Stranger Things Have Happened

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Last week, there was a blurb that certainly caught my eye as well as many others who follow the Verizon IndyCar Series. It was the announcement that the now-defunct Nashville Superspeedway had been purchased by a Nashville-based group that I, admittedly, had never heard of. NeXovation, Inc. has announced plans to purchase the assets of Nashville Superspeedway from Dover Motorsports, Inc. for $27 million, along with assuming $18 million in debt – which brings the total to around $45 million.

Since I live in Nashville, it is obvious why this caught my attention. But many IndyCar fans are wondering what this might mean for the Verizon IndyCar Series. There was a wide range of opinions regarding this on Twitter the night it was announced. Some interpreted it that it was foregone conclusion that IndyCar would return to the Music City, after running here from 2001 through 2008. Others thought it was a whole lot about nothing and there was no way on earth that the series would return to the 1.33 mile concrete oval. I’m thinking reality may lie somewhere in between – but stranger things have happened.

On the plus side, the Verizon IndyCar Series needs more ovals – plain and simple. More specifically, the series needs ovals that are not owned by International Speedway Corporation (ISC), which is controlled by the France family of NASCAR. ISC has acquired many of the tracks that IndyCar has raced on, but now find themselves on the outside looking in. IndyCar currently races at Fontana – the only track owned by ISC. But the list of tracks that IndyCar no longer schedules, is much longer – Michigan, Phoenix, Watkins Glen, Chicagoland, Richmond, Homestead and Kansas among them. There are also the former IndyCar venues that ISC shuddered, Nazareth and Pike’s Peak, that has longtime IndyCar fans scratching their collective heads.

With the exception of Fontana – ISC has made it clear that they are not interested in giving IndyCar a place to showcase its series. One by one, those venues dropped off of the schedule. When they were on the schedule, it seemed they did nothing to promote the IndyCar races at their own tracks. Now that Iowa has been bought directly by NASCAR, one wonders how long that track will continue to welcome IndyCar.

IndyCar once had a strong relationship with Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI). But after scheduled stops at Atlanta, Charlotte, Kentucky, Las Vegas and New Hampshire – the only two SMI races remaining are at Texas and Sonoma. After spectator fatalities at Charlotte in 1999 and the Dan Wheldon tragedy at Las Vegas in 2011 – the relationship between IndyCar and SMI has been strained. A poor attendance showing at New Hampshire didn’t help either. Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage seems to always be moaning about something related to IndyCar. He was none too happy when the Houston double-header was added to the schedule last year. He also issues veiled threats whenever the possibility of IndyCar running at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin is mentioned. It seems for the past few years, we always wonder if this year’s visit to Texas Motor Speedway will be the last for the series. As we head into Saturday night’s race, we wonder again.

Of the six ovals that now comprise the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule, only two are owned by ISC and SMI – the two groups that own the vast majority of ovals in this country. Whether you are a fan of ovals or road racing, the prevailing opinion is that IndyCar desperately needs more ovals on its schedule, in order to get closer to the desired 50-50 split between ovals and non-ovals. Since neither ISC nor SMI show that they are overly eager to get IndyCar to their tracks, the series has few other tracks to choose from. The Nashville Superspeedway now presents itself as a viable alternative to the ISC/SMI juggernaut.

Another plus is that Firestone is based in Nashville. They would surely like to have their home race back. As the race sponsor, they had a huge hospitality presence at previous races here. It also doesn’t hurt that Nashville is a fun destination city. Yes, there is the well-known country music connection and all the subsequent bars, honky-tonks and music venues that go with that – but Nashville is much more than that.

But that also leads to one of the negatives about holding a Verizon IndyCar race at Nashville Superspeedway. As much fun as downtown Nashville can be, it is nowhere near the Nashville Superspeedway. It is about a forty-five mile drive from downtown Nashville to the track, which is literally in the middle of nowhere. There was a special exit built off of I-840 for the track, with the thinking that if they built the track, development would come. It didn’t. It is in that much of a remote area. There is not a hotel within almost twenty miles of the track. Nor is there a restaurant or even a gas station for miles. Most of the teams had to stay in either Murfreesboro or Lebanon, with neither being exactly close to the track.

Once the teams and drivers got to the track, they were faced with a concrete surface that Jack Arute once demonstrated a cheese grater as a comparison for what the rough surface did to the tires. The concrete lined a race track that was barely more than a single groove. Not to name drop, but…I once talked to Al Unser, Jr. at Barber about the track at Nashville. He said they needed to widen it before IndyCar could return, because it was way too tough to pass on. He was also not a fan of the concrete surface either.

