For some, Nashville is known for its Music City USA slogan and its popular Grand Ole Opry music venue. But beyond its well-earned reputation, Nashville also has a fascinating motorsport history, dating back to 1916. Today, Nashville is home to one of the most popular racetracks in the world, as well as many other racing venues, all while maintaining its Southern charm.
So how old is Nashville Speedway?
Inaugurated in 1916, Nashville Speedway Park was the vision of Carl Fisher, a prominent automotive engineer and owner of the Lincoln Motor Company. At the time, Nashville was a small city, with a population of around 56,000. But with the rise of the automobile industry, the city had grown significantly, reaching an estimated population of over 127,000 people in the mid-1920s.
With its proximity to the Tennessee River, the city was a hub for the automobile industry, and many companies were based there. A desire to provide area residents with a new way to spend their free time led to the creation of Nashville Speedway Park, which opened its gates in April of 1916. The 1-mile track was, at the time, considered a marvel of its kind. It offered banking systems, runoff grooves, and a large grandstand. More than 300,000 spectators would flock to the track each year, turning it into one of the most populated venues in the country.
The following year, the Vanderbilt family purchased a controlling interest in the track, ensuring its continued success. The Ferrell brothers, who previously operated Cleveland’s Lakeview Park, purchased the track in 1921 and expanded its facilities and amenities significantly. In total, they upgraded the track’s lighting, paved numerous miles of road, and built a $300,000 brick and terrazzo grandstand, all while increasing the track’s capacity from 600 to 1,000 cars per day.
The Great Depression
Nashville Speedway‘s grandstand was one of the great American architectural wonders of its time, and it attracted many famous fans. Some of the biggest names in American history attended the track, including President Warren G. Harding, who was among the first 1,000 people to purchase tickets for the 1927 season. The stadium’s concrete and steel design was heavily influenced by the style of futurist engineer and architect Albert Kahn, who designed the George Washington Bridge and the nearby Schermerhorn Reservoir. Unfortunately, the world’s greatest architect was not truly great at keeping his promises. He had assured the Ferrell brothers that he would lay brick, tile, and marble along the entire length of the track, but when the Great Depression hit, only the wooden grandstand stood.
Even the famous oprylandia sign, on which many famous musicians have performed, was not made of concrete as promised by Albert Kahn. The Depression also took its toll on the track’s concrete curbing and guardrails, leading to many wrecks and serious injuries along the years. During the 1930s, the track’s capacity dropped to around 500,000 and the annual attendance plummeted from a high of more than 1.9 million in the late 1920s to around 600,000 in the early years of the Great Depression.
World War II
The Ferrell brothers continued to expand Nashville Speedway, adding a second mile in the 1940s and another in the 1950s. The construction of this vast track led to the nickname ‘Nashville, Tennessee,” and in 1943, the venue was renamed ‘Nashville Speedway‘ in honor of its American Automobile Association (A.A.A.) members, who had funded much of the track’s construction. During World War II, the stadium was one of the primary training grounds for the US Army, and it continued to host military and civilian recreational activities, as well as concerts and athletic events, after the war ended.
Carl Fisher passed away in 1958 and the Ferrell brothers sold the track to the city for $1.00. It had been in continuous operation since 1916 and the city had maintained and improved on it through the years. In 1965, the grandstand was demolished and replaced with the present-day trackside grandstand.
The Rise Of NASCAR
During the 1960s, Nashville’s population exploded, with the city reaching an estimated 1.9 million people in the mid-1960s. Many area residents were employed in the booming automotive industry, and they became avid fans and participants of the sport. The creation of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) in 1946 enabled them to follow the races from wherever they happened, regardless of where they were located. The association’s creation also marked the beginning of the end for the heyday of auto racing in North America. Many tracks, including Nashville Speedway, closed down as interest in the sport began to decline in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
In 1962, NASCAR held its first official race at the now-legendary Talladega Speedway in Alabama, with the first Daytona 500 not being held until 1964. Many famous drivers, including Junior Johnson, Lee Petty, and Richard Petty, won races there in the early years. But it was not until 1967 that the first ever Pepsi 400 was held at the 1.25-mile track, which is now known for its blistering hot summers and its dangerous turns. Five years later, in 1972, NASCAR held its first ever night race at the half-mile Bristol Speedway in Tennessee. Since then, the sport has never looked back, with many more night races held at all NASCAR tracks.
In the 1980s, Nashville’s population continued to grow, reaching 1.85 million people by the end of that decade. In 1984, Vanderbilt University bought a controlling interest in the track from the city, ensuring its future as a premier sporting and teaching venue. The school would later add another wing to the southern end of the track, increasing its capacity to nearly three million. While much of the track’s capacity came from grandstands and other permanent structures, the addition of the permanent press box allowed for more flexible spectator arrangements and the use of more modern technologies, like individual television screens and closed-circuit television cameras.
Throughout the course of its evolution, Nashville Speedway has had many famous faces in the paddock. Some of the biggest names in the automotive industry, including Harley Earl, who was the vice president of Harley-Davidson, and William F. Harley, the company’s chairman, both raced at the track. Earl would go on to design the iconic Harley-Davidson motorcycle and its various models. The company would also sponsor many NASCAR events, including the Daytona 500. Earl’s unique designs and the sport’s top-level status in the country led to the nickname ‘Harley Davidson’s Grand Tour,’ given to the annual cross-country motor trip the company made on the eve of each Daytona 500. The tour would consist of a night race in North Carolina, and then on to Florida for the following day’s 500-mile ‘Great American Race.’
In the 21st century, Nashville’s population has continued to grow, now reaching 2.7 million people, according to the most recent census. In 2008, Bridgestone’s racing division signed an agreement to become the exclusive tire supplier for NASCAR, further cementing the sport’s position in the city.
Today, Nashville is considered one of the great cities in which to live and work. It prides itself on being a hub for the creative industries, and its sporting venues and festivals, particularly the Opry and the Grand Ole Oprylandia Festival, have attracted tourists and locals alike for over a century. With a large population and a thriving economy, it is clear that Nashville will never be held back.