NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Sterling Marlin thinks his group has an offer Music City can't refuse to save the historic short track where he started racing and where legends like Richard Petty, Fireball Roberts and Dale Earnhardt once competed furiously.
Marlin helped detail a proposal Thursday by Save My Fairgrounds to renovate Nashville's fairgrounds and site of one of the nation's oldest race tracks. Horses first raced here in 1891, and cars began running on the site as early as June 1904. NASCAR's top level raced here until 1984 when Nashville officials refused to improve the track.
City officials have been working to relocate the 117-acre site away from the current location near downtown to revitalize the area with other development, and the track operator couldn't get a yearlong contract for 2010. The state fair and monthly flea market is back for 2011 with no commitment to the track.
Marlin says the Nashville track has been a great proving ground that must be saved or risk having Bristol the only track in Tennessee where NASCAR races with questions about the future of the Nashville Superspeedway swirling.
"It's the best race track in the country," Marlin said of the fairgrounds track. "It's the oldest race track, the best short track laid out ever. You can run side by side for 100 laps. It's a great facility. I think if we would all get together it could be put back to the glory it used to be."
Marlin, three-time NASCAR cup champ Darrell Waltrip and record company executive Mike Curb are among the investors wanting to renovate Nashville's fairgrounds and save the .596-mile asphalt track. Waltrip didn't attend the news conference but said in a statement the conditions around the Nashville Superspeedway give Nashville a chance for investment.
"We have a jewel right here in Davidson County and a real opportunity to capitalize. I hope we don't miss it," according to Waltrip's statement.
This track landed a Busch Series race in 1995 and a Craftsman Truck event in 1996. When Dover Downs Entertainment Inc. took over the track lease in November 1997, the company moved the top races to its new $125 million Nashville Superspeedway 20 miles away in 2001.
Marlin noted Dover recently closed its tracks in Memphis and St. Louis and said rumors swirl over the future of the superspeedway a 40-minute drive east of Nashville. Marlin said if Dover closes the superspeedway, the only NASCAR racing in Tennessee would be in Bristol — a five-hour drive.
Talks with NASCAR officials has encouraged Marlin about the short track's future.
"They lead me on if the track does close in Lebanon, they'd definitely be interested in coming back out here to the short track with two Nationwide races and two trucks races ...," Marlin said. "We'd have to make a lot of improvements. As you can see what they've done here, it's a big beautiful facility if we can get the lease on it. Hopefully we can get it all worked out."
NASCAR driver Chad Chaffin, a two-time champion at this track, said drivers grow up dreaming of racing at this unique track that mimics courses like Daytona, Darlington and Bristol. He said they may be a little late to this fight.
"It's definitely worthy of preserving. You have to appreciate it to know what we have," Chaffin said.
The proposal detailed Thursday calls for replacing the swath of asphalt parking lots with trees and grass to retain rain and help drainage, a wind farm to take advantage of the hilly location, solar panels and bike paths and walking trails for neighbors. Charging stations for electric cars also are on tap with sound barrier walls to dampen track noise to keep neighbors happier.
Darden Copeland said the group has serious investors ready, though no estimate is available yet for the cost for all those renovations. They want at least a 15-year lease from the city.
Marlin noted the track in Birmingham, Ala., now is filled with weeds and grass since that was shut down. He first came to this track when he was 3 months old with his late father, Coo Coo, and both his son and daughter also have raced at this track. Marlin said he hopes his grandson can race here one day.
"We've got to save it," he said.
Save My Fairgrounds: www.savemyfairgrounds.com