Aside from the track dimensions, the surface and the proximity to downtown Nashville – the facility itself is very nice. There is plenty of room for a midway area just behind the main grandstands on the way from the parking lots. The first few years, there were rows and rows of booths, trailers and concessions. It almost had a county fair atmosphere. However, I noticed each year the number of booths and trailers was fewer and fewer.

As I recall, the concessions and restrooms in the main grandstand were adequate. If they weren’t, I would have remembered.

There are permanent stands that hold 25,000 and areas where temporary stands can be set up to bring total capacity to 45,000. More would be preferable, but that’s a nice place to start. The parking areas are ample – but then, why wouldn’t they be? It’s on plenty of land in the middle of nowhere.

If you’ll recall, the IndyCar races at Nashville Superspeedway were always very well attended. Although the stands only held 25,000 – they always appeared to be near capacity for each of the IndyCar races, which was more than you could say for the Camping World Truck Series race or the two Nationwide races that ran there each year before the track closed following the 2011 season.

That closure of the track capped off a reign of ineptitude by Dover Motorsports and local management, in particular. The track’s General Manager, Cliff Hawks, was nothing more than a buffoon in a suit. Every interview I saw or heard from him struck me as coming from a man who didn’t have a clue as to what he was doing. I saw him on a local Sunday night sports show the weekend before the 2008 race, when it was heavily rumored that IndyCar would not be returning the following year. When asked about the rumor, he had a confused look on his face and genuinely acted like it was the first time he had heard about it. He assured everyone that IndyCar would be returning the following year. I thought to myself that he was either the most clueless man on the planet or the greatest actor. It turned out to be the former.

Reportedly, IndyCar had been charging Nashville Superspeedway the lowest sanctioning fee of any venue on the schedule. In their attempt to make fees more uniform across the board, NSS balked – saying it didn’t fit their business model. I’ve heard through the grapevine that the IndyCar race was the track’s only moneymaker. I was curious at the time how losing their only moneymaker fit their business model. It might explain why the track folded three years later.

Of course, a lot has to happen before the Verizon IndyCar Series can turn another wheel at Nashville Superspeedway. The deal is not expected to close until the third quarter at the earliest. NeXovation, Inc. has not announced what exactly they plan to do with the track, but they have indicated it will be to promote automotive technology and motor sports. It’s good to know they don’t plan on building a giant distribution center on the site.

For one thing, the track would have to be significantly modified – and that takes money. Perhaps their pockets are deeper than the previous owners and they can make the necessary modifications to the track to make it more racy and more appealing to the drivers.

This is the same company that was the highest bidder for Germany’s Nürburgring this past March. For whatever reason, the bid was awarded to another group. NeXovation has filed suit through the European Commission and it is still pending.

One wonders if this was strictly a political ploy to keep a US firm from owning such a historic landmark, or were there other factors involved? As I mentioned, I had never heard of NeXovation, Inc. until last week – and they are based right here in Nashville. I would think it would be normal to question their finances, given the fact they are relatively new (2012) and are a flatwire technology company that is now buying up motorsports properties. From what I have read about them, they seem to be a successful technology company and the leadership appears to be sound. But they have never operated a commercial racing venue before. I think I would be very naïve if I weren’t just a little skeptical of their ability to make this facility meet their goals, much less be able to lure IndyCar back.

Stranger things have happened, though. Curt Cavin always says that IndyCar can only go where they are wanted. Since the open-wheel races were supposedly the only thing that sold out the venue, you’d have to think that new track management might want them back. If that’s the case, then I think it should fall upon Mark Miles and Firestone to do whatever it takes that is reasonable for all parties and make it happen. An additional oval in a popular market that is roughly a four hour drive from Indianapolis just might make some sense after all – but the planets have to align perfectly for it all to fall into place. Stranger things have happened.

