Nashville councilman: Metro has 'obligation' to update fairgrounds track for NASCAR – The Tennessean


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Speedway Motorsports has struck a deal that paves the way for NASCAR’s return Nashville and for weekly racing to remain at the venerable short track.
Michael Schwab, Nashville Tennessean

A Metro councilman told the Metro Fair Board of Commissioners on Tuesday that the city has an obligation to maintain the aging Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville to ensure its future success. 

Councilman Robert Swope, a speedway supporter, delivered that message to the five-member board just weeks after Charlotte, N.C.-based Speedway Motorsports Inc. struck a preliminary deal with fairgrounds racetrack operator Tony Formosa for NASCAR’s return to the historic short track. 

But the return is contingent on Speedway Motorsports striking a separate agreement with the city that would likely need to include upgrades to the city-owned track. 

Swope, a first-term councilman from South Nashville and an amateur racer, said it’s his understanding that the mayor’s office is beginning talks with Speedway Motorsports about a 30-year agreement with the city. Speedway Motorsports owns Bristol Motor Speedway, among other tracks.

Related: Track operator strikes deal with Speedway Motorsports to return NASCAR to Nashville

But in a statement, Thomas Mulgrew, a spokesman for Mayor David Briley, said the mayor’s office is not in talks with Speedway Motorsports about any deal.

“Our top priorities are getting soccer ready and upgrading the existing fairgrounds structures,” he said.

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Tony Formosa, 64: The Father Ryan High graduate has raced stock cars at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville since he was 14 and is now the leaseholder of the historic facility. Formosa started managing the track in 2010. Bobby Hamilton took it over in 2011 and Formosa took it back in 2012 and has had it ever since. (Photo: John Partipilo / The Tennessean)

The Metro Council voted in September to finance a $275 million Major League Soccer stadium project for the fairgrounds property, across from the speedway.

Swope, who has kept a close ear to the NASCAR talks, pointed to Nashville voters’ overwhelmingly approval in 2011 to adopt a Metro Charter amendment protecting existing uses at the fairgrounds —  including auto racing. 

“That means that we have a Metro Charter-based obligation to maintain this track and much more importantly, we have an obligation to make it successful,” Swope said. “The folks at Bristol and their family company in Charlotte, SMI, are the very best in the business. They own nine tracks across the country. We are very fortunate to have them at the table with us right now.

“As an amateur racer who has raced on this track multiple times over the past 30 years, I would cry if this track went away.”

Swope: Fairgrounds with updated track can be ‘ground jewel’ of Nashville

Formosa is in the second year of a five-year deal with the fair board to operate local races at the speedway, meaning an amendment to his lease is required for the arrival of Speedway Motorsports.

Despite the mayor’s office denial, Swope predicted that a deal between the mayor’s office and Speedway Motorsports — subject to Metro Council and fair board approval — would likely come together in the coming months. He encouraged the fair board to “look at it favorably.” 

“If we can do for the racetrack what we’re doing for the exhibit space, aka the flea market and the Tennessee State Fair, and what we’re doing for MLS … the Fairgrounds Nashville will become the ground jewel of this city,” said Swope. 

The city broke ground in November on new expo center facilities to replace current sheds and other buildings that will be torn down later this year to make way for the new 30,500-seat MLS stadium.

Laura Womack, fairgrounds director, said she recently had an introductory meeting with representatives from Speedway Motorsports, Metro and Nashville’s Major League Soccer team. 

“We met just to talk about all the projects that are going on and are scheduled to occur,” she said. “It was really just an introductory meeting to get everybody in one room, meet everyone and just get that general introduction.”

Related: Bristol Motor Speedway owner meets with Nashville mayor to pitch return of NASCAR to fairgrounds

She said a follow-up meeting is scheduled for later this week, and she stressed that neither Metro nor the fair board has a deal yet that will ensure the return of NASCAR.

“What has happened is very fruitful discussions between Formosa Productions and Speedway Motorsports to work together to bring a proposal before the board and before Metro, and that’s what we’re working toward right now with those discussions,” Womack said.

Track has received some recent upgrades

The Fairgrounds Speedway, which has received minor cosmetic improvements over the past year, would likely need substantially more upgrades to accommodate NASCAR. That includes lighting specifications to broadcast events on television, safety measures for the track’s walls and sound barriers. 

The city has already set aside $1.7 million for future improvements to the speedway’s grandstands. Further upgrades to the speedway are unclear and would need to be determined by Metro. 

As part of the stadium plan, the council also issued $25 million in general obligation bonds specifically for infrastructure improvements at the fairgrounds for the new MLS stadium.

Ron Gobbell, an architect serving as project manager for the fairgrounds improvement project, updated the board that his team is still in the “early stages” to determine how to proceed with the infrastructure work.

Reach Joey Garrison at 615-259-8236, jgarrison@tennessean.com and on Twitter @joeygarrison.

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