Another End To An Era

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At the time, I was unaware of the irony. During the rain-delay at Pocono last Sunday, my friend Paul Dalbey and I made the short trek down to Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Yes, we were tourists and found the homes of Mario and Marco Andretti; but the main purpose of our visit was to check out the now-defunct Nazareth Speedway.

It was a sad sight. We have no pictures because there was no way to get up to the track (except in Turn Two – but it was raining). But what was visible matched the stories I’ve heard about the condition of the track itself. The track signage was gone, but the smaller signs for the gates were still there – the only real confirmation that we were in the right area. The parking lots off of each turn looked desolate. There were tall weeds and small trees growing through each crack in the pavement. I’ve heard the track is in similar condition.

It’s had to believe how bad a track can deteriorate after being shuttered for twelve years. This looked more like an old relic leftover from the depression of the thirties. What we could see of the outside wall looked like it was crumbling and falling apart. Thinking of some of the great races I watched at Nazareth in the nineties made a sad feeling come over me to see its condition today.

There is something very sobering about a neglected race track. I can only imagine how Wilbur Shaw felt when he arrived for tire testing at a shut-down Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with World War II winding down. The photos reveal a once-proud facility in the midst of decay. Fortunately, Wilbur Shaw was able to convince Tony Hulman to buy the grand facility in the fall of 1945 – and the rest is history.

On a much smaller scale, history had the chance to repeat itself right here in Music City. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

Last week, it was announced that the beleaguered Nashville Superspeedway (NSS) was sold to California-based Panattoni Development Company for a total price of $44.7 million, which includes $27.5 million in cash and $17 million in debt. This came after the NeXovation fiasco over the last couple of years.

For those that don’t remember, NeXovation is a Nashville-based company. It exists primarily on paper. Their paper existence is based on a thirty year-old patent owned by their CEO Rob Sexton. They have no product and seemingly little money. Their financial health appears to hinge on their ability to sue other companies when things don’t go their way. This was their apparent strategy when their plan to purchase Germany’s Nürburgring in the spring of 2014 fell apart. When the deal fell through, NeXovation sued and tied up the track in litigation for an extended period of time.

This appeared to be their strategy for Nashville Superspeedway. The predictable delays and extensions came and went. They paid over $1 million in non-refundable penalties for not meeting deadlines. The deal finally fell through for good when NeXovation failed to make a $1.5 million payment to keep the deal alive.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see the flaws with the NeXovation deal. It would have been great had it worked because the facility would have remained a motorsports facility; but it was obvious from the beginning that this deal was doomed.

The Panattoni deal sounds much more promising, if you are Dover Motorsports – the current owners of the track. They built the track with the same concrete surface in use at The Monster Mile at Dover International Speedway. The abrasive concrete surface, the configuration of the track and the location (forty miles from downtown Nashville) all worked together for the track’s undoing. NSS hosted IndyCar races from 2001 to 2008.

Local media coverage blamed IndyCar for the series leaving after the 2008 season. I always blamed the track’s clueless GM Cliff Hawks, who was easily paying the lowest sanctioning fee on the schedule and had no idea why the series wanted to raise them up to the level that every other track was paying. He tried calling their bluff without even bargaining and the series walked. Hawks is now out of the motorsports business and is managing research laboratory land for the University of Tennessee.

Dover Motorsports is ecstatic over the Panattoni deal and they should be. All indications are that the deal should go through. But the future looks dim if you are an IndyCar fan in the south.

Since 2008, I’ve always held out hope that the Verizon IndyCar Series would return to my city. The dearth of ovals on past schedules always seemed to make a case for a return to Nashville. NSS was not owned by ISC or SMI – the two companies that own most of the oval tracks in the US – so it would be easier to strike a deal. But there was one problem. Dover Motorsports closed NSS after the 2011 season. It was obvious that if an IndyCar race was to return to Nashville Superspeedway, it would only be if the track had a new owner.

The Panattoni deal has pretty well squelched that. They plan to build a logistics and distribution center on the site. The new owners have said that they will leave the track alone, for now – but they reiterated that they are not in the business of motorsports. Last night, Kevin Lee channeled his inner Lloyd Christmas (from Dumb and Dumber) and said “…so you’re telling me there’s a chance”.

