Friday, December 17, 2010

Death of a Speedway

Last week, I volunteered a few hours at the Nashville fairgrounds to help homeless folks. The building I was in was immediately behind what remains of the now-closed Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.

Auto racing has been in the Nashville area for the better part of the century, and the fairgrounds speedway footprint has been in the same location since the late 1950s. Many Saturday nights of my youth from around 9 to 18 were spent at the speedway primarily watching the local guys go door-to-door on the quarter-mile inner track as well as the larger .596 mile outer banked track. Occasionally, I was fortunate enough to see the Winston Cup Grand National drivers qualify. And in my later teens, I actually had enough money to watch the Cup guys race.

But over the last 15 to 18 months or so, the writing has been on the wall. The current mayor of Nashville is done with the track. He wants to reclaim the whole fairgrounds and do something else with it - such as spend tax dollars the city doesn't have to build a park few will use. Until recently, he couldn't say what he wanted to put there - just that it had to go. Many thought the speedway was dead and gone this time a year ago. Because the city couldn't get its ducks in a row, the track lived to see another season - albeit an abbreviated one with low attendance.

After my service session ended, I walked to the track to take in the view of what is pretty well now known as a dead speedway. The weather was typical for a middle Tennessee mid-December afternoon - cold, dreary, overcast. A pretty good metaphor for for what I found.

Turns 1 and 2 - In the 1970s, my family and I always sat in the lower bleachers half-way down the frontstretch headed towards turn 1 - right below the hand railing shown in the picture.

In June 1978 after the Music City 420 - my first Cup race to attend - I had my picture taken by the famed 43 Dodge Magnum of the King. The Petty Enterprises "hauler" was parked right near the break in the white wall leading to the lower parking area in the above picture.

In the mid 70s, the drivers to watch at Nashville were known as the Young Guns:
  • Coo Coo Marlin's son, Sterling.
  • Mike Alexander, son of R.C. Alexander - a middle Tennessee car dealer and car owner for a Nashville driver who made the big time: Darrell Waltrip.
  • P.B. Crowell III
  • Dennis Wiser
Here is a picture of Sterling and Mike barreling through turn 1.

Turn 4 - While the size and sponsor of the scoreboard has changed a bit over the years, its location and information hasn't. All the speedway ever had that I recall is a lap count and the top 4 positions, and the board was always overlooking turn 3. Lots of times, however, many of the bulbs were burned out. Spectators often thought they were trying to cipher Morse code vs. seeing the car numbers of the front runners.

Here is Sterling in his Coors Light-sponsored Grand American late model Firebird in the early 80s rolling through turn 4. Yes, he had a sponsor relationship with Coors Light many years before reuniting with them on his #40 SABCO Racing Cup car.

The now-dormant souvenir stand.

My aunt bought me this 8x10 photo of Richard and Kyle Petty at this stand in 1978.

The start-finish line. Its in pretty good shape for now. But a Tennessee winter and no additional TLC will likely weather it good by spring. By then, I'm guessing the bulldozers will rumble in and ruin it for good.

One driver who was as familiar as anyone with the start-finish line was Maurice Hassey. He dominated the mini-stock series in the mid-1970s winning in his yellow #62 car just about every Saturday. As I recall, his day job was working for the Nashville Fire Department. Not sure why I remember that...

Here is a view of the inner quarter-mile track where I used to watch Hassey dominate the mini-stock series and Sonny Upchurch run wild in Tony Formosa Sr.'s limited sportsman class Ford.

Before a formal, traditional pit road was built as a demand from NASCAR, the Cup cars used to make their pit stops by crossing the start-finish line, turning left onto the quarter-mile track, pitting wherever they could pull off the track surface, re-crossing the start-finish line, and heading back to turn 1. A real safety and scoring nightmare - but it certainly was a novelty aspect of the track.

A few other random memories of nights at the speedway include:
  • The Joie Chitwood Thrill Show
  • Having a friend win a bicycle from the track his first time going to the races with us. I'd been 3-4 years steady and never won one. Envy? Jealousy? They raged.
  • Covering my eyes as some knucklehead, sideshow guy supposedly blew himself up in a pine box using dynamite. Pretty frightening stuff for a 10 year-old.
  • A precision driving team sponsored by Uniroyal tires. The three drivers were lamely nicknamed Uni, Roy, and Al. I have a photo of them somewhere around the house.
  • Watching Neil Bonnett win his first career Winston Cup pole driving in relief for his injured mentor, Bobby Allison.
  • Seeing the day-glo red and electric Petty blue live on the 43 for the first time ever on the King's 1974 Dodge Charger. The car's design was way ahead of its time as its colors never popped on the television screens of that era.
  • Allowing race winner Cale Yarborough to walk by me without my asking him for an autograph. I couldn't stand Cale in those days. Seeing how he whipped the field that night, I certainly didn't want the time of day from the driver who beat the King.
  • Seeing competitors and friends Mike Alexander and P.B. Crowell III crash each other in turn 1 in a late model race. Both were injured and missed several races.
  • Watching in awe as an ARCA driver hauled it off in turn one, wreck, launch the wall, and completely rip down the advertising signage board lining the track.
  • Roaming freely with my autograph book in the early 1980s and meeting almost the whole field of Cup drivers. I then moseyed over to the late model "garage" area (such that it was) to watch the Alexander and Marlin teams prepare their cars. CooCoo invited me to sit up in the back of their truck a few minutes as Sterling's team continued their efforts. Looking back - it was probably for my own safety. But I thought I was part of the team!
  • Watching my dad pull for Harry Gant and Butch Lindley when the national late model sportsman series came to town. My dad doesn't get excited about a lot of things, but he always enjoyed watching the two of them race.
  • Getting to see what could have been a future star, Adam Petty, race in the 1999 BellSouth 320 Busch race. I think that may have been the only opportunity I had to see him race in person.
  • Seeing Sterling Marlin race a Tennessee Vols football national champion Busch car - a pretty novel paint scheme that year.
Throughout 2010, former drivers such as Sterling and Darrell Waltrip have appealed to the major to keep the track around. And in recent weeks, country music insider and former Cup owner and sponsor, Mike Curb, has tried to do the same. But this mayor's jaw is set and his decision appears to be final. So I think its too little too late.

Goodbye friend. It was a great ride. The speedway may be dead, but my memories are still very much alive.

Whether you are like me and spent several nights watching races at Nashville or are someone who simply has a fondness for the races of that era, check out Nashville420.com. The site is owned and maintained by Jeff Droke, a long-time fan of Nashville and crewman for past...and now present...driver James Hylton.

TMC

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