If Texas World Speedway had managed to avoid the ravages of neglect and ultimate bankruptcy, it is reasonable to assume Texas Motor Speedway would never have come into existence.
Created during the ascendancy of the superspeedways in the late 1960s, the first Texas track was a mammoth two-mile facility that held much promise as stock car racing began to shed its short-track dominance.
At the time of its birth, it was accompanied by similar tracks such as Michigan International Speedway, Alabama International Motor Speedway (now Talladega Superspeedway), Pocono Raceway and Ontario International Speedway in California. This marked a distinctive competitive change for NASCAR, which scheduled races at each venue.
It was something of a “new age”.
Or was it? In a very short time, the light of this “new age” was dimmed significantly for one reason — financial irresponsibility.
That irresponsibility was particularly evident in Texas.
It began in 1968. An industrialist named Larry LoPatin reached the conclusion he could make millions in the auto racing business. He was not an enthusiast of the sport, rather, he was an enthusiast of profit. He declared: “I’m not dealing in fun and games.”
LoPatin reasoned that track ownership was fragmented and extremely complex. He said that future tracks should be designed and constructed with the idea of best serving the fans. In other words, use just one model to build them.
His first move was to acquire partial, or even majority, ownership of speedways that already existed. He wound up with 47% of Riverside International Raceway and 19 percent of Atlanta International Raceway (now Atlanta Motor Speedway) with an option to own 52%. He also had a portion of the speedway in Trenton, N.J.
But that was only a start.
LoPatin formed American Raceways, Inc. He began construction of what was first known as Texas International Speedway in 1968, not long after his Michigan International Speedway was completed.
It was Michigan that laid the foundation for Texas. They were identical, two-mile tracks with wide sweeping turns that promised speed and side-by side racing.
Michigan’s first race was a 250-mile United States Auto Club IndyCar race on Oct. 13, 1968. It was financially successful largely because it took in $500,000 and LoPatin posted a purse of only $75,000.
LoPatin boasted that he wanted “all the race dates I can get.” And it seemed he was well on his way after NASCAR founder Bill France Jr. — who attended the USAC race — guaranteed Michigan two races per season for 10 years.
It was an unprecedented agreement. But there was more. France also agreed to give LoPatin’s Texas track the final race of the 1969 season.
And so it was that the 54th, and last, event of the 1969 Grand National season was held on Dec. 7 at Texas.
It was won by Bobby Isaac, who won 17 races over the course of the long season, all, except Texas, on short tracks.
Things began to dismantle quickly.
Attendance for the first Texas race was only 22,500 — not nearly enough to cover expenses. The numbers also weren’t good for the next couple of years, and the track sank deeper into the red.
It culminated in 1971, when ARI went bankrupt after only three years of existence.
Yet racing at Texas pressed on.
The competition was good. Drivers enjoyed competing on the track. Its distance meant speed, and its wide straights and long, sweeping turns provided room for passing and side-by-side competition.
“It’s just like Michigan,” Richard Petty once said. “And we have as much fun here as at Michigan.”
Texas held on through 1981. And the list of its NASCAR winners is impressive, to say the least: Isaac, Petty, Buddy Baker, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough and Benny Parsons. All six are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
But with each passing race, there was more evidence Texas was headed toward extinction. The track grew more unkempt and in disrepair. Attendance fell even more.
Michigan might well have followed suit had not LoPatin sold it to Roger Penske for $2 million.
When NASCAR departed, Texas was used by several entities for several purposes.
Among them was testing. In the past, NASCAR decreed that it be done only at tracks which did not play host to any sanctioning body events. Which meant Texas was fair game.
On Jan. 9, 2009, Roush Fenway Racing driver Greg Biffle reached a speed of 218 mph during testing at Texas, the fastest for a stock car at the track.
Today, as I understand it, the track has been dismantled and will be replaced by commercial and residential properties. That’s also the same fate met by other failed speedways, such as Riverside and Ontario.
I’ve wondered what racing in Texas might have become had the track managed to stay alive. After all, it did produce the kind of racing fans greatly enjoy at Michigan to this day.
If Texas World Speedway had been successful, would there even be a Texas Motor Speedway?
Well, Texas is a pretty big place. There was always plenty of room for both.
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