Mayor Cooper strikes deal to bring NASCAR back to Fairgrounds
Mayor John Cooper and Bristol Motor Speedway have struck an initial deal that could bring NASCAR back to Nashville's Fairgrounds Speedway. The city has signed a letter of intent with Bristol to renovate the city's historic short track into a "significant money-making operation" that will shift financial responsibility of renovations and upkeep to the company. In a news release Friday, the administration said the city will issue no more than $50 million in bonds for racetrack renovations.
Under the deal, debt and project costs will be covered by revenues generated from racing and other events held at the revamped venue, including lease payments and taxes and fees collected from visitors. State legislation is still needed in order for a portion to ticket sales to be rerouted to fund improvements. Sponsors are state Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, and state Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville.
The company will pay the city an annual lease payment to manage and operate the track and share a percentage of revenue from events with Metro. Those details have not yet been determined. Talks between the city and company remain ongoing. A final deal requires approval of the fair board, the Metro Council and the company. The letter of intent, signed Friday, allows Bristol to move forward with design work for speedway improvements. It comes after company officials met with Cooper on Thursday and visited with state officials.
Speedway Motorsports, which owns Bristol Motor Speedway, has pitched its vision for the Nashville short track to two previous administrations. Details shared publicly so far include plans for a 30,000 seat-structure with more pitch for better sight lines for fans. It'll be built forward toward the race track to eliminate unused space between the stands and the track — gaining more seat capacity. The renovated speedway will incorporate sound considerations and noise mitigation while modernizing the track for driver safety and satisfaction, facility efficiency and for a better fan experience overall, the company previously told The Tennessean.
Initial plans for an overhauled venue also include an expanded concourse, premium seating, pedestrian tunnels and sound barriers. As part of the project, officials say the aging grandstands likely won't be salvageable and might need to be demolished to make way for a new one. The demolition of the grandstands would require a supermajority 27-vote threshold for passage on the council, similar to what was needed to demolish existing buildings and structures at the fairgrounds to make way for the soccer stadium, the future home of Nashville SC.
As part of the deal, Bristol will also lease all fairgrounds property, with the exception of MLS stadium and multi-use development, four weeks a year for $1 million to host major racing events. “The goal of the partnership is to bring our historic racetrack back to life as a valuable and exciting part of the Fairgrounds,” Cooper said in a statement.
“We have an obligation to maintain the track, so it is smart for Nashville to engage a strong, long-term partner from the auto racing industry to operate it successfully. The business terms in this (letter of intent) protect Nashville, with multiple revenue streams to make this a financial success. We can put this landmark back on the national stage. I look forward to working with the Fair Board and the Metro Council in the months ahead.” Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith said the company can work with the city to transform the speedway into an "amazing multipurpose entertainment destination." “We’re ready to roll up our sleeves and go to work to fully restore the speedway, recruit national events and breathe new life into a venue that has a legendary status in auto racing history,” Smith said in a statement. The letter of intent states an agreement will be in place by July 31 or either the city or Bristol can walk away. Cooper is expected to push to get Metro Council and Fair Board approval for a final deal by May in the hopes of beginning construction this summer. It's in line with what Cooper has previously said about being optimistic that a new racetrack can host a NACAR race next year — the same year Nashville SC hopes to start their 2022 season at its new stadium. Speedway Motorsports, which owns and operates eight venues nationwide, would have the discretion move a NASCAR Cup series race to the fairgrounds.
Dover Motorsports owns the Nashville Superspeedway in Wilson County, and announced last summer it will bring NASCAR back to the track, a first in Middle Tennessee since 1984. The agreement is for four years. The Ally 400 NASCAR Cup Series race is set for June 20. It will cap a weekend of racing that includes an Xfinity Series race on June 19 and a Camping World Truck Series race on June 18. Yihyun Jeong covers politics in Nashville for USA TODAY NETWORK - TENNESSEE. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @yihyun_jeong.
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