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The drive to give new life to historic tracks

By Adam Stern
Speedway Motorsports intends to renovate Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.Perkins Eastman

At a time when NASCAR is eyeing state-of-the-art innovations to help spark its resurgence, the sport is also looking to its past with a couple of historic short tracks being considered for renovation.

 

Track operator Speedway Motorsports is at the heart of the gamble, working on a deal to refurbish Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway and bring major NASCAR events back to the downtown area of Music City. Speedway Motorsports has struck a deal in principle with the city, which owns the Fairgrounds, but it still needs to be approved by local councils, and some residents have opposed the plan.

The track was built as a dirt oval in 1904 and paved in 1958. Speedway Motorsports is targeting 2024 as the year to bring NASCAR back to the roughly half-mile track, which hasn’t hosted the Cup Series since 1984.

Speedway Motorsports is also working on a project to renovate the historic 0.625-mile North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina, although the track operator’s full intent — including whether to bring NASCAR Cup Series races back there — is not yet clear. The state recently allocated $18 million to the track, which opened in 1947, as part of Speedway Motorsports’ efforts, although a full re-modernization of the aged venue is expected to cost much more.

The moves come at a time when NASCAR fans have been resolutely pushing the sport to add more short tracks to its schedule. In a sport obsessed with nostalgia, the idea of renovating decades-old tracks is bold but feasible, and NASCAR has been reimagining its schedule. Still, questions remain about what the projects will entail, how soon they can happen and how well NASCAR fans will respond.

Renovating antiquated short tracks “has its limitations — it wouldn’t succeed in every location,” said former driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., the NBC Sports broadcaster and entrepreneur who is a confidant of Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith.

It also has plans for the abandoned North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina.getty images

“The reason we left North Wilkesboro wasn’t because it was failing; there was just this idea that we needed to be grander and there were bigger opportunities in Texas and so forth,” Earnhardt said. “That’s why North Wilkesboro could work, because a lot of people didn’t want to see it go away.” Speedway Motorsports moved races from North Wilkesboro to Texas Motor Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway in the 90s.

“Then with the Fairgrounds, it’s a functioning facility and the fact that we took the [NASCAR] awards banquet there (to Nashville) … has given it a real opportunity, real life,” Earnhardt said.

The NASCAR Cup Series returned to Nashville this year but races at Nashville Superspeedway, which was built in 2001. The plans for the Fairgrounds set up an interesting dynamic given that no city has two tracks that host Cup Series races, and they became less clear after Speedway Motorsports reached an agreement to purchase Nashville Superspeedway last month. That deal is still subject to approval from shareholders of Dover Motorsports, which owns the Superspeedway.

While Smith has been clear that he wants to bring back top-flight NASCAR racing to the Fairgrounds, his exact intentions with North Wilkesboro remain less clear. He said in a statement when the $18 million allocation was announced that the goal “will be to modernize the property so that it can host racing and special events again in the future.” Speedway Motorsports would not comment further.

Ben Kennedy, NASCAR’s senior vice president of strategy and innovation, told Sports Business Journal that the North Wilkesboro project “is an interesting concept — we obviously have a ton of fans in that North Carolina/South Carolina corridor, and as we look at future schedules and iterations, we’ll certainly stay close to [Speedway Motorsports’] Marcus Smith, Mike Burch and the entire team [about the possibility]. … That said, we want to make sure that we’re not oversaturating that market, too.”

While the prospect of a Cup Series race in North Wilkesboro would face longer odds given a multitude of factors, NASCAR’s other tiers, such as the Xfinity and Truck series, could be candidates to race there.

The upstart Superstar Racing Experience would also be interested in running a race at North Wilkesboro, according to co-founder Ray Evernham, who said “let me tell you, we would love to be at North Wilkesboro — that would be awesome.”

One other historic track that is being renovated is Rockingham Speedway in North Carolina, although its prospects for bringing NASCAR back are even less clear because it is now owned by a group of local investors instead of a promoter heavyweight like NASCAR or Speedway Motorsports, which control most of the Cup Series dates on the schedule. Rockingham will get $9 million in state funds for its renovation efforts as part of the recent state allocation. The track last hosted a NASCAR Cup Series race in 2004.

“Rockingham is missing a lot of the variables and ingredients that those two tracks have to ever get the sport to go back there,” Earnhardt said. “Not saying it never will happen, but I just don’t see how it can create the momentum the other two have created.”

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