Auto racing has a long, storied history at the Nashville Fairgrounds, and another chapter will be written when the ARCA Menards Series returns to Fairgrounds Raceway in the General Tire Music City 200 presented by Inspectra Thermal Solutions coming up on Saturday, May 4.
The event, which will also include the North/South Shootout 100 for the ARCA/CRA Super Series, the Southern Super Series, and CARS Tour super late models, will serve as the season-opening race for the historic fairgrounds oval and is being promoted by long-time ARCA partner Track Enterprises. The green flag for the late model race is set for 5:45 pm CT and the headlining Music City 200 will go green shortly after 8 pm CT on Saturday night. Should the event be postponed due to inclement weather, a rain date of Sunday May 5 has been established with the first green flag scheduled for 1 pm CT.
Some of NASCAR’s greatest drivers have gotten their start on the legendary five-eighths mile oval over the years, including three-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, and current NASCAR on FOX analyst Darrell Waltrip. Waltrip, who earned a pair of ARCA Menards Series wins at Texas World Speedway and Heartland Park Topeka later in his driving career, launched onto the national motorsports scene with success at the Fairgrounds in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Waltrip’s reputation at the Fairgrounds preceded him, even in the early days of his career.
“I was on the pole for an ARCA race in Nashville some years ago and John Marcum, the founder of ARCA, came over to my car just before the race was about to start,” Waltrip recalled. “He asked, ‘son, you like fish?’ I replied, ‘No, sir, I just like to race.’ Then he told me, ‘Well, if you go out there and stink up my show, I’ll bring you in, and you and I will sit and talk about fishing for a while. You understand that, son?’”
Waltrip didn’t win that day, but his mastery of the Fairgrounds was key to getting a chance to move on to the highest levels of stock car racing.
“The Fairgrounds played a huge role in my future success in NASCAR,” Waltrip said. “I often have considered it a great place not only to hone and showcase your skills, but also to help make a name for yourself. It’s pure racing, the way it was intended to be, and that experience helps make pure racers.”
The next generation of drivers hoping to use success at Fairgrounds Raceway Nashville is ready to take on the challenge. One of those young drivers is Christian Eckes (No. 15 JBL Audio Toyota), one of three drivers in the powerhouse Venturini Motorsports stable. Eckes made his ARCA Menards Series debut at Nashville in 2016 as a 15-year-old, starting and finishing in the eighth position. He finished third in 2017 before another eighth-place finish last season.
Eckes is a member of Toyota Racing Development’s driver development program. He won three times in the ARCA Menards Series in 2018, and he has made a handful of starts already with Kyle Busch Motorsports’ NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series team with several more scheduled throughout the remainder of the season. Eckes, now 18, is eligible to compete for the ARCA Menards Series championship for the first time.
He had the series championship lead heading into the third race of the season at Salem Speedway, but an overnight illness kept him from competing and cost him the points lead. Eckes is still in the title fight despite missing the Salem race, but a 26th-place finish at Talladega hurt his chances to get back into the fight.
No stranger to success on short tracks – he won the Snowball Derby and the Myrtle Beach 400 in 2016 – Eckes is hoping to reinvigorate his title hopes with a strong short track performance in Nashville.
“We are definitely looking for redemption going into Nashville,” Eckes said. “We have run great every week and we haven’t really done anything wrong to be where we’re at in the points. We didn’t really execute as well as we needed to and that’s why we were where we were to get involved in that crash. We need to keep running as well as we have been, do our jobs and execute and we’ll get back in the championship picture.”
Eckes knows a solid run at Nashville is key to his title hopes but, like Waltrip, success there can elevate him to success on the sport’s biggest stage.
“The great thing about Nashville is it’s unique, and it’s very raceable,” he said. “You can move all around the race track. There’s different grooves and a lot of ways to find speed. That’s why it’s so popular. If you can succeed there in a late model or an ARCA car, or even back when they ran Cup there, it is a pretty good indication you can get it done anywhere.”
The ARCA Menards Series is now in its 67th season of competition. For its first 66 seasons it operated as an independent family-owned business, and although ARCA was often seen as a developmental league and a part of the NASCAR ladder system, it was a separate entity. That changed in April of last season when Ron Drager, grandson of ARCA founders John and Mildred Marcum, announced NASCAR had acquired the Toledo, Ohio-based sanctioning body.
Now that the ladder to the upper levels of NASCAR is somewhat more formalized, the developmental drivers know they have to swim before they sink. Chandler Smith (No. 20 Craftsman Toyota) is Eckes’ Venturini Motorsports teammate. Just 16 years of age, Smith is already a two-time ARCA Menards Series winner. He also made his series debut at Nashville last season, starting from the General Tire Pole before finishing fifth.
Smith, too, has a deal to run a handful of Gander Trucks races for Busch’s organization, thanks in no small part due to success in ARCA.
“I’ve been racing at Nashville since I was 12 years old,” Smith said. “I started in pro late models, then super late models. It really helps that I have a lot of laps there. I made my first ARCA start there and I had as many laps there as anyone in the field. We went out and set the track record by three tenths of a second. You have to really take care of your equipment at Nashville, and even with all of my experience there I used my stuff up too quickly last year. I was too heavy on the brakes and it burned the tires off of it really quick. But I learned from that and used that experience at Madison, which is pretty similar, and we won that race. Nashville is a great place to come and race because you learn so much you can take to other race tracks all across the country.”
The General Tire Music City 200 presented by Inspectra Thermal Solutions is scheduled for Saturday, May 4. The day will get started with practice at 2:15 pm ET/1:15 pm CT, General Tire Pole Qualifying will follow at 5:15 pm ET/4:15 pm CT, and the race will go green shortly after 9 pm ET/8 pm CT. For ticket information, call (615) 470-5214 or visit TrackEnterprises.com. The race will be televised live flag-to-flag on MAVTV. ARCA for Me members can access live timing & scoring, live track updates, and live chat at ARCARacing.com. New users can register for free with a valid email address at ARCARacing.com/login.
-ARCA Menards Series Press Release
-Photo credit: David Aillo