How To Mess Up A Good Thing

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As the IndyCars head north of the border to Toronto this weekend, it’s a little sad that the IRL will not be here in Nashville this weekend. Since 2001, the IndyCars Series and Firestone Indy Lights Series have been coming to our fair city in mid-July. For the first time since the track opened, the IRL will not be here.

When the 2009 IndyCar schedule was announced late last summer with Toronto on the slate instead of Nashville, the popular story in town was that the IRL had selfishly and unceremoniously dropped Nashville from the schedule. As is usually the case in these matters, there is another side to this story that Nashvillians simply don’t get.

It is not the IRL’s fault that they are in Canada this weekend. Rather, most of the blame lies with Dover Motorsports, the parent company of the track; as well as the track’s General Manager, Mr. Cliff Hawks.

Robin Miller broke the story in early June of 2008, that Nashville was the track most likely to lose their date for the 2009 season. The main issue at stake was the sanctioning fee. Nashville reportedly paid the lowest sanctioning fee, by far, of any track on the 2008 schedule. With unification and (supposedly) bigger fields now as a part of the package, there seemed to be a much greater demand for the IRL’s product. Following the simple rules of supply & demand; it only seemed logical for the league to require a track to step up its financial commitment, in order to keep a product that was seemingly going to be in great demand.

A week or so later, the story actually started circulating through the local mainstream press. Mr. Hawks appeared on a local Sunday night TV sports show and was asked about this story. At first, his face took on a blank stare as if he suddenly forgot how to speak English. After a pregnant pause, he said that the writer of the story (Miller) is an offbeat writer, who has no credibility in the sport and never knows what he’s talking about. He then explained that he didn’t know where the writer got his information, but he had heard nothing from the league about this and he would proceed as usual — while assuming they would renew the deal for another year during race week, like they always do.

It had been a while since I had ever seen anyone appear so clueless, other than in a movie or sitcom. Usually, such incompetence is reserved for fiction. Surely this man had a better grasp of reality, than he was letting on. I kept hoping that this was his public bluff and that he actually had a shrewd negotiating side to him. I was hoping that he was waiting to play his trump card to save the Nashville race. I was wrong.

As the race date drew closer and Robin Miller kept giving grim updates, Mr. Hawks kept repeating the same old litany in every interview. “All is well” became his mantra. I felt so frustrated that a local fan like myself had a better grip on the situation, than the man whose livelihood depended on this deal. I wrote e-mails to the local paper and to the sports talk shows. I generally got responses back indicating that Cliff Hawks would get the deal done — and for me not to worry and to stop listening to some crackpot writer who doesn’t even live here.

The race came and went, and the IRL left town without a deal. The week after the race was the first time that Mr. Hawks sounded worried. His entire demeanor changed, as he suddenly realized there was more to this story than he originally thought. Of course, when the 2009 schedule was announced a few weeks later without Nashville…the local media blasted the IRL, and not Mr. Hawks. Their take was that the IRL had used Nashville to grow their product in its infancy. Now that they had grown up, the IRL was dumping Nashville.

My understanding was that the IRL wasn’t trying to leave Nashville or gouge the track. They just wanted to get the sanctioning fee more in line with what the other venues were paying. I’ll forgive Cliff Hawks on one front…I don’t think he had a lot to work with. Dover Motorsports was supposedly in deep financial trouble and reportedly gave Mr. Hawks very little leeway with which to work. My problem with Mr. Hawks is that on the surface at least, he appeared to be blindsided by the IRL’s requirements. If he was blindsided, perhaps Dover was just as surprised as well.

This was not a popular venue for the teams, drivers or media. Although the track is named Nashville Superspeedway, it is actually located in Gladeville, TN in Wilson County, some forty-five miles from Nashville. The track is literally in the middle of nowhere. The team and media hotels were sometimes nearly an hour away. Plus, there were no restaurants – even fast food, to be found anywhere.

The track here was narrow and offered little passing, even in the days when side-by-side racing was the norm in the IRL. Compounding the issue is the fact that the track has a concrete surface – the only concrete surface on the schedule. The joints in the concrete would literally beat the cars to pieces. In 2005, three of the four AGR cars suffered suspension failures here, due to the rough surface. Plus, the concrete pretty much ate tires. Firestone had to build a completely new tire, unique for this track. About the only positive for the concrete was that the track conditions did not change drastically, when the track cooled off after the sun went down.

So after all of that, why would the IRL ever need to be in Nashville? Well, first of all, Nashville supported this race. The capacity of Nashville Superspeedway is widely debated. Estimates range from 25,000 to 50,000, but I tend to think an accurate number is around 35,000. Regardless, the race was always at or near a sellout every year. Not many IRL venues can make that claim. A sellout crowd for a Saturday night race looks great on television for the league.

