Anyone who has gone for an evening romp in Lower Broadway knows full well the bombardment and boisterousness of Nashville, Tennessee's nightlife, which commodifies and materializes the city's culture of country music writ large. But in the ambience of the city nightlife, on one of those Friday or Saturday nights that draw so many to Music City, you can hear the harmonious and unmistakable sound of racecars cut through from far and wide.
For over a century, Nashville has been one of the most prominent hubs of stock car racing in all the United States, and has enjoyed one of the deepest symbiotic relationships that NASCAR has had with any market. A long list of drivers have come from the Middle Tennessee area, including some names that are instantly recognizable: NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip, two-time Daytona 500 champion Sterling Marlin, and former Truck Series champion Bobby Hamilton are just some of many drivers proudly pointed to as Nashville's own.
And yet, the very fact that NASCAR is racing in Nashville this weekend is a remarkable one. For it was not long ago at all that it looked as though racing in Nashville had met the same sort of sad end that is the lament of many a country music song.
After first opening in 1904, the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway near the city's downtown hosted NASCAR Cup Series races from 1958 until 1984, and then hosted what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series in the late 1980s and 1990s. In 2001, NASCAR moved the Xfinity and Truck races in the market to the new Nashville Superspeedway in nearby Gladeville, a 1.3 mile oval built with major league auto racing in mind.
But a decade ago, both the grassroots tradition of Nashville racing and its NASCAR prospects teetered on the brink of oblivion: Late in 2010, Nashville mayor Karl Dean sought to shut down the Nashville Fairgrounds, and to tear down the speedway and accompanying flea market in order to redevelop the site. Such plans were met with an organized revolt by the city's racing community, which led to the passing of a 2011 Davidson County referendum to preserve the historic speedway.
But while Herculean efforts were made at the grassroots level to save the Fairgrounds from demolition, it turned out that NASCAR was on its way out of town altogether: Due to attendance issues and few prospects of a Cup Series race, Nashville Superspeedway was shut down following its 2011 slate of races. And as stock car racing altogether went into a malaise, there was little hope that racing in the area would ever be what it once was again.
"It seemed like in the late 2000s to 2013 (racing in Nashville) kind of took a step back for some reason. Like, the fans kind of – they were still loyal – but it just didn't seem like the atmosphere and the excitement was there," Willie Allen, a former Nashville Fairgrounds track champion and NASCAR Truck Series Rookie of the Year, told CBS Sports. "... I felt like everyone kind of thought that (NASCAR) in the area was done, it probably wouldn't come back.
"... When it left, I thought that was it. And that kind of knocked the wind out of everyone's sails. We thought it was done here."
As grassroots racing in Nashville fought simply to survive, the idea of NASCAR coming back to town seemed far off. But late in the 2010s, as the Nashville market began to experience explosive population & economic growth, whispers of NASCAR looking to re-enter the market became louder and louder: First, Speedway Motorsports Inc. reached an agreement with the Fairgrounds Speedway's operators in 2018 to re-vitalize the track and have it host NASCAR races again. Then, NASCAR brought its annual Champion's Banquet to Nashville in December of 2019.
And last year came the announcement that the Superspeedway would not only be re-opened, but be added to the NASCAR Cup Series schedule for 2021 -- a move which seemed an inevitability, although Allen admitted that the Superspeedway's rebirth came as a surprise given the momentum behind revitalizing the Fairgrounds for NASCAR.
"I felt like the last few years it's been such a strong market in the city and in racing that it'd be hard for someone not to bring it back," Allen said. "It's just such a great spot."
Those developments have been the tip of the iceberg in an overall racing renaissance for the area. This season, three new NASCAR teams based in the Nashville area are competing full-time across their national series: Trackhouse Racing in the Cup Series, Scott Borchetta's Big Machine Racing in the Xfinity Series, and Allen's Rackley W.A.R. in the Truck Series.
While Borchetta and Allen have based their teams around their existing businesses in Nashville -- with the relatively short distance from Nashville to Charlotte, North Carolina allowing them to tap into the supply chain and talent pool -- Trackhouse Racing chose Nashville as its base as part of an ambitious vision that intersects with the entertainment industry that has a strong foothold in the market.
"The thing about Nashville is there's so much growth happening and it's such an experience town and entertainment town, and entertainment and experience is the cornerstone of what racing is," Trackhouse co-owner Justin Marks told CBS Sports. "And so with NASCAR bringing a race to Nashville, with the IndyCar race (Music City Grand Prix) coming in the fall, with the NASCAR Banquet coming and the fact that this town has cultivated such a great following behind the (Nashville) Predators and the (Tennessee) Titans and the new MLS team coming.
"This is a sports town, this is an entertainment town. And NASCAR racing and what Trackhouse wants to do to kind of transcend the sport and do more sort of entertainment and music-type events and be a connection point between racing and entertainment, to me this is the place to be. It's the only place to be."
With Trackhouse and other teams now in the market, the future of NASCAR in Nashville is seemingly brighter and more imaginative than it has ever been before. While Trackhouse currently prepares their cars in North Carolina while running its business out of Franklin, Tennessee, Marks is eyeing a future base of operations in downtown Nashville to serve as both a race shop and a "motorsports-themed public-facing attraction." Work towards revitalizing the Fairgrounds Speedway continues, with NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt Jr. throwing his weight behind a project currently trying to overcome the hurdles of local politics and opposition from locals concerned with noise.
Although Nashville likely won't supplant Charlotte as stock car racing's epicenter anytime soon, the market is quickly trending towards once again becoming a prominent outpost for the racing industry with plenty of resources to those who set up shop there.
"We've got a great group of guys and girls who work here that are very knowledgeable in racing and hard workers," Allen said. "The city, it's awesome being here. And we're not that far from Charlotte...so we can still really do everything we want to do but still be right outside that hub."
"I think that if Trackhouse can pull this off, (we can) demonstrated to the industry that they can get more creative with their operations. But for us to be able to do that, we're gonna have to attract some very key personnel from Charlotte," Marks said. "In some ways that'll be a challenge, in other ways it won't.
"But for things like front office and marketing and business development and all of those positions, there's an incredibly talented workforce right here in Nashville that we'll pull from. But we're gonna need people with some proprietary NASCAR and motorsports experience to believe in our vision and ultimately to move to Nashville."
Years after an existential crisis that threatened its very existence, the return of NASCAR has made anything seem possible for Nashville as a racing city. Whether that's more race teams in the area, the next generation of racers making their way from the Fairgrounds to NASCAR stardom, or even NASCAR's return to both of the speedways that both the city itself, and those who have lived and raced there, have once again embraced.
"I'd like to see a year when we have a race at both tracks. I think that would be friggin' awesome," Allen said. "I love the Superspeedway and the Fairgrounds. So if we could get one at each it would be awesome."