Dover to move one of its NASCAR race weekends to Music City in 2021

Dover International Speedway President and CEO Michael A. Tatoian in front of the Speedway’s Monster Monument at the Victory Plaza. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

DOVER — The signs have been everywhere at Dover International Speedway for several years now, and not just the ones that promote tire companies, oil brands or cold beverages. Rather, it has been obvious that Dover had become a track in distress.

So, Wednesday’s announcement by Dover Motorsports that, beginning in 2021, it will move one of its two annual NASCAR race weekends from Dover International Speedway to Nashville Superspeedway in Tennessee — a track that the company also owns — didn’t come as a total surprise.

Dover officials’ decision to tear down huge swaths of grandstands at the “Monster Mile” over the past several years had served as a precursor, as the track’s seating capacity has dropped from nearly 100,000 seats to around 45,000 over the past decade — quite a long way from the nearly 140,000 race fans who squeezed into the complex in 2001.

Spectator interest at the tracks, and on television, has cooled on NASCAR, which was labeled “America’s Hottest Sport” by Sports Illustrated in the late 1990s. Times have changed, and Dover has been getting left behind like a slower-moving race car by speedy driver Kyle Busch on the track’s high-banked, one-mile oval.

Mike Tatoian, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Dover Motorsports, said the “Monster Mile” won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. It was just time to make some adjustments.

“We’ve enjoyed a 50-plus year relationship with NASCAR here at Dover and everything that has transpired as far as one of our races at NASCAR’s request to move to Nashville doesn’t have any impact to what we’re doing here,” said Mr. Tatoian, in front of the Monster Monument outside of Dover’s speedway on Wednesday. “We feel very comfortable that for the next 50 years we’re going to be operating the ‘Monster Mile.’

“It is too critical to the NASCAR schedule and it’s such a unique track with the one-mile concrete oval that is so unique to the circuit, and the market and is so critical to the overall industry. We’re still in a very great position to continue to have success here for a very long period of time.”

Mr. Tatoian said there is “nothing official” about next year’s Dover and Nashville race dates yet, but reports have indicated that Dover’s tentative race date for 2021 may be May 16 or 23 while Nashville’s tentative first Cup Series race will be June 20 next year.

Next year will mark the first time since 1970 that Dover will host only one NASCAR race weekend. The track had only one race in 1969 — its inaugural year — as well.

For some, the decision to move one of Dover’s race weekends to Nashville strikes the perfect chord. To others, it comes off as an ear-splitting, flat note.

“I love Nashville, always have,” Josef Miele wrote on the Dover Speedway Facebook page. “But I don’t love it at the expense of one of my Delaware weekends. For 18 years I’ve come to Delaware twice a year. My heart will be very sad next fall. Happy for Dover Motorsports though.”

Fred Voelker doesn’t like the decision, but he understands Dover’s reasoning.

“I’m so disappointed,” Mr. Voelker wrote. “The racing at Dover is so good and it’s my home track. It’s business though and Dover Motorsports has to do what’s best for them.”

A hit to the Dover economy

NASCAR weekends are traditionally big money makers for hotels, restaurants and retail stores in Delaware’s state capital and the surrounding Kent County area.

While the estimates are not clear for how much tourism revenue will be lost by the elimination of one of Dover’s race weekends, a 2019 Delaware Department of Transportation economic impact study on state airports estimated the NASCAR races generate around $60 million per year. Those numbers will be cut in half in 2021.

Pete Bradley, president of Kent County Tourism, said that Dover Motorsports simply had to make the best business decision that it could for itself.

After all, Dover Motorsports is the only publicly traded company to own NASCAR racetracks. It would appear to be a popular move as news of the venue change caused a 15 percent bump to stock value for Dover Motorsports on Wednesday. Shares opened Wednesday morning at $1.64 after closing Tuesday at $1.42.

“Obviously, this move is going to have an impact on the Dover market,” Mr. Bradley said. “NASCAR weekends are always good economic drivers for Dover and Kent County. I’m optimistic that the loss of one race weekend will be mitigated by having a greater demand on attendance for the one remaining race that Dover will have.

“It’s really hard to quantify. Dover Motorsports is just a great partner for us, and you understand the rationale, but it’s just a sad day for us and the Dover market.”

Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen, who attended the first NASCAR race at Dover in July 1969, said he hopes to work with Dover Motorsports company officials in trying to bring different entertainment options to the racing facility. The speedway has hosted the immensely popular Firefly Music Festival since 2012 at The Woodlands, just behind the racetrack.

“The announcement of the loss of one of Dover International Speedway’s races is very sad,” Mayor Christiansen said. “As a longtime NASCAR fan, I have seen the sport grow locally and nationally to great heights and it’s decline as fans have aged and other interests have come about.

