NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — In the 1980s, when the last NASCAR Cup race was at the Fairgrounds Nashville track, rowdy fans and a strong southern heritage in Music City mixed with NASCAR like a high-octane fuel blend.
Motorsports still has a segment of fans drinking cheap beer, waving Confederate flags and clinging to traditional southern values that may not fit a more cosmopolitan Nashville.
Today's Nashville — and its fit with the country music industry — could, however, serve as a model for what NASCAR can be.
"The music industry in Nashville and our sport are still closely aligned, incredibly aligned with the values, with the moral compass, with everything that goes on in this country; I still do believe they overlap each other in a lot of ways," retired NASCAR driver Kyle Petty said. “I do believe that NASCAR can reinvigorate and reinvent itself in a way that that the fan base is attracted back to the sport.”
Nashville has changed, of course, but perhaps NASCAR has, too.
"I hate the stigma that only old white guys are race fans when it's just not true," said Ronnie Campbell, an avid local NASCAR fan.
NASCAR might be coming back to Nashville, sooner rather than later. Speedway Motorsports Inc. is interested in restoring the Fairgrounds track with hopes of eventually bringing a Cup race to Nashville.
Mayor John Cooper has made clear his intention to protect the historic racetrack at the fairgrounds, where a deal already has been cut to build a Major League Soccer stadium. Cooper told the Rotary Club of Nashville last week, "You've got a lot of separate parts of that site that all need to be successful. Racing needs to be a success, too, not just soccer."
As the goal takes shape, it will bring to mind a history that might not have a place in today's city. But if NASCAR, like Nashville, has evolved the two entities could still be a good fit.
On the official NASCAR website, there is a photo gallery devoted to the history shared by the sport and country music.
There are photos of country music star Marty Robbins, who competed in 35 Cup races from 1966-82, and of Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty performing before a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1975.
There also is a photo of Bobby Allison proudly holding up his guitar trophy standing next to Junior Johnson after winning the Nashville 420 Cup Series race at Nashville Fairgrounds in 1972.
NASCAR's link to country music also serves as a connection to Nashville.
Over the years country music has continued to thrive, finding its niche with new and younger listeners while also holding on to the older generation.
NASCAR has not. Race attendance and television ratings have declined for several years.
So would a move back to Music City strike a chord with NASCAR fans? Petty, now an analyst for NBC, believes it would.
"There was a time in the '70s when Marty Robbins would take me and my dad (seven-time Cup champion Richard) and Bobby (Allison) and Cale (Yarborough) to the Grand Ole Opry and stand off stage when they had those monster fans and watch Little Jimmy Dickens and Minnie Pearl and all those great acts," Petty said. "NASCAR and Nashville and the music there go hand in hand."
If NASCAR was to return to Nashville, Petty said it would be a step in the right direction .
Younger fans could also be reached, Petty said, by a younger generation of country music stars.
"Now we're talking about country music stars like Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, Randy Houser, and if you look at our drivers today — Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott — that's that same generation," Petty said. “"Our generation of drivers has to touch that fan the same way these country music superstars have touched them”."
Campbell has attended Cup races for many years. He's also a big fan of the local race scene at the Fairgrounds and has even competed there.
Over the last 10 years or so Campbell said he has noticed a distinct difference in the makeup of the crowds and in the cars.
NASCAR, Campbell said, has become more inclusive from the pits to the grandstands.
"It's definitely more diverse today," Campbell said. "I follow a lot of other drivers that are up and coming and there's a lot of African-American talent that is out there."
NASCAR has made an effort to improve its diversity since 2004. That's when the Drive for Diversity initiative was started by NASCAR marketing executives for female and multicultural drivers and crew members.
The result has been recent successes from drivers with international and minority backgrounds, including Kyle Larson (Japanese-American), Bubba Wallace (African-American) and Daniel Suarez (Mexican).
In 2016, Larson became the first Drive for Diversity driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race and compete in the series playoffs.
Suarez won the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series championship and in 2017 became the first Mexican-born driver to compete in NASCAR’s premier series.
In 2018, Wallace became the first African-American driver to compete full-time in the Cup Series since NASCAR Hall of Fame member Wendell Scott in 1971.
Last February, Brehanna Daniels and Breanna O'Leary became the first female NASCAR Drive for Diversity graduates to work in the pits at the Daytona 500.
Along with hosting NASCAR races in the 1980s, Fairgrounds Speedway also was the site of the All-American 400, which recognized a distinct difference in the North and South. It was at a time when the Confederate flag was still a common sight in and around the Nashville area.
An advertisement in The Tennessean described the race as the "Civil War on Wheels."
The All-American 400 attracted top drivers from across the country and pitted the North against the South. The race is still run each year at the Fairgrounds, but no longer with the same theme.
"It's still to some degree a North versus South thing, but it doesn't have the same pitch to it the way it did back then," said longtime Fairgrounds public relations director Donnie Redd.
In 2015, NASCAR encouraged fans not to display the Confederate flag at the Daytona 500, but that did not stop many from waving them at the Sprint Cup Coke Zero 400, which was also in Daytona that year.
Buck Dozier, executive director of the fair board at the time, said the Confederate flag was not a problem during his stint on the board from 2008-16.
While NASCAR’s heritage is strongly linked to southern culture, many of the top names in the sport supported the ban on the Confederate flag.
"I think it's offensive to an entire race," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “It does nothing for anybody to be there flying, so I don't see any reason. It belongs in the history books and that's about it.”
Officials at Bristol Motor Speedway, which is owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc., say they want to preserve the rich racing tradition at Fairgrounds Nashville by bringing NASCAR back.
“It's no secret that our organization is interested in working with the city of Nashville to restore Fairgrounds Speedway and in the process help deliver a truly complete renovation of the entire Fairgrounds campus,” said Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway.
With the growth that has taken place in Nashville, now home to 692,587 people according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau report, some believe the city has become more progressive in many ways. The city council and population have become more diverse.
NASCAR held its annual awards gala in Nashville last year and will do so again in 2020. It has an option for a third year, and the city and the sport may be interested in extending that agreement.
Caldwell believes the changes that have taken place with Nashville and NASCAR are similar.
"Just like Nashville, NASCAR has embraced the progressive side of the sport, but also not forgotten its roots," Caldwell said. "Who would have thought 40 years ago that we would have female race car drivers that are very successful and doing great within in our sport? Or having drivers from other parts of the world having a lot of success within the sport? I think what you're finding in both entities — Nashville and NASCAR — there is an effort to embrace everyone."