Baker says Superspeedway still has promise

By Larry Woody  /  Lebanon Democrat

Gary Baker, one-time operator of some of NASCAR’s most successful racetracks, says Nashville Superspeedway could be revived and turned into a successful venue – and he might be interested in doing it himself.

“If someone wanted to call and discuss it, I’d listen,” Baker said last week in discussing the prospects of the Gladeville facility that is entering its fifth season of idleness.

“Could the track be successful under the right conditions? The short answer is ‘Yes.'” Baker said. “The question is, can those conditions be met?”

The Franklin resident said he was contacted by Dover Motorsports five years ago when the parent company decided to sell the track after a decade of declining attendance.

“I had some discussions with Denis (Dover Motorsports CEO Denis McGlynn) at the time, but shortly afterwards it was announced that someone else had bought the track,” Baker said.

That “someone else” was global technology company NeXovation, whose CEO Rob Sexton lives in Hendersonville. On May 29, 2014 it was announced that NeXovation was buying the track for $46 million, which included $18 million in Wilson County bond obligations.

However, repeated deadlines for closing the sale came and went, and finally last fall Dover said it would entertain new offers.

Is Baker interested?

“Again, the short answer is yes, but only under certain conditions,” he said. “I would need to have people involved – including corporate Nashville – who are willing to make a serious commitment.”

In addition to the purchase price, Baker said about $4 million needs to be invested in a “reconfiguration” of the 1.3-mile track.

“You basically need to tear it up and start over,” he said.

Baker, who has owned/operated NASCAR Cup-racing tracks in Nashville, Bristol and Atlanta, said from the start that the Superspeedway design was all wrong.

“They tried to build a hybrid track to fit both NASCAR and open-wheel racing, and ended up with a track that really wasn’t suited for either,” he said. “That was a big part of the problem. The racing wasn’t very good and fans knew it, which is why attendance steadily declined.”

While Baker is convinced the track could succeed under the right circumstances, he added that the “challenge is greater now ever.”

“It’s a much more challenging environment,” he said, referring to declining NASCAR attendance and withering corporate sponsorships.

Last week Richmond (Va.) Raceway announced it was demolishing its backstretch grandstands, following a trend at other once sold-out venues like Talladega and Daytona. If major tracks like those are struggling to sell premier Sprint Cup tickets, it doesn’t bode well for a track limited to second- and third-tier races – as was the Superspeedway.

Baker, however, is renowned for his innovation. It was his idea to light Bristol Motor Speedway, and night racing immediately turned the track into the most popular stop on the NASCAR circuit. Other tracks followed Baker’s lead, and now night racing is a staple of the sport.

Baker, who also owned a public relations company, brought some the first untraditional corporate sponsors, such as Procter and Gamble, into the sport. Today such sponsors are routine, and invest hundreds of millions of dollars annually in NASCAR sponsorships.

As a tax attorney, Baker’s clients included such mega stars as Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and others in the country music and entertainment community. He and music mogul Mike Curb were partners in a racing team, and those connections could help lure entertainment events to the Superspeedway.

Baker believes the track could also be used for testing by the numerous auto manufacturing companies in the area.

“There are a lot of uses for a racetrack besides racing,” he said. “To be successful it would need to be a multi-use facility with other revenue sources in addition to racing.”

In addition to the main track, the original design of the Gladeville facility included a road-racing course, drag strip, dirt track and short track. The latter three were never completed.

Baker, a former racer and team owner, has operated premier racetracks, been a major figure in the entertainment industry, and pioneered corporate advertising in stock car racing. He is an innovator and visionary who knows racing from its Middle Tennessee grass-roots to the top echelons at Daytona.

He could be the Superspeedway’s best chance – and maybe it’s only chance.

If Dover wants to talk, he’s ready to listen.

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