In addition to that, Nashville is the home of one of the IRL’s strongest partners – Firestone. Bridgestone-Firestone is one of this city’s best corporate citizens. They are involved on many different levels with charities, community organizations, local sponsorships, etc. Motorsports Director Al Speyer made it clear that Firestone would not force the league into staying in Nashville, yet he hoped that they would. If the league travels halfway around the world to appease Honda at Motegi, you would think they could give some consideration to Firestone and drive four hours to Nashville.

Another reason why the IRL needs to be in Nashville is the location. The southeast is still the fastest growing section of the country, however there is now a void of IndyCar races here. The IRL has staged races in Charlotte, Atlanta and Nashville but left all for different reasons. The race in Kentucky doesn’t count because that track is in the Cincinnati market. Richmond is more part of the Washington D.C. market. If the IRL includes Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham on the 2010 schedule, that will satisfy this part of my argument.

The question remains however, who needs who the most – Nashville or the IRL? One of the arguments for expanding to new venues is deciding if there is a market demand for the IRL. I think Nashville has proven itself for the short and long-term in that regard.

The IRL was developing quite a following here in the traditional heart of NASCAR country. Nashville Superspeedway hosted four major events per year – two Nationwide races, a Camping World Truck race and the IRL. Of those four, the only sellout they had was the IRL. Their brand was growing here and they chose to leave. Should the IRL ever return to Nashville? I think so. Will they return? Probably not – in the short history of the series, I don’t believe the IRL has ever left a market, and then later returned. Maybe this would be a good place to start.

Do Cliff Hawks and Dover Motorsports deserve the bulk of the blame for allowing the IRL to get away? Sure they do. But even with a financially strapped partner and a less than stellar facility, the IRL still had something special here in Nashville. They had a community that embraced their product. I can think of more than a couple of venues where the IRL continues to race, where that is the number one component they crave – and they had that here. In my opinion, had both sides been willing to work a little more with the other – the IRL would be here this weekend, continuing to expand on something they worked eight years to build.

George Phillips

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4 Responses to “How To Mess Up A Good Thing”

  1. John McLallen Says:

    George, that is as good a written statement on the Nashville/IndyCar situation as I have ever read. I saw the growth in fans around the mid state area and I see that they are still here. These people know far more about the series and drivers than anyone looking in from other areas would suspect. Also, the Nashville fans kept coming back to the race because they enjoyed it. They liked having access to the personality of the sport and were knowledgeable about the race itself. This, I think, was never acknowledged by the marketing gurus of the series, but that, in my opinion, is a completely different story. Losing the 200 was the biggest fiasco in Nashville sports history because this was and could still be a winner. Who knows, maybe someone like Bruton Smith will buy the track, develop it to its potential and we the IndyCar race again here in Nashville. The facility has an area that was designated for a NHRA quality drag strip and that would be nice. Memphis, by the way, does very well with their NHRA weekend. We could, too. Of course, I am just a fan, so what do I know?!

    Great one George!

  2. Like Mr. Hawks, I don’t necessarily like Robin Miller, but I have learned one thing in my years of being an IndyCar fan: he is oh-so-rarely actually wrong. Hawks was obviously offended that someone got the scoop on this story and he, like the IMS Board of Directors, gave the “everything’s okay” speech before proving Miller right.

    What I don’t understand is how all of these people that get scooped by Miller go into denial for a month instead of actively trying to fix whatever it is that Miller’s claiming. I’ve been waiting for someone to prove that gasbag wrong for so long now, it’s ridiculous.

  3. I am kind of sad to see Nashville go, only because it was a unique track and one of the few that gave Indycars top billing. But there’s not way in heck if, forced between picking between the two of them, I’d take Nashville over the Indy Toronto. As a loyal Indy/CART fan from Illinois, even I know this is one of the big events on CART’s ledger ever year, and I’m very glad to see it back on the schedule.

    Listen George, because I have actually thought about this idea quite a bit: while the Indycars are over in Japan and gone from America for the better part of two months, why doesn’t the track try and get the Indy Lights to run a race or two? It’s not unprecedented for the Indy Lights to run without the Indycars (see: the old US Grand Prix support races) and since they’re the FIRESTONE Indy Lights Series, I think the local support wouldn’t mind having them, and probably at little or no sanctioning fee because of it!
    Now there’s little you or I could do to move this idea forward, but I think it’s a good one, and a nice temporary fix until the Indycars can work that long break out of their schedule.

    • John McLallen Says:

      gnome, if the Nationwide series can’t drum up a decent crowd at Nashville then an Indy Lights event will draw no one. At least the Nationwide race gets the “Busch Whackers” to come.

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