The Slow Death Of An Icon
This site is usually devoted almost exclusively to the IZOD IndyCar Series. In the past I’ve deviated slightly to discuss the moon landing or to joust with Roy Hobbson. Forgive me today for venturing away from IndyCars and focusing on a venue that is more known for NASCAR Cup racing and USAC Sprints. Still, it is about racing and it satisfies my craving for racing history – so indulge me.
I took in a local icon this weekend, that appears to be destined for the wrecking ball. Long before the concrete white elephant known as Nashville Superspeedway opened in 2001, Nashville was home to one of the oldest tracks in the country – Fairgrounds Speedway. The historic old track and the Tennessee State Fairgrounds that surround it are the subject of a bitter local political dispute. Mayor Karl Dean wants to demolish the site and have the area re-developed for either a business community or a greenway park. He has the full support of residents who have recently moved into the area, only to be shocked to discover that a racetrack sits nearby and is rather loud. Keep in mind that the track was there way before they were. That might explain why the house was so cheap.
Actually, Fairgrounds Speedway has been there in some form or fashion since 1904. It first existed as a dirt track and beginning in 1915, featured many of the same cars and drivers that ran in the Indianapolis 500. The current track was built in 1958 as a paved half-mile oval.
What is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, ran at least one race per season at the track from 1958 until more political squabbling forced NASCAR to leave after the 1984 season. All in all, there have been forty-two NASCAR Cup races at Fairgrounds Speedway. Of those, nine were won by Richard Petty. Aside from all of the NASCAR stars of the day that would run twice a year at the old track; drivers such as Darrell Waltrip, Donnie and Bobby Allison, Sterling Marlin, Bobby Hamilton and Dale Earnhardt raced at the track regularly as part of the weekly racing series during the developmental stages of their careers.
The current configuration is a five-eighths mile oval with eighteen degree banking. The track was lengthened in 1969 with thirty-five degree banking, but that configuration proved to be too fast, so they lowered the banking to the current eighteen degrees in 1972.
I hate to admit that being a life-long Tennessean and having lived in Nashville for the past nine years – I had never been to Fairgrounds Speedway until Saturday. Since I’ve lived here, the track has hosted races every weekend from April to October. It looked as if the Mayor had succeeded in his quest to kill the track, but a new promoter with a family history at the track – Tony Formosa – took it over and was able to put together a very abbreviated season (five dates) for 2010. This past Saturday was one of those dates. With the Titans pre-season kickoff not scheduled until 9:00 on Saturday night, I thought it would be a good opportunity to visit the grand old relic before it was razed.
When I suggested the idea of going to the track to my significant other, she looked at me like I had two heads. With the temperature over a hundred degrees, I knew my daughter had no interest and my son is in Florida. A couple of friends said no, but a co-worker had promised me that he was going. He didn’t. Hot weather and fickle friends would not deter me from experiencing racing history and nostalgia. It’s only a ten minute drive from my house to the track located just south of downtown Nashville. Racing didn’t start until 5:00. I thought it might be cooler then. It wasn’t. Even though I was alone in my quest, I was going.
My first mistake was taking a shower before I went. Not only was it a waste of time, since I started sweating as soon as I got there; but apparently I was the only one there that had bathed in several days. I knew before I arrived, that wearing my IndyCar polo shirt would make me a little out of place. What I didn’t realize, was that actually having sleeves at all would set me apart. Not having any tattoos or a ponytail also put me in the vast minority.
Legends die hard in the south. We’ve managed to keep Elvis and Bear Bryant alive for decades. Add Dale Earnhardt to the mix. I saw no less than three Dale Earnhardt look-alikes complete with bushy mustache and GM Goodwrench apparel.
But being the non-judgmental person that I am, I overlooked the differences in our appearances and talked to several fans around me. I was surprised to find out how much these local stock car fans knew about the IZOD IndyCar Series. Even though no one I talked to had ever been to the Indianapolis 500, a couple had been to the Brickyard 400; but they knew more about our form of racing than I expected. Of course, they all knew about Dario Franchitti, since he lives here – but Tony Kanaan seemed to be the consensus favorite among them. Surprisingly, no one I talked to cared too much for Danica Patrick – but then again, these were real racing fans I was talking to.
I took in the whole experience. I moved around the stands, and I also took advantage of the tasty concessions. Although they didn’t have a tenderloin sandwich that you would find at Indianapolis motor Speedway, they had one of the best corn dogs I’ve ever eaten, at a much more affordable price than you’ll find at IMS.
There were five races. Beginning at 5:00 were the Frontrunners, which resembled old, small cars from the sixties and seventies. I think I saw a Datsun and a Chevy II in the field, and the twenty lap race was won by what looked like an AMC Gremlin. Then the Super Streets took to the track for a thirty lap race. These looked like stock cars from the seventies – a mixture of Monte Carlo’s, Cutlass’s and Century’s.
The Late Models were next. This was when it hit me that things were not all that economically healthy with the track. There were only five cars to start the thirty lap race that featured new-looking cars that resembled what we are used to seeing in NASCAR.
After that, the most curious cars took to the track – the open wheels. I knew that this wouldn’t conform to what my definition of an open-wheel car was, but I thought maybe it might resemble something that looked like a sprint or midget. Instead, it was a strange looking vehicle that looked like a modified stocker with the front fenders removed. This race featured only six cars in a thirty lap race.
Finally, it was time for the feature event; the Pro Late Model race that was scheduled for 125 laps. These also looked like regular NASCAR Cup cars and also featured two-time Daytona 500 winner, Sterling Marlin, who started fifth. For the past hour, dark clouds had been gathering. As the skies grew darker, lightening became very prevalent. This was not the Indianapolis 500 or even the Firestone Indy 200. Although the stands were covered, I didn’t relish the thought of sitting in aluminum grandstands during a lightening storm. Call me a fair-weather fan, but at the first caution on lap twenty-two – I left.
I had seen what I came to see. Quite honestly, all five races that I saw were entertaining. The crowd of regulars all knew who they liked and didn’t like. The only name I knew was Sterling Marlin, so I followed him as he battled for fourth before the first caution. But the racing was fast and furious. I saw passion as drivers got spun fighting to defend their positions. I also saw many drivers in all divisions, fight for the lead; only to blow up after they got there – they had been too hard on their equipment. No rev-limiters there. Patience paid off many times, as those that knew the fine line between running hard and too hard would watch others fall by the wayside.
This was grass-roots racing at the most basic level. Not only did I feel like I was taking a step back in time; I felt like I was in another state. This felt like small town Americana in the truest and best sense. The fans I spoke with have been going every week for years. They were saddened by the political events that make leveling this track a near certainty. The drivers aren’t in this for the money. Few, if any, will ever race beyond this level. They do this because they love it. It’s refreshing to see this kind of passion for a sport, at any level.
Weekly racing is dying across the country. With hundreds of HD channels devoted to the most obscure interests, technology that makes anything a few keystrokes away – it’s hard to conjure up interest among the younger set. But based on the size of the crowd on a hot and sticky Saturday night, there seems to be enough interest among the locals to justify keeping Fairgrounds Speedway around. I just don’t know that there will be that many interested in a greenway park.