Blowing smoke

At an average of 4,000 fans per race, is Speedway a good deal for Metro taxpayers?

Friday, April 22, 2011, Vol. 35, No. 16
By Bill Lewis

On any given Sunday, more than 68,000 NFL fans crowd into LP field to watch the Titans. On a typical Saturday night at Nashville’s historic Fairgrounds Speedway, 4,000 stock car racing fans are expected to occupy a grandstand designed to seat more than three times that number.

Racing, once extremely popular locally, has become something of a niche activity in a city where it has to compete with other sports for fan support. Now that racing has been given a green light at the Fairgrounds track for this season, two questions remain – can the track rediscover the fan support that once made it famous and can racing there make economic sense for drivers, the promoters and the taxpayers who own the facility?

Racing promoter Tony Formosa believes fans will rediscover the track, but he has concerns about the effects of restrictions the city put in place last week when it agreed to allow racing again.

“All you have to do is put some TLC into it,” Formosa says of the track, which may need repairs to the scoreboard and the lighting system.

The city’s decision to limit the schedule to seven races this year means -- at last year’s average attendance of 4,000 tickets sold per race -- no more than 28,000 fans would show up over the season. Almost all of them are expected to be residents of the city or live within 100 miles, Formosa says. They probably would not spend money for hotel rooms.

Formosa expects that fewer fans would attend the two daytime races the track’s noise-weary neighbors insisted on or the one race that the city wants to be held during the annual Tennessee State Fair. Racers also would have to use mufflers and accept an 11 p.m. curfew throughout the season.

“I’m for mufflers. I sympathize with the neighbors,” Formosa says. “It’s asking too much to have mufflers, then pick our days, then say (races must be held) during the day, and then a curfew.”

At $10 a ticket, the season would generate $280,000, probably less than the total for one game-day’s concessions sales at LP Field. Race promoters might make additional income from sponsorships, but Formosa says much of the season has already gone by.

What the city would get in return remains unclear. The board that oversees the speedway invited Formosa and another racing group led by former NASCAR drivers Bobby Hamilton Jr. and Chad Chaffin to submit new proposals.

Chaffin and Hamilton initially offered to pay the city a total of $50,000 a year or $5,000 for each of 10 races this year and in 2012. A team led by Formosa planned to hold six races this year and six next year. The team offered the city $4,500 per race this year. Next year the city would get $4,725 per race.

On Tuesday, Chaffin and Hamilton won their bid to operate the track in 2011 and 2012, bidding $8,001 per race. The lease, approved by Metro Fair Board, allows seven race dates per year. Two must be held on Felea market weekends and one furing the Tennessee State Fair.

Formosa’s team initially offered to pay for improvements at the track but asked the city to provide a working scoreboard, lights and a sound system. The Chaffin-Hamilton team offered to lease office space at the track for $750 per month, pay $250 to turn the lights on for practice and $75 an hour for ride-alongs. It also said it would donate $1 for every tire sold and 5 cents per gallon of gasoline and racing fuel to nearby Fall-Hamilton Elementary.

For all the attention it has commanded in the media and at the Metro Courthouse, racing’s impact is comparatively small. Other major professional sports played in Nashville have a greater financial impact and attract more fans. So do the city’s seven public golf courses. On the other hand, some professional teams get a hefty taxpayer subsidy or play in taxpayer-funded facilities.

Golfers played 264,625 rounds and spent more than $5 million at the city’s public courses in 2009. Those numbers dipped slightly in 2010 to 231,983 rounds and revenue of more than $4 million, but play was disrupted by May’s flooding and extreme amounts of rain in the fall, says Jackie Jones, superintendent of public affairs for the Metro Board of Parks and Recreation.

At the same time, the city spent more than $3.9 million to operate the courses in 2009 and $3.7 million in 2010, she says.

The Nashville’s Predators attracted about 16,000 fans to each home game, on average, at Bridgestone Arena over the past year. More than 610,000 fans attended home games so far this season. Racing can’t match those numbers, but the Preds also are getting a $7.3 million city subsidy this year, and the arena is projected to have a $4.9 million operating deficit that taxpayers have to make up, Nashville Sports Authority numbers show.

The Titans, who draw 68,798 fans to each game at LP Field, generate a total of $160 million a year for the region’s economy, according to the NFL Players Association. The Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau states fans take 2,000 hotels room on each game day. All that money is not free and clear for the local economy, however. Nashville’s taxpayers own LP Field and make payments on the stadium’s debt, currently $158 million a year.

“The city funds the Predators, the Titans, but nothing to the Speedway. The Fairgrounds has never cost the taxpayers one dime and it has a $60 million economic impact,” says Formosa, citing a study of the economic impact of the Tennessee State Fair, events at the Fairgrounds Expo Center and racing.

Over the course of last year’s baseball season, 319,000 fans attended Nashville Sounds home games. This summer the Sounds will play 72 home games, the team’s 34th season at Greer Stadium. Tickets at the gate are $10 for general admission and $14 for reserved seats. The Sounds hope to get the city’s help constructing a new downtown ballpark.

“Value-wise, we’re going to be hard to beat,” says Brad Trammen, Sounds vice president and general manager. “That’s a lot of games and a lot of bodies in the park.”

The Sounds believe they could attract 400,000 to 500,000 fans over the course of a season to a new ballpark, which owners want the city to locate on the riverfront site once occupied by the Thermal Transfer Plant.

That could cost anywhere from $40 million to $50 million, Trammen predicts. But he doesn’t think the Sounds are competing for the city’s financial resources with race fans who want to fix up the Fairgrounds Speedway.

Metro Council left a window of opportunity for race fans when it rejected Mayor Karl Dean’s proposal to demolish the racetrack and redevelop the 117-acre Fairgrounds as a mixed-use development with a city park and corporate office space. Instead, the track’s long-term future will be determined by a master plan for the surrounding Fairgrounds property.

Dean never stated publicly the economic benefits of redeveloping the Fairgrounds, but the Nashville area Chamber of Commerce weighed in with a projection of its own. The Chamber stated that one possibility for developing the site – one million square feet of mixed-use and Class A office space in the heart of the city – might create or attract 6,500 jobs and result in capital investment of $200 million.

Business operations resulting for the redevelopment of the Fairgrounds would have a potential overall economic impact of $2.5 billion, the Chamber report states.

The city commission that manages the Fairgrounds estimated in 2009 that the State Fair, events at the Expo Center and the flea market attract close to 2 million visitors and have an annual economic impact between $50 million and $60 million.

With those competing projections on the table, the Council decided it needed more information before making a decision about the future of the Speedway and the surrounding Fairgrounds. Their long-term future will be determined by a master plan for the property

To succeed, the Fairgrounds needs racing, along with the state fair and Expo Center events, Formosa says.

“I’ve seen the speedway in glory days and rough days,” says Formosa, who hopes better days are ahead.