NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Shakedown Session: Fast Times At Texas Motor Speedway

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There is an old saying that goes along the lines of “Everything is bigger in Texas.” Such phrasing can be applied to Texas Motor Speedway, located on the northern outskirts of Fort Worth. A 1.5-mile, intermediate oval, it looks innocent enough, like another NASCAR cookie cutter until you stop and take a look at the speed chart – it’s currently the fastest unrestricted track on the Sprint Cup schedule, even faster than Atlanta Motor Speedway. Over the course of its 14-year history on the NASCAR circuit, drivers and fans have given it mixed reviews. It’s basically a carbon copy of two other Speedway Motorsports, Inc. tracks in Charlotte and Atlanta, but generally, the racing at Texas has been rather exciting and the speeds are consistently fast. Plus, having the modern era’s version of the great Humpy Wheeler in Eddie Gossage’s unique and innovative fan-friendly promotions and management has helped the track’s credibility by leaps and bounds. This edition of the “Shakedown Session” will uncover some little known facts about the Texas Motor Speedway and analyze the good, the bad, and the ugly about the facility.

The track was born in 1997 as the Texas International Raceway due to a legal squabble with a Texas dirt track that believed they had the rights to the name Texas Motor Speedway. After that lawsuit was eventually settled, the track opened up, but face immediate backlash from old school fans; to snag a race date on the schedule, Smith took from the racing history of North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. The short track there, on the schedule twice in 1996 was shunted to the side like an old racehorse en route to the glue factory. Bruton Smith and New Hampshire International Speedway track owner Bob Bahre had bought North Wilkesboro Speedway for the sole purpose of carving up its two Winston Cup dates, history be damned. So, there were a few hardcore NASCAR fans miffed at Smith (and Bahre) for sacrificing the tradition of North Wilkesboro. But after the first race at Texas, there weren’t too many fans complaining about the racing there as the track was most certainly fast and there was plenty of exciting racing to go around.

Newer NASCAR fans may not realize that this was not the first attempt by NASCAR to branch out into Texas. The series ran at Texas World Speedway in College Station, Texas from 1970 until 1981, but the less than desirable location and lack of fan support along with the lack of modern amenities reduced it to testing track status eventually. There was also an attempt back in 1971 to race at Meyer Speedway near Houston, but only the most ardent NASCAR historians can recall that race. The Texas Motor Speedway’s early popularity was helped out by an all-out media blitz hyping the track in many magazine and newspaper publications and, of course, being located in the Dallas-Fort Worth media market didn’t hurt the track either. In 2005, the track added a second date at the expense of another historical North Carolina racetrack in Rockingham as the result of the Frances Ferko lawsuit. Unlike many other tracks that have added a second date and struggled with attendance issues, such has fortunately not been the case at Texas, which has come up with many fan-friendly ventures and promotions to keep the Texas fans coming back. And in a possible effort to boost ticket sales further, the spring race, which traditionally had been held on Sunday afternoon has been moved to Saturday night under the lights with the eyes of Texas upon the 43 drivers in the field pursuing victory.

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A decade ago, when the green flag dropped at Texas many fans would either groan or take a nap. But the track, which has aged well has gradually developed a special place in fans’ hearts, now looked at as one of the more competitive intermediate racetracks racers will compete on this season.

But not all of Texas’ history has been positive. Unfortunately, the track has endured its share of bizarre incidents and, yes, even tragedy. The first NASCAR race saw the track criticized by the drivers after a huge opening-lap pile-up gave the track an inauspicious debut. 1998 saw water seep up through the track during qualifying, resulting in crashes. The water also seeped up late in the Texas 500 Winston Cup race on Sunday afternoon, but no one wrecked because of it.

In the Craftsman Truck Series O’Reilly 400k in 2000, Tony Roper was turned head-on into the wall at 185 mph and died the next day as a result of his head and neck injuries. Also, the CART Firestone Firehawk 600k was cancelled in 2001 two hours before the scheduled green flag due to drivers complaining of dizziness and fatigue while racing at more than 5 G’s, which was more than the human body could tolerate. Because of the concerns, the event was cancelled for fear of drivers potentially “blacking out” under race conditions. But fortunately, the track has installed SAFER barriers since the Tony Roper incident and modern IndyCars have caught up to being able to handle the speeds of Texas Motor Speedway with improved driver safety and a newer, safer car. The facility has also hosted Country and Christian Rock concert festivals and it has a small dirt track on the complex as well. Some of the more dominant drivers in the history of the track include Carl Edwards with three wins and Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton each with two wins, with Hamlin being the most recent winner.

The track has taken some criticism from short-track purists who view it as “Charlotte or Atlanta Lite”. And yes, while the track has a similar layout to those SMI facilities, the racing there has consistently been thrilling and the fans generally go home satisfied with all the high-speed competitive racing balanced with enough wrecks to placate those fans who come to NASCAR events just to watch crashes. But what has kept the fans coming back, undoubtedly, has been the outstanding track management of Eddie Gossage. While Humpy Wheeler was the P.T. Barnum of racing, one has to consider Gossage the Bill Veeck of NASCAR (Google the name Bill Veeck, kids. Something may be learned from it) with his promoting style, often engaging in friendly bets with other track promoters. He even played an April Fool’s Day joke awhile back that a local radio deejay in the Dallas-Fort Worth area was changing his name to “texasmotorspeedway.com.” He billed an IndyCar race a few years back following a Danica Patrick/Dan Wheldon confrontation as the “Rumble At The Speedway”, complete with Don King posters and the “Rocky” theme song; so in that context, one couldn’t put it past him to put a boxing ring in the infield as long as fans would come see it.

At the end of the day, regardless of whether fans love or hate the track, it cannot be denied how far the Texas Motor Speedway has come in 14 years. To have the track become a destination race not just for fans, but for drivers as well, says a lot about the promotion work of Eddie Gossage and the vision of Olin Bruton Smith. Texas Motor Speedway, like ten-gallon hats, the Dallas Cowboys, Longhorns (real and college sports related) and cowboy boots is here to stay.

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