Why Flatrock, Tennessee can attract big series, big crowds
Cumberland County, Tennessee, is a beautiful part of the world and, if you're a racing fan – competitor or spectator – it just got more attractive yet. But what will it take for Flatrock Motorsports Park to become a lasting success? David Malsher-Lopez spoke to those in the know.
Whenever you see the Powerball numbers reach eight- or nine-figure sums, as a motorsport enthusiast, it’s hard not to drift off on a flight of fantasy about how to spend the winnings. For many of us, building a racing team from scratch or investing in an existing team would be a dream. Just think what this owner or that owner might do if he or she didn’t have to take pay drivers. Or how about investing in a select few drivers in whom you truly believe?
For some of us, all that human interaction would be too much. Instead, we’d start collecting vintage race and rally cars – that Holman-Moody Ford Torino Talladega we’ve always drooled over, or a Penske PC20, BMW CSL, Ferrari F187, Lancia Stratos, Lancia Delta Integrale, Lotus 72, Reynard 95i, etc.…
Most ambitious of all, however, would be to build a race track, and turn it into a business that will one day give you a return on investment, but in its early stages is just a labor of love. And that’s what Rusty Bittle – a developer and entrepreneur rather than a lucky lottery winner – is developing in Cumberland County, Tennessee.
Flatrock Motorsports Park and Motorclub will feature a 3.5-mile Circuit Club track, a 2.67-mile Grand Prix track and a combined configuration ‘endurance’ track that is nearly six miles long. The layouts have been designed by Tilke GmbH and are FIA Grade 2, which allows anything except Formula 1 to race there, and they are blessed with plenty of elevation changes.
Tim Chandler, VP of marketing at Flatrock explains: “Twenty-something years ago when Rusty really started thinking about building a course, he was specifically looking at building a small kart course, because he was in kart racing. But from there his vision grew.
“Three years ago, the venue was going to be in Oakridge, Tennessee, and he was looking at a much larger racetrack, but it wasn’t working out and there were complications with government, and it was going to cost millions and millions more, and there weren’t even guarantees he would get approval.
“So Rusty started looking for other locations. And about 40 miles outside Knoxville, on the I-40 between Knoxville and Nashville, he found an amazing piece of property that was to be an industrial park. It was going to be the home of the VW plant in Tennessee [which instead was built 75 miles southwest in Chattanooga].
“This piece of land is set in 773 acres nestled in the Tennessee Hills, on a plateau, but less than a mile from the Interstate. It’s a beautiful property that just cradles the design of the track. We went to Tilke with this land and said, ‘Design us the best course for the motorsports enthusiast’. It was a blank slate on rolling Tennessee Hills with mountain views, keeping the contours of the land and utilizing them to create a natural amphitheater.”
Jason Guzman, track director at Flatrock says: “The Motorclub itself is part of phase 1 along with the kart track. Asphalt will be laid in the next two months for the Motorclub – a 3.5-mile track for our members – and at the same time the kart track which is CIK-approved. We’re hoping to be able to allow cars and karts on the track by late spring or early summertime.”
Constructing the Motorclub and its facilities is a $180m project, and will eventually include a luxury hotel, an amphitheater big enough to stage concerts, a brewery, a winery, a shopping center and more. It’s no surprise that Flatrock already has a letter of intent from a premier racing series to stage an international-level event in 2024, which means the facility is going to rapidly accelerate in prominence from its first event…
There is considerable elevation change at Flatrock, despite its name...
“Yeah, we’ll have some smaller trackday events on the Motorclub track,” says Jeremy Hale, COO and CFO. “We already have manufacturers coming and talking to us about renting out the 3.5-mile circuit, but the main events on the Grand Prix track will be in 2024.”
Already, the Flatrock team has had conversations with SRO regarding the GT World Challenge, and then the hope is to discuss with IMSA and IndyCar the possibility of bringing their races to the venue.
“Once they see our track and see the potential of what we have to provide, those other sanctioning bodies will come,” says Guzman in a confident manner. Adds Chandler: “What we want to be is a destination for the motorsports enthusiast, and not just the driver. We want to build an entity that also caters to the full family experience, so when you come to Flatrock, you can embrace the full facilities – the restaurants onsite, the Club, the swimming pool and spa, and all the amenities for the full entertainment aspect. So there’s other things to do on the property. There’ll be camping facilities available onsite, walking trails, golf-cart trails, concerts, etc.
“We really want it to be a place where families and friends can gather together and enjoy the whole lifestyle that surrounds motorsports.”
Adds Hale, “We’ll be able to host weddings, and also corporate retreats, so if a company wants to add track experiences, we can make it a memorable event at Flatrock, as opposed to sitting in a stuffy conference room somewhere else.”
It sounds idyllic, and happily, Bittle’s vision hasn’t found itself enmeshed in miles and miles of red tape. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“We’ve been working with the public and having meetings with them since last year,” says Hale, “and we’ve been embraced by not only the locals but also the government entities who are supportive of the project. They know what kind of economic impact this could have, what kind of job creation this could have, and so they’ve been very supportive of the project.
“As you can imagine, there’s also a lot of interest from different industry partners who want to get involved, from new technology companies, autonomous vehicle testing, EVs, and so on.”
It will not have escaped the notice of IndyCar fans that Flatrock Motorsports Park is just two hours east of Nashville, where the successful Music City Grand Prix has now been held twice. To the objective fan who loves the state and loves the sport, this might be seen as an opportunity for U.S. open-wheel racing’s premier series to have a Tennessee double-header at some point in the future, with joint promotion of events held on back-to-back weekends.
But one also recalls that when venues don’t work together, circuit proximity can be perceived as a bad thing. That’s why Sonoma Raceway and Laguna Seca never appeared on the same IndyCar schedule, and why Eddie Gossage, former president of Texas Motor Speedway, used to react as if sprayed by a skunk if you dared to ask him about IndyCar’s all-too-brief affair with Circuit of The Americas. And those two venues were 3hr30min apart.
Hale doesn’t perceive a potential problem.
“I think the fact that Nashville is a street circuit is cool,” says Hale. “It’s a great event, and some of our partners are involved in that event as well. It’s a great city, very vibrant, and a great location for a race.
“But to have a Flatrock nearby, where you can come and run a road circuit with the views we have, would be a very different experience and one that would be complementary to – not competing against – the event in Nashville. We haven’t had those conversations specifically, but we do know their leadership and there will be discussions ongoing.”
Given NASCAR’s recent realization that road courses produce some of the most entertaining races on its vast schedule, it doesn’t take much imagination to picture a Tennessee double-header for stock cars. One can dream of the Cup series racing Bristol Motor Speedway on Friday evening, then heading 150 miles west to Flatrock for a very different challenge at the weekend…
It’s easy to get ahead of oneself, or underestimate the schedule juggling that must go on between sanctioning bodies and their TV partners. But it’s easy, too, to get enthusiastic about a new road course venue such as Flatrock Motorsports Park. It will surely earn its bread and butter from hosting OEMs for testing, filming and track days for employees and enthusiasts, and should also become a popular gathering spot for classic car clubs, and race organizations such as SCCA and NASA.
But attracting high-profile road racing series such as IndyCar and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is more than just a pipe dream. Heck, IndyCar is holding Spring Training at the Thermal Club in Palm Springs, California, next year, while IMSA has never been afraid to think outside the box since Jim France became chairman in 2014.
So even if you feel just a twinge of jealousy that Rusty Bittle is one of those motorsports enthusiasts who can turn a truly ambitious dream into reality, we must all salute him for pursuing that dream for, we hope, the benefit of all.
Flatrock Motorsports Park
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