New track management revving up excitement
Updated: Nov 28, 2020
Building on the past while planning for the future.
That’s the approach being taken by the new operators of Fairgrounds Speedway as they steer the historical track into its 63rd season – a season, even with the Covid-19 Pandemic coming from seemingly out of nowhere, they feel still holds promise and, certainly, challenge.
“ Nashville is one of the top short tracks in the country,”
says Bob Sargent, president of Illinois-based Track Enterprises, who has a one-year contract to operate the Speedway in partnership with Nashville’s Randy Dyce.
“ It’s a great venue with a great history,” Sargent says. “I knew (past Fairgrounds promoter) Bob Harmon, who was a legend in the business, and my company has promoted ARCA races in Nashville for the past five years. I’m aware of the track’s potential, especially with Nashville becoming such a great sports market.”
But times are changing, and getting race fans to turn out is not as easy as it once was – just ask Dover Motorsports, whose multi-million-dollar Superspeedway in Wilson County withered and died from lack of support.
But Sargent and Dyce think they have an edge over the failed Superspeedway in that Nashville Fairground Speedway is one of the country’s most famous and exciting short tracks with a pedigreed history in racing’s premier series including NASCAR’s Cup Series. Famous NASCAR drivers such as Darrell Waltrip, Sterling Marlin and Bobby Hamilton honed their racing skills on the 5/8ths-mile high-banked “Daytona of short tracks”. Plus some of today’s top driving talents, including Kyle Busch, enjoy racing at Nashville Fairgrounds. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has said that he would suspend his retirement to race at the Fairgrounds.
But still, Sargent says attracting fans is a challenge “not just in racing, but in all sports. There are so many other activities and interests throughout society nowadays. And now with the restrictions and challenges of the Covid-19 Virus, we have to adjust, not only in the area of media and communications but also in the very way that fans attend races. But, I still feel confident we can meet the challenges.”
Joining Sargent and Dyce in ushering in the track’s new era is Scott Menlen, the facility’s General Manager. Experienced in all facets of racing, Menlen says the possibility of bringing the track back to its NASCAR glory days is very real.
“ Nashville is a vibrant and exciting city and I believe that in addition to revitalizing our local competitors and fans, we can bring racers and racing fans to Nashville from all over the United States especially for some of our special events. Yes, we will have to make some added adjustments that we simply could not have foreseen, but we still feel we can get it done”
Meet the players:
Sargent, 59, heads Track Enterprises, based in Macon, Ill. Last year the company promoted races at 26 tracks in 14 states, including a 5th consecutive ARCA event at the Fairgrounds.
“ I’ve been involved in the racing business since 1985 when I operated a local dirt track,” Sargent says. “I started right out of college, and it’s the only job I’ve ever had. I love everything about the sport, from the competition on the track to the drivers and my friends in the industry. I have a competitive nature, and I like the challenge of running a successful racetrack just like drivers like the challenge of running a successful race.”
Among the tracks Sargent operates is the venerable Milwaukee Mile.
“ We re-opened Milwaukee last year after it had been closed for five seasons,” he says. “We ran an ARCA race there, and will run another this season. It’s great to see a famous old track like Milwaukee brought back to life.”
Despite having only a one-year Fairgrounds contract – all Sargent could wrest from Metro – he is making plans and improvements in expectation of extending the lease “well into the future.”
That future might include some NASCAR races, perhaps even the premier Cup Series that used to run twice annually at the Fairgrounds. Negotiations remain underway with a Bristol Motor Speedway management group that is part of Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc., (SMI) racing empire.
“ There is a lot of maneuvering, and we’ll see what happens,” Sargent says. “If NASCAR comes back, we will be very supportive and work with them in every way. Meanwhile our focus will be on operating the local programs.”
Exactly how an arrangement with Sargent’s company, SMI, and NASCAR would be structured “has yet to be determined,” he says, but believes “it would be beneficial to everyone.”
Dyce, 51, is the son of the late George Dyce, who served as an executive with the Nashville Sounds. The elder Dyce helped owner Larry Schmittou make the Sounds the country’s most successful minor league franchise.
Dyce has similar aspirations for the Speedway.
“ We plan to emphasize fan promotions and interaction,” says Dyce, president and CEO of Nashville-based D&D Events. “That was what made the Sounds such a popular attraction, and we want to do the same for the racetrack. ”
Dyce, whose company caters many of Music City’s biggest venues and events, is familiar with the Speedway operation. His company has managed the track’s food and beverage service for the past 10 years.
Going even further back, Dyce’s company worked with track promoters Gary Baker in the 1980s and Boyd Adams in the early 1990s. Dyce knows racing.
“ I’ve been a fan all my life,” he says. “I grew up going to races at the Fairgrounds, and also attended NASCAR events around the country. In February my wife Tammi and I went to the Daytona 500. We love the sport. ”
“I’ve been a fan all my life,” he says. “I grew up going to races at the Fairgrounds, and also attended NASCAR events around the country. In February my wife Tammi and I went to the Daytona 500. We love the sport.”
Under the new management, Dyce’s company will handle not only the track’s food and beverage services, but many other aspects of the operation: ticket sales, media, marketing, officials, and driver registration.
He says five of the company’s 15 full-time employees will be assigned to track duties, joined by another 30 part-timers on race day. That’s in addition to 20 racing officials.
The facility is getting a face-lift in preparation for when the upcoming season finally begins.
“ We’re doing some painting, rebuilding the handicapped seating section, adding some hand rails, new lighting and a new sound system,” Dyce says. “We will make the Speedway an attractive, enjoyable place to visit. ”
As for a possible NASCAR arrival:
“I feel we’ll definitely be a partner when and if it happens,” Dyce says. “Meanwhile we will handle the local stuff.”
Menlen, 27, is a Detroit native who has long been involved in racing, including some bygone trips to Fairgrounds Speedway.
“ I ran some Bandolero and Legends events here in the past, and also some ARCA races,” Menlen says. “I know first-hand what a great track it is. ”
Menlen’s home track is Flat Rock Speedway near Detroit where he grew up racing karts and later Late Models.
“My family has always been involved in racing,” he says. “I grew up with the sport.”
After driving, Menlen switched to officiating.
“ I started out with the safety crew, then worked on the flag stand and with race control,” he says. “I worked with CRA (Champion Racing Association) for nine years. In 2012, I started my own company, Motor City Racing Promotions. ”
Through his affiliation with CRA, Menlen became acquainted with Track Enterprises. When that company secured the lease to operate Fairgrounds Speedway at the conclusion of last season, Menlen was offered the GM position.
“ It’s a great opportunity,” he says. “This is a great racetrack – among the top five short tracks in the country. It has a tremendous history, and Nashville is a vibrant sports market. ”
This year, before the pandemic appeared, the track was scheduled to run six local-division events, and three national shows. Menlen says with some rescheduling he feels all of the events can still happen.
“ It’s still going to be a great season,” Menlen says. “I’m looking forward to working with our drivers and fans. This is a special place with an exciting future, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. ”