By Christian Koelle, Staff Writer
LEBANON, Tenn. — NASCAR returns to the small town of Lebanon, Tenn. next week with the Ally 400, Tennessee Education Lottery 250 and the Rackley Roofing 200 at Nashville Superspeedway.
The weekend marks NASCAR’s return to Nashville Superspeedway for the first time since 2011. It also marks the first-ever NASCAR Cup Series event at the track and the first in middle Tennessee since 1984.
Wherever NASCAR goes, travelers from all over the country flock to the city, flooding its local economy with tons of revenue as people eat at restaurants, shop at stores, and spend nights in their hotels. Kickin the Tires’ exclusively sat down with Rick Bell, mayor of the City of Lebanon, to discuss multiple issues including the impact on the city.
“The importance cannot be overstated,” said Bell. “With Lebanon being home of a NASCAR race, this is something that has been dreamed of for a very long time. I can remember when the track was first announced years ago and it was first opened, that was the goal. Everyone was excited then it (a Cup Series event) never came to fruition but now we know it’s really going to happen, the excitement has returned. The economic impact is going to be tremendous. People are coming from all over the country to watch this race. They are going to stay in our hotels, eat our food and buy gas here. We have the Lebanon Municipal Airport that people can fly into and be convenient. I know Heather Bay and she’s preparing for that. The economic impact can’t be put into words just yet but we know it’ll be huge.”
After spending 20 years on the NASCAR Xfinity and Truck Series schedule, Nashville Superspeedway saw the interest and draw die down when it was clear the NASCAR Cup Series wasn’t going to come. Ultimately, Dover Motorsports Inc. took Nashville off the map following the 2011 season and the hiatus many thought would never end, is over.
“I can remember we had the Xfinity Series and local people were really excited about that and part of the excitement of that was the possibility of getting a Cup race and it never happened,” said Bell. “When we learned that a Cup race wasn’t coming, then I think the interest began to die down. I know IRL came in and for us, those were the big names we were seeing, you know Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon and others and not the Cup names. I think people were disappointed at the time and then it went away totally.”
On June 2nd, 2020, the unexpected came, Nashville Superspeedway would return to NASCAR. It would be even bigger. It would host the Cup Series in 2021. The unexpected announcement came from out of nowhere, especially after many had thought Dover sold the property to the Panattoni Development Company. The majority of the surrounding property had been sold to Panattoni but the race track remained Dover Motorsports Inc. property.
“To have them come out and announce that Cup is coming was shocking, it was stunning, and it was thrilling,” said Bell. “I think that a lot of that had to do with the growth of the region. For years I think NASCAR for the Cup level looked at Nashville as a place they didn’t want to be and there were markets out there that were probably bigger and they saw more iconic tracks out there. They left the track in downtown Nashville decades ago and I really think the boom of Nashville made people stand up and go ‘hey! wait a minute we need to be back over there.'”
The hiatus lasted a total of ten years, a hiatus to some tracks that currently look like a flat open field. When NASCAR last raced at Nashville Superspeedway, the city of Lebanon was just growing out its legs. I-840, the interstate where Nashville Superspeedway lays, at one time seemed abandoned with very few businesses but today, it’s flourishing, including warehouses for Amazon (BNA2), Rooms to Go and Nissan just to name a few. After the hiatus, Mayor Bell feels the city is more prepared today.
“It’s been 10 years,” said Bell. “A lot has changed in 10 years but before we talk about that, I don’t know if people know this but the city of Lebanon ran sewer out there. It’s not really in our city limits but the city officials at the time did that because they understood the impact that this would have and that sewer not only helped get the track built but also it helped with development down that 840 corridor. So the infrastructure really started way back then but as far as changes in Lebanon since then, our population has grown and our infrastructure has grown with it. Our amenities have grown and I feel like now we are better prepared for a Cup race than we were back then.
“I think the city is more prepared than it was 10 years ago. In the years since the last race, a lot of new corporations have come to Lebanon and the 840 corridor. I know in the professional sports world, corporations and sponsorships are very important especially sponsoring cars and things like that but also as far as the local track, getting people to buy suites and that kind of thing. I can remember back when the track first opened the suites were bought by local people who teamed up to kind of share the cost and now we have these corporations that can go in there and do that, I know that’s a big deal from the business perspective to know they have that corporate and financial support and I am sure that played a roll in them making the decision to come back here but yeah the city of Lebanon is well prepared for this now. We are definitely prepared for this and definitely ready to reap the benefits of it.”
