Stranger Things Have Happened
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.