I think it’s safe to say that this was the final nail for a track that has been on life-support for some time. It’s sad, but I remember the excitement throughout the south when plans were announced for Nashville Superspeedway in 1999. While landing the IndyCar race was good, it was assumed that it would only be a matter of time before NASCAR’s Cup Series returned to Nashville for the first time since running the old Fairgrounds Speedway for the last time in 1984. It never happened. Fifteen years after the track first opened, it appears it will fall to the wrecking ball. What a waste.

This is not as tragic as looking at the ruins of Nazareth Speedway or what Wilbur Shaw viewed at Indianapolis near the end of World War II. But for us here in the Music City, we are feeling sadness for our short lived track, nonetheless. Although it was short in race track terms, last week’s news represented another end to an era for Nashville Superspeedway.

George Phillips

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6 Responses to “Another End To An Era”

  1. If it’s not a SMI or ISC track, It ain’t going to happen with NASCAR. When other people thought to build an oval track in hopes of getting a NASCAR race, it never happen. Colorado Springs, Nashville, and Gateway were some examples. Went to Nazareth for a few of the Cart/ IRL races. Track is like Richmond, Don’t blink or they’re gone past for another lap..Quickly. Lot of good places to eat also. All the little towns in the area..Penske shops were over in Reading, Nazareth is were they tested “the Beast” in the snow. Racing can sometimes be a history lesson.

  2. I always wondered if there were enough open wheel fans in that region to support the event in the long term…especially as NASCAR didn’t think it worth pursuing, and an oval in the South without a NASCAR date is, well…pretty much useless, isn’t it?

  3. billytheskink Says:

    “Missed opportunity” is probably not a fair label for it because the Speedway never expressed any interest, but I think it sure would have been interesting had IMS looked into buying Nashville and the other tracks Dover Downs was closing back in 2011 (Memphis and Gateway). That would have secured three dates for the Indycar schedule and IMS could possibly have bolstered the positions of all three tracks with NASCAR as well.
    Rockingham can still be had, if IMS ever does become interested in owning other tracks. I expect that will happen only in my imagination…

    Unlike Nashville’s single decade of history, Nazareth at least had a good run. What is especially sad about Nazareth are ISC’s reasons for shutting it down, which seem pretty silly these days (at least the idea of protecting the proposed Staten Island track does), and the fact that it has been left out to decompose.

  4. I thought that we would get a drag strip and dirt track with the super speedway, but that is how it goes. If I were a company like Panattoni I would buy the land, too. It has an excellent on and off ramp to 880 and 880 goes to interstates 40, 24 and 65 in all directions quickly. In the end, I still think the Nashville area is perfect for a race track with a drag strip, ect. and maybe one day it will be built.

  5. I’ve seen photos online of the disused racetracks at North Wilkesboro and Keimola. They look even more run-down and/or grown over than the oval at Nazareth. With the huge amount of new oval circuits that were built from the mid-90s onwards, it was inevitable that some of the oval circuits in existence then would leave the scene and be dismantled.

    This subject might be a good story for another blog post, comparing what ovals were around in 94 to today and comparing additions and removed/closed tracks. To date, Nazareth and North Wilkesboro are obviously the most striking track closures from this time period onwards, and Iowa Speedway is possibly the most successful newly opened oval. But there are also those that came and went, such as the Mickyard which used to be on the parking lot of Disney at Orlando, Florida, and Nashville Superspeedway – or even Eurospeedway Lausitz which is in the country from where I write these lines.
    There are more circuits in each category, and much to reminisce about. I’m curious if you like the topic, George, and would consider writing about it.

    Here’s hoping the Milwaukee Mile finds a new IndyCar promoter quickly and survives these developments.

  6. I never understood why NSS’s distance from Nashville-proper was always such a big detracting factor? Milwaukee and IMS are the exceptions, not the rule. Less than an hour seems like a good balance between proximity and staying away from NIMBYs.

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