NASHVILLE — Trackhouse Racing introduced itself to Nashville on Friday outside of Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, the famed honky-tonk bar located in the shadow of the Ryman Auditorium. In two years, it hopes to be the Tennessee capital's newest professional sports team.
Trackhouse is in its first season of existence and based in North Carolina, the hub for almost every NASCAR team. But team owner Justin Marks is a Nashville resident, and by 2023 he wants Trackhouse operating in Music City in the heart of the downtown entertainment district.
"We really want to be Nashville's racing team," said Marks, who secured sponsorship from Tootsie's for the No. 99 Chevrolet driven by Daniel Suarez.
This week the Chevy is wrapped in purple and adorned with a pair of large orchids to match Tootsie's iconic building on Lower Broadway. It will race Sunday when NASCAR's Cup Series returns to the Nashville area for the first time in 37 years.
Nashville Superspeedway reopened after a decade of dormancy, and the track in nearby Lebanon will cap a three-day weekend of NASCAR national series events with its very first Cup Series race. That series hasn't raced in the area since 1984, when Geoff Bodine won at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, which is working toward what it hopes is a return to the NASCAR schedule.
In 2019, downtown Nashville hosted NASCAR's Champion's Week, the postseason awards ceremony and celebration of racing.
Sunday's race is an important one not only for Nashville but Marks, who has an unconventional long-term vision for this new NASCAR team.
He has partnered with Pitbull, and the entertainer will be at the track Saturday and Sunday for his fourth race of the season. Suarez, the 2016 Xfinity Series champion and only full-time Mexican driver in NASCAR, is in his fifth Cup Series season but happier with Trackhouse than his previous three teams. The pairing with Suarez and Pitbull fits Marks' goal to reach a demographic largely untouched by stock car racing.
"A lot of what we're doing with the 99 car is trying to tap into the United States' Latin market, which has a spending power of $1.3 trillion a year," Marks said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It's a large group of people, passionate sports fans, and they are American consumers. There's not really another team in NASCAR that has infiltrated that market."
And he wants to do it from Nashville, but in the entertainment district and not the industrial park setup many NASCAR teams have built in North Carolina.
"We don't want to build something the way they exist in Charlotte; we want something in downtown Nashville that is a public business open to the public every day that is a racing-themed attraction," Marks said. "We want to incorporate entertainment, music, everything that is synonymous with Nashville — but with that Americana racing theme."
There is still this first season to get through on the track, as well as Marks' search for a charter that guarantees Suarez a spot in the field each week. Trackhouse leased a charter from Spire Motorsports this year, but NASCAR rules don't allow the team to lease the same charter in consecutive seasons. Spire said Friday it has sold two of its three charters to Kaulig Racing for that team to move to the top-tier Cup Series next season, which leaves Marks scanning the market and trying to determine his best path.
Suarez is with his fourth team in four seasons, but he's never been happier than he is with Trackhouse.
"We have an amazing opportunity to do something different, and I love the way Justin thinks; he thinks outside the box and has a lot of very cool ideas that I like," Suarez said. "He doesn't mind to take risks, and that's why I am here with him right now in this ride."
Suarez, who is 22nd in the points standings, is in a tight cluster of drivers trying to crack the top 16 to earn a berth for the 10-race playoffs that begin in September. He's only 38 points behind Matt DiBenedetto in the 17th spot, but Suarez believes Nashville is where he can make up significant ground.
He's done well this year at tracks that have had a practice session, starting on the temporary dirt at Tennessee's Bristol Motor Speedway, where he led 58 laps and finished a season-high fourth. Cup Series drivers will have a 55-minute practice session Saturday at Nashville Superspeedway, with qualifying Sunday morning.
Since the start of the pandemic last year, NASCAR has cut almost all practice and qualifying sessions, which has hurt less experienced teams. Suarez noted a tire problem cost him a top-10 finish in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where Cup Series cars were able to practice, and he believes a win is within reach this season.
"I feel like we have the speed. We are still making mistakes as a new group," said Suarez, who failed to make the NASCAR All-Star Race last Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway after a wreck led to him finishing last in the All-Star Open qualifying race.
Suarez said Trackhouse was experimenting at the Fort Worth track.
"We completely missed it," he said. "Those are the things that we are paying the price for once in a while as a new group not having practice or any testing. But we are really smart, we know what we have to do, we know what works for us and we're trying to stick with that plan."
Kaulig moving up
Kaulig Racing's purchase of two charters from Spire Motorsports means it will move to the Cup Series next year with a full-time ride for Justin Haley and select races for AJ Allmendinger.
Team owner Matt Kaulig had been eyeing a move up to the top circuit for some time and made it official Friday while announcing multiyear contract extensions with both drivers. Allmendinger will compete for the Xfinity Series championship in addition to entering some Cup Series races.
The organization first entered NASCAR in 2014 when Kaulig put his company, LeafFilter Gutter Protection, on a Cup Series car as the primary partner. He had his own team by 2016 and has been pushing toward a move to Cup Series since then.
Spire said it would continue to field the No. 7 next season with Corey LaJoie as a chartered entry.
Alex Bowman received a two-year contract extension from Hendrick Motorsports on Friday that celebrates NASCAR's return to Nashville and sponsor Ally's support of the first Cup Series race in the area in 37 years.
Bowman's deal was extended through the 2023 season to align with Ally's commitment to the No. 48 Chevrolet. The digital financial services company entered NASCAR in 2019 as sponsor for seven-time season champion Jimmie Johnson, and Ally wanted Bowman to move into the car this season after Johnson's move to IndyCar.
Bowman is in his sixth full season on the Cup Series and his fourth with Hendrick. He has a career-high two wins so far this season and is 11th in the standings.
To support NASCAR's return to Nashville, Ally signed a four-year deal for the Cup Series race at Nashville Superspeedway.