parsons. However, one name that stood out from the rest was former two-time track champion Darrell Waltrip.

1984 COORS 420

Darrell Waltrip had cut his teeth at the track while working toward the pinnacle of stock car racing. During his time in a Cup car at the track, he would win eight times and have an average finish of seventh. These stats almost matched Richard Petty’s stats at the track, where The King won nine times and averaged a 6.6 finish. Despite all the winning Waltrip would do at what was deemed his home track, one race stands out from the rest.

As usual for the young racer, Waltrip found himself the center of attention at the 1984 spring race in Nashville. That season, Waltrip’s car owner, Hall of Famer Junior Johnson, had brought Neil Bonnett on board to drive the number 12 Budweiser Chevrolet, a car nearly identical to Waltrip’s 11 car.

That evening, Johnson’s cars raced at the front of the field for most of the race’s 420 laps. Bonnett’s car had led 320 laps before spinning on lap 413. As the field came to the restart, teammates Bonnett and Waltrip raced for the win. Coming out of turns one and two on lap 419, Waltrip led Bonnett with room to spare. However, a wreck on the backstretch would leave it up to a race to the caution and white flag, followed by one caution lap to the win.

Waltrip easily beat his teammate to the line. However, on the caution lap, lap 420, Bonnett passed the slowed Waltrip in turns three and four, seemingly for the win.

Until 2003, drivers were allowed to race back to the yellow flag. Despite this, they could not pass each other under the yellow flag unless the driver ahead surrendered their position. With no overtime or green-white-checkered, the race should have been given to Waltrip, but instead, Bonnett was the one in victory lane at the end of the night.

The wildness of the finish is made all the better by the great Benny Parsons and Ken Squier, who go back and forth on who should have won the race. At the end of the broadcast, the two were even told that drivers raced back to the checkered flag on the last lap no matter what. Despite all the tempers and all the confusion, Waltrip would have the last laugh. Two days after the race, NASCAR reversed the scoring decision and awarded Jaws his eighth win at the track.

Leaving Nashville

Despite all the drama and the almost 30-year tradition of racing at the track, the NASCAR Cup Series would leave Fairgrounds Speedway after the fall 1984 race. As the checkered flag fell over Geoffrey Bodine on July 14, 1984, a period of almost 40 years without the Cup series would begin for the Nashville area.

NASCAR wouldn’t entirely abandon the facility yet. The Xfinity Series, then the Busch Grand National Series, first raced at the track in 1984 before returning in 1988 and 1989 and from 1995 to 2000. The Craftsman Truck Series also ran at the venue from 1996 to 2000.

However, after the series’ departure, the track was left behind while other classic venues grew in size hand-in-hand with the sport. The city of Nashville grew around the facility, with major roadways and neighborhoods just off the backstretch. Despite all this, the track continued to host racing with Late Models and other weekly series into the 2000s.

The 2000s

Unlike the Cup Series, the Xfinity and Truck Series didn’t leave the Nashville area entirely. NASCAR’s late 1990s boom helped build many new racetracks, some large, awe-inspiring facilities like Auto-Club and Texas, and some smaller tracks such as Memphis Motorsports Park or an intermediate track such as Nashville Superspeedway in 2001.

Nashville Superspeedway was owned and operated by Dover Motorsports. The track was a different style from what race fans in the area were used to. The 1.33-mile track featured a tri-oval, minimal banking, and a concrete surface. It also featured a guitar trophy designed by the great Sam Bass. In its heyday, the track featured racing from the Xfinity, Truck, IndyCar, and ARCA Menard Series.

However, as was the trend with racing in Nashville, there are two interesting things about the facility.

First, and very notable, is the name. While described as an “intermediate track” and 1.33 miles long, the track is called Nashville Superspeedway. A keen observer would notice that a Superspeedway is typically an oval track longer than two miles. These are tracks such as Talladega and Indianapolis. However, a simple explanation is that for IndyCar, superspeedways are defined as 1.3 miles or longer. The name also helps prevent confusion with the nearby Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.

That is the second noteworthy thing about Nashville Superspeedway; nearby isn’t the proper term. Nashville Superspeedway is 37 minutes east of Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. This has also been the case at tracks like Chicagoland, which is an hour away from Chicago. The track actually lies in Lebanon, Tennessee. For those who favor the old track, using the name Nashville has been a point of contention.

Despite these asterisks, the track had a relatively successful run from 2001 to 2011. Drivers like Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer dominated the races, while Kyle Busch continued his time as the heel of NASCAR when he smashed his guitar in victory lane.

In defiance of these great memories made and in keeping with Nashville and NASCAR’s long and twisting history, the track, facing financial issues, closed after the 2011 season.

The Return

While all this had taken place east of town, Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway continued to age but continued to race. As the late 2010s wrapped up, rumors about a track renovation and a return of NASCAR’s National Series boiled. This was boosted with the support of Speedway Motorsports Incorporated and Bristol Motor Speedway.

While there was an ongoing dialogue about the potential return of the Fairgrounds, in early 2019, NASCAR changed the venue for its traditional postseason awards ceremony. The event, which was held in Las Vegas at the time, would be heading to Nashville, and along with it came its festivities.

One anticipated event of the awards weekend had been drivers doing burnouts downtown, a tradition that began in New York City and carried over to Las Vegas. This would prove a hit in Nashville for the 2019 awards ceremony. The event would be renamed Burnouts on Broadway. Unfortunately, as usual with Nashville and NASCAR, something would get in the way of this for 2020, but this time, it may have been for the best.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR planned to change its schedule dramatically. Subsequently, plans emerged for Dover Motorsports to take a date from Dover International Speedway and give it to Nashville Superspeedway for 2021. The track had not been used in almost ten years and would require repairs and renovations. But when race day arrived, the facilities and the racing would not disappoint. As the day ended, Kyle Larson would win the first NASCAR Cup Series race in the Nashville area since 1984.

While this return would prove to be a positive move for the sport, things continued to change. In the fall of 2021, SMI purchased Dover Motorsports, adding Dover International Speedway and Nashville Superspeedway to its arsenal. Even with a foot in the Nashville market, SMI continued its campaign supporting Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway while continuing to race at Nashville Superspeedway into the near future.

This ongoing campaign faces pushback from neighborhoods near the track that are worried about noise pollution. However, industry voices like Dale Earnhardt Jr. support the cause. While many would love to see the track renovated, it continues to race, hoping for NASCAR to drop the green flag again.

Furthermore, though 2021 had been an excellent year for race fans in Nashville, it also marked the end of the beloved Burnouts on Broadway. The event has not returned since 2021, and despite fans making their voices heard about this matter, there is still no word from NASCAR.

Conclusion

While NASCAR’s history in Nashville has been a long, winding road, it is in a healthy place. With the successful attendance and racing at Nashville Superspeedway, the awards ceremony, and the hope for a modern future at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, NASCAR looks to be staying in the area for now. But if history has anything to say about it, the next page could turn at a moment’s notice.

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Kauy Ostlien

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