Music City revs up

Almost overnight, Nashville has transformed into a hotbed for motorsports, with this week’s IndyCar street race keeping the wheels turning.

By Adam Stern
Drivers enjoyed doing burnouts along the honky-tonks of Broadway after NASCAR moved its annual awards banquet to Nashville in 2019. NASCAR plans to be back in Nashville for the event this year.getty images

In only a couple of years, Nashville has gone from having virtually no major league racing presence to having transformed into one of the most important motorsport meccas in America. Music City has turned into Race City.

 

The trend started in 2019 when NASCAR brought its postseason awards banquet to Nashville from Las Vegas. Then this year, NASCAR held a Cup Series race in the city for the first time since 1984, staging the event in front of a sellout crowd of 40,000 at Nashville Superspeedway. Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway is vying to host a Cup Series race of its own.

The fledgling Superstar Racing Experience wrapped up its inaugural season before a sellout crowd at the 14,000-seat Fairgrounds Speedway last month. And NASCAR team owner Justin Marks, who lives in the Nashville area, is so sold on the market that he’s looking at building a new shop for his Trackhouse Racing team in the city, despite how most NASCAR teams are traditionally based in the Carolinas.

The momentum continues this weekend with IndyCar hosting the inaugural Music City Grand Prix, a street race that will wind around the Tennessee Titans’ Nissan Stadium and over a bridge toward downtown Nashville. Organizers expect a sellout crowd of around 60,000 on Sunday.

Nashville

2020 population: 1,961,232 (+23% since 2010)

Per capita personal Income: $37,696 (U.S.: $35,672)

Demographics

Median age: 36.7 (U.S. 38.5)

White: 71%

Black: 15%

Hispanic: 8%

Rank among TV markets: 29th (down from 28 in 2019-20)/1.1 million homes (up 12% over 2019-20); slightly fewer homes than Baltimore and slightly more than Salt Lake City

Major sports teams: Class AAA Nashville Sounds (since 1978); Tennessee Titans (1998); Nashville Predators (1998); Nashville SC (2020); Vanderbilt, Belmont and Lipscomb universities

Venues: Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway (1904, renovated 1958); Bridgestone Arena (1996); Nissan Stadium (opened 1999); (Nashville Superspeedway (2001); First Horizon Park (2015); Nashville Fairgrounds Stadium (scheduled to open 2022)

Fortune 500 headquarters: HCA Healthcare (No. 62); Dollar General (91); Community Health Systems (259); Tractor Supply (291); Delek US Holdings (397)

Other major employers: Vanderbilt University; Nissan North America; Ascension Saint Thomas (medical center); Bridgestone Americas; Shoney’s; Cracker Barrel Old Country Store; SmileDirectClub

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau; Nielsen; Fortune magazine (June 2021); Nashville Business Journal (June 2021); SBJ research

So how did Nashville get so racey? For starters, the market is one of the hottest in the nation, with a booming tourism and convention business that leans upon its roots in country music and entertainment. The city has seen its population jump by 23% since 2010 and is now home to five Fortune 500 companies. Its roster of professional teams expanded with MLS franchise Nashville SC last year, and the club is now building a $335 million stadium at the Nashville Fairgrounds site.

Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., said it was part luck, part skill that the city has had an influx of racing activities in a short amount of time. He said the NFL draft’s unrivaled success in the market in 2019, when it brought out 600,000 people over three days, has also helped the city’s sports business momentum.

“Events are a big part of our general strategy, and the SRX race was probably the most opportunistic,” Spyridon said. “IndyCar we got approved last year with the assumption that we would be back doing live events, which became extremely important to us. And then it was a pure coincidence that the Cup race ended up in Wilson County [where Nashville Superspeedway is located].”

Still, Spyridon took credit for the fact that Nashville had long pitched NASCAR on the notion that “we could be part of NASCAR’s recovery — it seemed like NASCAR left its base in the South for a while.”

But due to the economic devastation wreaked by the pandemic upon tourism-dependent cities like Nashville, the racing events have now become a key part of Nashville’s recovery. Spyridon said that not only are live events welcome in general, the races this year ended up falling at a time when the city has a dip in its bookings for conventions.

NASCAR identified Nashville as a key market to go to in part because its TV viewership for the sport is near the top of the charts each week. Nashville is the 10th highest-rated market for Cup Series races this season, the sanctioning body told Sports Business Journal, underscoring its importance not only for hosting events but also for TV viewership. 

“Nashville has become a must-visit destination for entertainment and sports as well as a city rich with NASCAR synergies,” Ben Kennedy, NASCAR’s senior vice president of strategic development who helps oversee scheduling, told SBJ. “We witnessed that firsthand [in June] with a fantastic weekend of racing in front of a capacity crowd at Nashville Superspeedway, as well as in 2019 when we brought our season-ending celebration to the Music City.”

