Commissioners are reviewing the mayor’s long-awaited $116 million handshake with Speedway Motorsports Inc., a regional track operator promising to bring NASCAR to Nashville. The Fair Board received lease and development terms from Mayor John Cooper’s office in November and has scheduled public hearings through January as it evaluates the extensive racing proposal between Cooper and SMI.
“Under the Metro Charter, we have an obligation to maintain racing at the track,” Cooper adviser Ben Eagles told the Fair Board in May 2021. “So it makes sense for Nashville to partner with the very best in the auto-racing industry to operate the speedway in the very best way possible. The city is duty-bound to maintain the historic speedway and continue auto racing at the fairgrounds.”
Eagles, along with Deputy Mayor Sam Wilcox, has been a frequent ambassador for Cooper. In discussions about The Fairgrounds Nashville over the past 18 months, Eagles has often referenced the 2010 referendum that obligates Metro to guarantee the continued use of the racetrack. Sources familiar with the mayor say that the overwhelming support for that referendum, as well as a small but vocal NASCAR lobby, have given Cooper the impression that there is a politically valuable significant pro-racing constituency. Insiders also like to mention that Eagles is a racing fan.
“There’s nothing in the referendum that says we have to spend a hundred million dollars,” says Heidi Basgall Favorite, who’s lived in the area for 20 years. “Voters believed they were protecting the historic uses of the fairgrounds. It wasn’t just about the racetrack.”
She’s part of Neighbors Opposing Track Expansion, a local organization made up of a couple hundred residents who oppose the city’s proposed changes. Neighbors’ concerns center on the city’s financial liability and how it would affect residents’ quality of life. “It’s a terrible financial deal,” Basgall Favorite tells the Scene. “The sound-mitigation study was privately funded by Bristol Motor Speedway — it’s a joke. Parking is a huge issue, you know that if you attend a soccer game. There’s an elementary school 983 feet away from the property. It doesn’t make sense. We have a NASCAR superspeedway 36 miles away for anyone who wants to enjoy racing.” The Nashville Superspeedway in Lebanon is also owned and operated by SMI and hosts NASCAR events.
Eagles delivered the bones of a deal between the city and SMI to commissioners on Nov. 8. All current commissioners were appointed by Mayor Cooper. Jason Bergeron, the most recent non-Cooper appointee, resigned in March, and has publicly opposed the city’s deal with SMI. The city will pay for an extensive redevelopment of the racetrack and surrounding infrastructure.
Acting through a subsidiary — Bristol Motor Speedway — SMI will operate the site, setting an annual schedule of races and events. The Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp will chip in $17 million, which the state will match. The rest will come from bonds backed in part by rent from SMI and NCVC for use of the facility, and tax redirects similar to those from Bridgestone Arena and Nissan Stadium. Renderings of a renovated track and entertainment megaplex are already floating around SMI presentations and Fair Board meetings.
On Nov. 28, Bergeron emailed a lengthy takedown of the deal to his former colleagues, who are considering Cooper’s proposition. Bergeron focused on the risk of backstopping sports facility debt with the city’s general fund, Cooper’s wide-ranging concessions around how SMI can use the facility and the city’s open-ended, long-term liabilities — similar to the city’s obligations to the Tennessee Titans to maintain Nissan Stadium. Bergeron currently represents the Neighborhood Impact Advisory Committee, a body set up by the board to field community feedback. Nearby neighborhoods have flagged concerns about incessant noise, unpredictable scheduling, increased traffic and parking issues that would come with a revamped racetrack hoping to attract large events year-round. The mayor’s reps have assured critics that there will be fewer if bigger events and a more predictable schedule.
Jon Cooper — who isn’t related to Mayor John Cooper, and who left his post as Metro legal director in January 2021 — represented SMI at a Nov. 30 work session where board members asked further questions about the proposal. An $800 million merger took the company private in 2019. The NASCAR deal comes at the same time that the mayor is attempting to finalize a $2.1 billion new stadium for the Titans.
Mayor Cooper is also expected to introduce a new Capital Spending Plan, a comprehensive spending document of new city improvements, before the new year.