“The decision to move a race to Nashville, while a blow to Dover and our local economy, it is a part of the rejuvenation of the sport, and since Nashville is owned by Dover Motorsports it will be a win for all concerned. Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines.”

This has been a difficult period for Dover International Speedway, fresh on the heels on the track’s year-long 50th anniversary celebration.

Dover’s May race was postponed due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and it’s not currently known if the track’s next scheduled Cup Series race, scheduled to be run on Aug. 23, will be allowed to take place with race fans in attendance. There have been rumors that the August NASCAR weekend at Dover will feature a Cup Series doubleheader, although nothing has been made official.

Getting two Cup Series races in at the track in August would be a huge financial benefit to Dover Motorsports, considering the races’ TV broadcast rights totaled $34.2 million last year.

This tough time comes following Dover Motorsports’ 2019 annual report that said the NASCAR races at Dover made around $4.9 million in admission revenue last year. It marked the continuation of a downward spiral that has lasted since around 2008, amid the great recession. That year, the track’s admissions revenue was reported to be more than $31 million.

How the pieces fell into place

Dover’s decision to move one of its race weekends to Nashville came after the Music City hosted the annual NASCAR Cup Series Awards Banquet last December.

“We were energized to see how excited Nashville was to host the NASCAR Cup Series banquet last December,” said Denis McGlynn, president and CEO of Dover Motorsports. “When we built Nashville Superspeedway in 2001 our goal was to one day secure a NASCAR Cup Series race for the venue.

“Nashville, central Tennessee, and the surrounding market area is filled with passionate race fans. We are thrilled that we were able to collaborate with NASCAR and our television partners to get this done and we can’t wait to put on a great show there in 2021.”

NASCAR President Steve Phelps has talked about creating a new reinvigorated schedule beginning in 2021 that will spice up the sport and energize its fan base. Dover is now a key player in that seasoning.

“Thanks to the collaboration of Dover Motorsports and our broadcast partners, we are excited to bring NASCAR racing back to Nashville, a place where the passion for our sport runs deep,” Mr. Phelps said, in a press release. “The Nashville market is a vital one for our sport and bringing NASCAR Cup Series racing to Nashville Superspeedway will be an integral building block in helping us further deliver on our promise in creating a dynamic schedule for 2021.”

Mr. Tatoian said it was obvious that it was time for Dover to put Nashville Superspeedway back on the map.

“We collaborated with NASCAR because it was their request,” he said. “There’s been so much discussion about (changing the schedule) the last couple of years from the fans, from our broadcast partners, from the drivers, from the sponsors, that it wasn’t just reshuffling of the deck, it is getting to new venues and to new tracks and to new markets.

“It’s not an easy thing to accomplish and Nashville Superspeedway was built 20 years ago. NASCAR made the request back in December and we’ve had nothing but positive conversations since then.”

Nashville Superspeedway is a 1.33-mile concrete track that was built in 2001 by Dover Motorsports and hosted NASCAR- and IRL-sanctioned events from 2001 to 2011. It is situated on about 1,000 acres in Lebanon, Tenn., about a 40-minute drive from downtown Nashville, and currently has 25,000 permanent grandstand seats and lights for night racing.

The track has hosted the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series and NTT Indycar Series races in its history – but never a NASCAR Cup Series race.

NASCAR’s Cup Series did compete in Music City from 1958 until 1984 at the Nashville Fairgrounds’ .596-mile oval track, while other NASCAR national tours ran there until 2000.

Nashville Superspeedway has sat idle since its last NASCAR event in 2011, except for occasional rentals for stock-car driving experiences or for car storage by Nissan, which has an assembly plant located in nearby Smyrna, Tennessee.

Panattoni Development Company purchased a 147-acre portion of the 1,250-acre speedway grounds in 2018 with plans to redevelop the land for industrial use. The group exercised an option to buy an additional 132 acres last June. Neither land parcel included the track or its seating.

Meanwhile, Dover has hosted 100 Cup Series events since it opened in 1969. While those races will only come once a year starting in 2021, Mr. Tatoian thinks everybody will benefit from the decision to move a race weekend to Nashville.

“While we have just one weekend now (at Dover), we do believe that we’ll get some benefit from having one weekend where now many fans who (used to come for) the fall weekend might come (in the spring),” said Mr. Tatoian. “From our perspective, I think we will still continue to do really, really well as a company.

“This move is in the best interest of NASCAR fans. It’s in the best interest of our broadcast partners, all of our stakeholders and NASCAR and, certainly, for our company. It certainly is one that, as you thread the needle, it really does benefit all of us. From our perspective, it’s a great move.”