George Phillips

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19 Responses to “Stranger Things Have Happened”

  1. I hope IndyCar goes back to Nashville. Admittedly, the final races there were complete snoozers thanks to the half-lane groove of the track. BUT, with the DW12, maybe it gets racy again. Or maybe they can put in some variable banking like Iowa, Kansas and elsewhere that seems to plus up the product for multiple functions. Only one nit to pick, and that’s the unsupported claim that ISC doesn’t want IndyCar to succeed. I just don’t think that’s true, and anecdotal “there’s no promotion” claims from people in ISC markets don’t convince me either. Rather than blame promotion, I blame the brand for being week and not attracting customers. If Tide sales suck, don’t blame Walmart. IndyCar had a very hard time competing for racing dollars at tracks that featured a big slate of NASCAR as well, such as Chicagoland and Kansas. There are only so many dollars for oval racing in a market, and IndyCar just couldn’t attract fans who dumped all their money on NASCAR races in KS and Chicagoland. New Hampshire was a disaster, revenue-wise, and Las Vegas drew about as many fans as a Wayne Newton show despite heavy promotion. Finally, Iowa Speedway is now owned directly by NASCAR (as opposed to it’s track operator, ISC) and so far so good with IndyCar continuing to be welcomed here. Of course IndyCar has a title sponsor at Iowa, Iowa Corn Growers, so as long as they stay happy, the track makes money, and we can all party on. If I was IndyCar, I’d be sending love grams to the corn growers. Any bets on if that is occurring? Does IndyCar’s hyper focus on IMS come at the expense of focus on other venues? I’m just asking …

    • The Lapper Says:

      Sometimes “Tide sales suck” because the store won’t merchandise it well enough to be seen first by the shopper. As any marketer will tell you, it is all about shelf space.

      • Fair enough, but how are shelf space/merchandising decisions made? By the whims of the management or by what makes them the most money? Tide invests tens of millions into building its brand for just that reason … it creates demand among customers, and that drives customers to stores looking for that product, and smart store owners make it easy for customers to find and buy that product. As any marketer will tell you, brand drives shelf space, not vice versa.

        • The Lapper Says:

          Shelf space is bought! Also, piss off Wal-Mart and your sales goes flat. A store like Wal-Mart can and will dictate terms.

        • Sherman Nelson Says:

          The Lapper is right, shelf space in the stores are bought. Coke and Pepsi war over shelf space as I would think Tide and Blue Cheer does. However, look at the store as a track and then see how promotion and advertising would garner sales (seats).

          As for the Tide sales rep for Wal Mart, he is on their beck and call 24/7 and is jumping through hoops on a daily basis. Life as a Wal Mart account rep must be horrible because they always have you thinking that you might lose the deal. My brother in law did that for a top ‘brand named product” and he was told it was a promotion. He moved to Bentonville and was sick of it within three months. He said that he had no life and they “acted like they owned him.” Well, they did own him and everyone knew it. Like the Lapper said, they dictate terms.

  2. would a company spend that much money on a track without having at least an idea about who or what is going to race there? so I hope there’s been talk already.

  3. dzgroundedeffects Says:

    As stated, I’m all for the NashvilleSS return to the Indycar fold if that is in the cards. I will be there for the grand re-opening as well. Seems there are so many positives to it working, would be a shame if it doesn’t.

    As soon as I heard the news, I googleEarthed the site and it appears to have much going for it. Grandstands and SAFER barrier were the first two things I looked for… yes and yes. Ample parking, camping space, and near the interstate… yes to all.

    OHHHH and lights! I forgot Nashville ran under the lights as well.. Night Indycar oval races are a widely underrated/understated aphrodisiac in my opinion.

    Hopefully the track can be made to work with Indycars again and vice-versa. I’ll be there.

  4. Ron Ford Says:

    While Curt Cavin and others have said that IndyCar can only go where it is “wanted”, that is only true in the sense that promoters want a race event that they can make money with. The IndyCar sanctioning fee is too high for the reality of today’s economy and for the reality of current public interest in racing in general.

  5. Ditto all that DZ said above. I’m, of course, also for it, since I’d be able to sleep in my own bed on race weekend…

  6. billytheskink Says:

    About everyone here has hit on these points, but I think it is fair to restate them. The keys to adding any new venue to the schedule, especially an oval, are a promoter who needs events and title sponsorship. Sure, there are politics and financial details that can scuttle a deal at any track, but the formula of (promoter with a date) + (title sponsorship) = (race on schedule) is fairly tried and true.

    Fontana rejoined the schedule, despite all of the alleged ISC politics, because the track felt it needed a second major racing event date and a title sponsor was found. We’re going on 3 years now since Fontana’s return, and it seems that the race will continue as long as both parts of the formula remain present.

    For all of the hand-wringing over Texas and the concern (or, with some odd fans, anticipation) for its seemingly inevitable departure from the schedule, it is too rarely mentioned that it is a race with title sponsorship at a track that has long run 3 major racing event weekends. The crowds at TMS are not what they once were, but I would be surprised if the Indycar weekend is losing money for the track, and even more surprised if Indycar or Eddie Gossage let go of a money-making event over pride or petty politics.