NASCAR’s exit from the middle Tennessee area has had a bandaid on it over the last couple of years by including ARCA Menards Series races at both Fairgrounds Speedway in downtown Nashville and Memphis International Raceway in Millington, Tenn. But for fans from Nashville, in order to attend a Cup race, they would have a three or more hour drive, the closest track being Talladega Superspeedway, east of Birmingham.
“NASCAR in this part of the country has always been popular,” said Bell. “NASCAR hasn’t been in middle Tennessee for a long time and I really think that was a mistake to leave this part of the country and leave this part of the state. I’m glad NASCAR has decided that it’s a good time to come back now. Having fans come in from all over the country and to our community, is a way we can highlight Lebanon and really showcase who we are. I can’t wait to see those stands out there full of NASCAR fans and see the flags fly above. It’s going to be a great time.”
Of course, Lebanon is the home of the race track but the city has been in communication with Wilson County officials about how to make the experience of getting to the track and staying in the area for the race as smooth and enjoyable as possible.
“We have been in contact with county officials for sure,” said Bell. “We have talked about how to manage this, manage the traffic, manage the crowds and the people who come here. We always work well with the county government and this will have a positive impact on both of us because when people come here and they stay in hotels, buy things, that sells tax revenue for both entities. We have not been in contact with Rutherford County, as far as that goes. We know this will have an impact on them as well but we would like to remind everybody, the track sits in Wilson County. It’s called the “Nashville” Superspeedway but it’s here. We’re the home.”
Backtracking to one of the most recent inaugural races at Kentucky Speedway, traffic was a concern that resulted in multiple issues for fans attending. Bell denoted that Tennessee Highway Patrol, which has experience with races at Bristol Motor Speedway, and the Lebanon Police Department and Wilson County Sheriffs Department have been in discussion on how to make it as smooth as possible for fans to come in and out of the track.
“I don’t know the details or the plans,” said Bell. “I know the sheriff’s office, Lebanon police department, and the Tennessee Highway Patrol are all working together to make this easy as possible. I can remember when the track first opened, I went to a bunch of races out there and I remember how much fun it was but I really wasn’t involved in any of the traffic issues because being local you know some of the back ways and that always helps but there working with the track and with state officials and everybody to make sure that the traffic aspect of the race goes smoothly. I have been to Talladega a few times and I know getting in and out of there isn’t always easy too and they’ve had tons of races.”
Bell was elected mayor of Lebanon, Tennessee on November 3, 2020, just 154 days after the announcement of NASCAR’s return to Nashville Superspeedway.
“When you become a mayor, you inherit a lot,” said Bell. “Some things you inherit are issues that you have to deal with while others are great benefits. I am really honored to be the mayor coming in at the same time. I was not able to buy tickets, they got sold out before I could get on there and get tickets so hopefully, I will be able to find a ticket from someone. With my new job, I was so busy that I wasn’t able to get one but I will for sure find a ticket. NASCAR is something I’ve watched since I was a kid. My father and I were big Darrell Waltrip fans. As I said, I have been to several races since then and this is great for the city of Lebanon. Yes, I’m the mayor but this is something that is great for everyone and I hope everyone appreciates it and notices the positive reaction it has.”
NASCAR’s return to Lebanon may leave a bad taste in the mouths of many who live in Lebanon and the surrounding areas. Bell wanted to talk to those people who may feel bitter about NASCAR leaving Lebanon in the first place.
“This is real,” said Bell. “This is a real as it gets, there is going to be a Cup race and there’s going to be multiple more. It’s imperative that we as the city of Lebanon support this as much as possible because we want it here long term. We want the city to be welcoming, we want the city to step out. Not everyone can go but we can be very welcoming and as fans come in, welcome them to Lebanon and show off our city and know that they are welcome back anytime. If we show them who we are and what we are then that might convince NASCAR they want to be here longer than what the contract entails.”
NASCAR programs always give local governments an opportunity to welcome fans from all around the country to their city. But he is already ahead of the action and welcoming NASCAR fans to his community through his words for this article.
“Welcome to Lebanon,” said Bell! “We are honored and thrilled to have you come to visit our city! We have a lot to offer and we know you will not only go to the race but you’ll do other things as well. I know a lot of people have plans to go to downtown Nashville but don’t forget there’s a downtown Lebanon, too. It’s a historic area with shopping and restaurants. It’s not as crowded, it’s easier to get to, and we have a great time here, as well. When you come to the race, come to Lebanon and we’ll welcome you with open arms!”
Photo: Christian Koelle