NASCAR to Nashville Fairgrounds Decision Likely Delayed
Approaching a deadline to finalize an agreement to bring NASCAR back to Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, Speedway Motorsports Inc. and the Metro Fair Board still have much to do.
In fact, there is so much to be decided that the July 31 deadline appears likely to require an extension to the Letter of Intent signed by SMI and Nashville Mayor John Cooper, meaning the stated goal of a race by 2022 may be in doubt.
That Letter of Intent mandated that either party could walk away from the provisional agreement if a contract hadn’t been signed by July 31. It also allows either party to modify the agreement or extend the deadline.
The extension appears to be necessary as the Fair Board wants additional clarity from Speedway Motorsports over how the renovation of the venerable short track will be financed, noise mitigation solutions and engagement with the fairgrounds’ neighborhood.
A date was not set, and it was not made clear during the monthly meeting on Tuesday what day a potential new deadline would be scheduled for. Speedway Motorsports Inc. and city negotiators are working on an official proposal to send over to the Fair Board.
Nashville Fairgrounds is owned by the City of Nashville and Davidson County and every decision regarding the property must go through the Fair Board, City Council and the Mayor’s Office. Speedway Motorsports, which also owns nearby Bristol Motor Speedway, is working to secure a decades long lease to operate the track and schedule a NASCAR Cup Series event to its schedule.
The track is located in the middle of a neighborhood and the potential arrival of NASCAR has stoked concern from residents who fear additional disruptions associated with increased attendance, noise and auxiliary events like concerts or testing.
The city councilmember for the district, Colby Sledge, and fair board commissioner Jason Bergeron have consistently challenged Speedway Motorsports every month throughout the process this year to present data for how the company would address these areas of concern.
Simultaneously to this process is that a Major League Soccer Stadium has been approved and is currently undergoing construction next door to the short track on the 117-acre property — meaning that there are also concerns about infrastructure and logistics over how to make the two venues coexist alongside the flea market, a regional fair and a community park.
Like every building on the fairground property, demolition and construction must be approved by the fair board, and the speedway and flea market is currently protected by a referendum that passed 2-to-1 by Davidson County residents.
That has been a consistent theme during the past six months of legislation and debate. Pushback has continued to come from the neighborhood near the speedway — who oppose Speedway Motorsports Inc. acquiring the lease at a 55 percent majority clip according to one (below) study.
Bergeron, who has often acted as a representative of the community rather than the fair board, has advocated for the interests of residents during the process and continued to do so on Tuesday.
“I continue to receive panicked phone calls from residents who want to know what’s going on, who are worried, who have not received details and have millions of questions not answered,” Bergeron said. “I keep hammering on for details on what the real impact (of SMI) looks like — less race weekends, a lot less track rental dates and there are ways we can get this done.”
This has made Bergeron a bit of a heel to those who support SMI and a NASCAR event, and he’s aware of that distinction.
“This doesn’t mean I’m asking for these things as opposed to a deal,” Bergeron said. “I’m getting really tired of some folks suggesting that I’m not just trying to make the best deal here.”
Bristol Motor Speedway general manager and EVP Jerry Caldwell has attended most meetings throughout this process but was not in attendance on Tuesday. Instead, SMI was represented by Nashville uberlobbyistand lawyer James Weaver, who has continued to have an adversarial relationship with Bergeron throughout 2021.
His rebuttal to the neighborhood concerns is that the fairgrounds belongs to the entire county and region — not just the district Sledge oversees.
“This facility belongs to all of Nashville,” he said. “It belongs to people who live in Joelton and Antioch and West Nashville as well as people who live in these neighborhoods, so you can’t limit your conversation to people who live within 1,500 feet of the fairgrounds … their voice is incredibly important, but they’re not the only voice.”
SMI has already conducted meetings with 24 different community groups this summer, while also sending surveys to 5,000 email addresses in the area, along with 15,000 direct mail surveys to addresses in and around the fairgrounds.
One non-profit group, STAND UP Nashville, has taken an active role in lobbying for the interests of the residential area near the fairgrounds. Bergeron insisted to Weaver that SMI cooperate with STAND UP Nashville, a group that has worked with the MLS project over the past two years.
Weaver said respecting Stand Up Nashville’s agreement with the stadium will be part of Speedway Motorsports plan — but that the fair board legally can’t dictate who the leaseholder works with.
“I’m reasonably sure that the board can’t demand who I work with or it’s illegal …I’ll leave that to your legal council … These community benefit understandings are private agreements between two private (parties) … and we are working with multiple nonprofit entities in and around this part of Nashville,” he said. “Those will be presented and the board can take those into consideration or not take those into consideration, but they’re not part and parcel of the formal agreement between us and the city.”
Stand Up Nashville’s door-to-door and online survey of more than 500 residents within a two-mile radius of the speedway found 55 percent opposition with noise and traffic ranking as the top concerns. Additional issues include gentrification, cost to taxpayers, lack of community input and impact on property values.
Speedway Motorsports Inc. provided a sound study in June that detailed the effects of continued muffler usage for non-NASCAR events, new buildings and a 20’ sound absorbing barrier that would reduce loudness by 50 percent.
The two parties continue to negotiate the number of race weekends, test days and curfews throughout the year for an agreement with Speedway Motorsports. The current leaseholders, Track Enterprises, is limited to 10 race weekends and 20 test days. If the sound barriers do what SMI has proposed, the new promoters would feel more confident in pursuing more dates.
Bergeron said in June he would be open to trading fewer testing days for more race weekends. The examples he provided were as follows:
The framework of an agreement also includes concerts to generate revenue for the facility, but Bergeron has suggested the concerts should come at the expense of race weekends. Speedway Motorsports would like to continue promoting nine local and regional event weekends with NASCAR taking the place of one of the local shows.
During the May meeting, Bergeron pressed Caldwell on the cost, suggesting that he read that it would take levels of $61 million, $77 million, or $91 million to get the speedway to reach the various intended standards, but Caldwell never confirmed any figure.
“There’s really as many figures as you want,” Caldwell said then. “It’s Nashville’s facility. We’ve done some provisional modeling with the engineers on what that would look like, but we’ve started to bring those number down.”
These are the current holdups to an agreement, and it appears likely that it may require an extension to the deadline to finalize a NASCAR return to Fairgrounds Speedway for the first time since 2000. The Cup Series hasn’t raced at Fairgrounds Speedway since 1984.
“We’re hopeful that we can have agreements to present by the end of the month, but we’re going to continue to plow forward,” Weaver said.
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