    If Nashville’s new owners are interested in promoting major racing events, Indycar would likely be under consideration. Despite the high sanctioning fee, Indycar draws paved oval crowds that can be matched or surpassed only by NASCAR’s 3 national series (and not always by Busch and Trucks). If they have both parts of the formula, interest and sponsorship, Nashville will return to the Indycar schedule. I would gladly welcome Nashville back. My Indycar oval pipe dream remains, however, at another ex-Dover Downs track… the little oval outside of Memphis.

    • everyone is always referencing Indycar’s high sanctioning fees. I know the fee varies from track-to-track, but are they really so high that tracks can’t make money from the series and if that’s true, then why (business-wise) would Indycar charge so much? does anyone outside of Indycar really know the rates or do we just assume they are so outrageous?

      • I do know that Indycar is suing the promoters of the Brazil race for not paying the two required payments for sanctioning fees. The amount of the suit is quoted as being “just under ten million dollars.

  7. dzgroundedeffects Says:

    In theory, any track (ISC included) should be happy enjoy the profits from an Indycar event were they so successful.

    In reality, ISC sees little to no financial incentive to add the expense of sanctioning fee, staffing, and necessary promotion (most tracks have to sell tickets) for an Indycar race, short of a 80% sell-out. Not only is there added expense, I contend that another primary issue is that it is not in the interest of NASCAR to take income from the ticket-buying geography for Indycar at the potential expense of ticket buyers for NASCAR.

    Where you find a different attitude is with independently-owned ovals who feature races from both sanctions, vis-a-vis Pocono. Brandon Igdalsky has done an great job embracing (not merely accepting the money of) Indycar fans, promoting all events with enthusiasm, and by doing so, earns my loyalty and money much sooner than any current or future event at an ISC track.

    Simply, ISC tracks are still ‘NASCAR turf’. Do they want a better product/show coming to town even if it meant a profit? My gut feeling is ‘no’ and especially not if there’s no profit in it. Fontana is the ISC exception because (IMO), it really isn’t NASCAR country and my hunch is that they get a sweetheart sanctioning number that makes the meager 25,000-30,000 in ticket sales palatable.

    • billytheskink Says:

      Fontana is also an ISC exception in that they were hosting only one major racing event weekend prior the return of Indycar.

      All other ISC tracks host multiple major racing event weekends, except for Darlington and Homestead.

  8. Ticket sales first, but a sharp promoter will also have the sales team out selling sponsorships and promotions that do two things, drive ticket sales and bring in more money. Estimated ticket sales are very much a part of the package, but the sponsorships will help to take care of the sanctioning fee.

    I like what IMS did this last month with the concerts. From what I saw Saturday afternoon on race weekend, Jason Aldean was huge. Also, IMS has a country connection that seems to be successful. With Martina McBride and Leanne Rimes on the preshow as well as Jason Aldean the night before, I’d say they must see something very positive with the “Nashville” connection. Maybe that can work into having races here again.

  9. And their other tracks Dover Motorsports used to own, Memphis & St. Louis? NASCAR left them too. It would be nice if parties could make all three work for IndyCar.

    • Joe Korak Says:

      They left because the tracks closed and not because of anything else. Dover had their eye on CUP racing and slowly lost money by not taking care of what they had. As George pointed out, the Nashville braintrust of the Dover operation didn’t know how to promote the races or the facility and it looks like that is what happened at the other tracks.

  10. Yannick Says:

    It’s good to see your hometown oval finally having its chances of getting back its IndyCar race increased, George. The addition of Nashville to the Verizon IndyCar Series surely would be good for the parity of ovals and twisties. Now, it’s best to wait and see what the new owners will want to do with their purchase.

    It’s rather worrysome that Iowa Speedway has recently been acquired by NASCAR. IndyCar has been rather big in Iowa so I have some hope the race is going to stay. After all, the Cup schedule can only have so many races.

    To be honest, I’d prefer a return of IndyCar to Sparta, Kentucky, or Chicagoland over a comeback of Nashville. But Bruton Smith might think different.

    Regarding ovals, there have been rumors of the new owners of Gateway (St. Louis) being interested in IndyCar, but things have gotten fairly quiet on that subject. And also, a new oval in Canada in the Fort Erie/Niagara Falls region has been in development for quite a few years now. That should be a great market for the Verizon IndyCar Series, too.

    Too bad that there isn’t much of a chance of the Verizon IndyCar Series reaching out to staging a race in Europe. That event would automatically become my “home race” then.

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