NASCAR is so keen on Nashville that it has even looked at trademarking the term “NASHCAR.” A large “#NASHCAR” sign at Nashville Superspeedway’s race in June was a popular place for fans to take pictures.

That June race was the first grandstand sellout crowd for any NASCAR race since the start of the pandemic. While there were some issues with ingress and egress, the overall performance delighted Nashville Superspeedway President Erik Moses, whose track has a four-year Cup Series race deal.

Moses recounted receiving a text afterward from Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s former most popular driver and current NBC Sports broadcaster, who had been skeptical that the facility in the suburbs was the sport’s answer to finding a home in Music City. Earnhardt has been vocal in his support of a bid by Speedway Motorsports to bring the Cup Series to Fairgrounds Speedway. But after seeing the results of the inaugural event at Nashville Superspeedway, Earnhardt sent a message to Moses: “Hey man, I’m sorry. I got it wrong,” Moses recounted.

Speedway Motorsports continues its efforts to land a deal with the city that would see it renovate and operate Fairgrounds Speedway for at least a decade, and play host to NASCAR events. While a precise number has not been officially announced on how much Speedway Motorsports would invest, sources believe it could be in the range of $70 million to $80 million.

Safety fencing has gone up along the IndyCar circuit that will lead from Nissan Stadium.Courtesy of 615GP

Granting the track a Cup Series date would create a rarity in the sport for running its premier circuit at two different tracks in the same market.

Jerry Caldwell, the Bristol Motor Speedway executive who is also overseeing the Nashville project for Speedway Motorsports, believes the market can support two NASCAR race weekends. Caldwell pointed to the city’s recent sporting success, including the huge crowds for the 2019 NFL draft.

“What we see in Nashville is what everybody else is seeing,” Caldwell said, noting that Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith and Executive Chairman Bruton Smith “noticed this years ago and have seen the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway as a diamond in the rough.”

While Speedway Motorsports continues its efforts, what’s already certain is this weekend’s IndyCar Grand Prix. Organizers have invested around $10 million and have set up an intricate circuit that includes part of Nissan Stadium and the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge, which drivers will race over at speeds well above 100 mph.

The bridge portion of the circuit is expected to provide dramatic visuals for broadcaster NBC Sports. The fact that organizers were able to set up such an intricate temporary track not only over a bridge but also near the busy downtown area has left IndyCar executives feeling vindicated in their belief that the event had potential.

The race is being entirely privately funded by a group called 615GP, whose investors include local business people such as Phillips Infrastructure Holdings Chairman Teddy Phillips, Clayton Homes President and CEO Kevin Clayton, Big Machine Records President and CEO Scott Borchetta, plus Earnhardt and Marks, the NASCAR team owner.

When Music City GP organizers met last year with IndyCar owner Roger Penske and his team to set up the deal for the race, Penske was initially skeptical, according to comments by Matt Crews, the CEO of the GP, to the Nashville Business Journal, a sister publication of SBJ.

“Roger was saying, ‘These things are tough. The permitting is tough,’” Crews recounted about a meeting last year at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Butch said, ‘Sir, you’ve just never done business in Nashville.’”

Now, a year later, IndyCar executives say they’re delighted with how the initial race weekend is shaping up. Jason Rittenberry, COO of the GP, said the event won’t be profitable this year but that organizers are hoping it will be by the third running in 2023. The deal was initially announced as a multiyear venture. Street races are notoriously expensive to pull off, especially with the initial coursework needed in the first year.

The race is sold out of hospitality inventory, although Rittenberry conceded that organizers could have added extra chalets had sponsorship demand been stronger. He said revenue projections are on point, and organizers nailed their budget on expenses they could control, but ones that have been out of their control — like material costs skyrocketing and labor becoming more expensive — have made them slightly miss their cost projections for the first year.

The GP has had a close relationship with the Titans from the start, and the NFL franchise has invested in the event but is not an equity stake owner. Parts of the stadium parking lots are being used for the racing circuit; parts of the stadium are being used for premium seating, a media center and a volunteer headquarters; and tickets are being sold through the Titans’ network.

Sponsors for the event include Big Machine Records, Anheuser-Busch, Firestone — which is based in Nashville — Comcast/Xfinity, Hunt Brothers Pizza and Zaxby’s. General admission tickets start at $131 for a three-day weekend pass, while single-day general admission tickets for the IndyCar event on Sunday start around $85.

Some of the temporary seating used for June’s NASCAR race at Nashville Superspeedway was taken across town to the Music City GP circuit, part of an arrangement between the two Nashville entities to share equipment to create financial and logistical efficiencies.

A successful weekend will be another boon for Nashville’s motorsports aspirations. And for those working in the trenches, the market has plenty of room to grow.

“The success that Middle Tennessee has shown for supporting motorsports is just a testament and assurance of what we feel like is there,” Caldwell said of the recent sellout of other races. “Nashville is the Las Vegas of the Southeast, and with the amount of tourism and it being a destination market, we know it’s something folks will want to travel to and be a part of.”

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