NASCAR playoffs add chapters on Texas highlights and lowlights
- A quarter century after its first Cup Series race, the Track That Bruton Built is a very different site from the speedway that first raised the green flag for a NASCAR Cup race in 1997.
- Jeff Burton won the first cup race and after the second NASCAR weekend at the speedway, the track was reconfigured.
- In recent months there have been rumors and rumors about possible major changes to the TMS racing surface or its configuration.
Imagine your boss telling you to pack up, go to the Texas prairie and build a racetrack. A very large race track.
That was the incredible commission Eddie Gossage got from Bruton Smith, auto racing tycoon and speedway builder, in the mid-1990s. NASCAR was roaring in those years, its attendance figures were bulging and its television ratings bells were ringing.
Texas needed a superspeedway, a race palace, Smith thought, and he was just the man to build it. Gossage had been a key Smith lieutenant at Charlotte Motor Speedway, learning his trade at master promoter Humpy Wheeler’s knee. In the aisles of Speedway Motorsports, Smith’s growing speedway organization, there was a fuss that Gossage had earned the right to take the next leadership position at one of Smith’s circuits. Little did he know that he would be asked to move to Texas and start over (or oval in this case).
Thus began a long and winding journey that would see a motorsport cathedral of sorts rising out of the Texas bush, a weather event for the ages coincidentally coinciding with the track’s opening, and a race car cruising the track at more than 233 miles per hour circled. And guns. Yes, many guns.
Fast forward to the present, and TMS opens its doors this weekend to welcome the NASCAR Cup Series and Xfinity Series playoffs. A quarter century after his first Cup Series race, the track that Bruton Built is a very different place from the speedway where his first green flag flew in the middle of mud and swamp.
The Speedway’s inaugural race weekend, which ended with a cup race on April 6, 1997, was the opposite of a “grand” opening. Rain soaked the speedway area for most of the race week, turning parking lots into filthy mud pits and cramping the style of Gossage, who had hatched extravagant plans to present his masterpiece to the racing world.
Gossage went against the grain and had big ideas for the national anthem. While many expected him to sign Willie Nelson or George Strait or some other Texas troubadour for the anthem, he instead turned to renowned classical pianist Van Cliburn, also from Texas. A square pin for a round (oval) hole, but in Gossage’s imaginative and tricky mind it was a perfect fit.
Race day was disastrous. In part because muddy parking lots were closed, traffic backed up for miles on the roads leading to the speedway area. Fans remember driving four hours to cover 10 miles. Gossage arrived from his neighborhood by helicopter.
Although a piano had been brought in for Cliburn on a flatbed truck, the keys remained silent. The helicopter that was supposed to take down Cliburn was well behind schedule and the race clock is waiting for no one. The lead singer of the house band at Billy Bob’s Texas nightclub happened to be on the line and was drafted to sing the anthem. He complained that he didn’t know the words. His quick reaction was to write them in his cowboy hat.
To his credit, Cliburn agreed to return to a much drier TMS in 1998 to sing the anthem.
A much bigger problem had developed on the track during the race week. Drivers complained about the Turn 1 area and the state of the transition there, and their concerns became real when a huge crash happened at Turn 1 of the first lap.
Part of the problem was due to the track’s unusual design, meant to welcome both Stock Cars and Indy Cars. Instead, the problem grew. The drivers continued to moan. T-shirts that read “Shut Up and Drive” were sold along the route.
Jeff Burton won the first Cup race and after the second NASCAR weekend at the speedway, the track was reconfigured to set the bank angle to a constant 24 degrees instead of the variable bank angle of the original design. An expensive rebuild of the line’s drainage system followed after “weepers” forced water onto the track surface.
And so the long ride on the speedway continued. There were highlights and lowlights:
• The Indy Racing League was held at the track for the first time in June 1997. The aftermath of the race could have been orchestrated by Gossage, the ultimate promoter, although it wasn’t. Billy Boat was declared the winner of the race and as he and team owner AJ Foyt celebrated on the winning lane, Arie Luyendyk ran right into the celebration to announce that he had indeed won the race. Foyt, never interested in such debates, got into a wrestling match with Luyendyk. Officials declared Luyendyk the winner the next day.
• Over the years, either at races or festivals, an impressive list of musicians have performed at the track. The list included the Rolling Stones, Vince Gill, Randy Travis, Jewel, the Smashing Pumpkins and Wayne Newton. Oh, and Van Cliburn.
• Seats were added relentlessly as NASCAR enjoyed its golden years. Many of these seats were eventually removed as ticket demand dropped dramatically and the stock car racing landscape underwent a seismic shift.
• In April 2000, Dale Earnhardt Jr. rode his first Cup Series winning streak, winning in Texas and bringing his famous father with him. The celebration was unusually memorable, with Senior pushing through the crowd to get to his son.
• In April 2001, when Kenny Brack qualified for the Firestone Firehawk 600 CART race, he clocked 233.447 miles per hour. It was fast – too fast. Drivers complained of dizziness and CART postponed the race two hours before the scheduled green flag due to safety concerns. The speedway sued CART over the decision, but the two parties reached a settlement later in the year.
• Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves fought a close battle to win an IndyCar race in September 2002, with Hornish winning the race by 0.0096 seconds.
• TMS introduced six-shooters and cowboy hats to its winning ways. Victory riders shot guns in the air, a practice that continued – even celebrated – even as gun control became a national issue.
• In 2005, Eddie Gossage named a new overpass at the speedway the Tony Stewart Bridge, a humorous nudge for the champion driver. Stewart later named a tunnel at Eldora Speedway after Gossage.
TMS hosted one cup race per year until adding a second event from 2005-2020. In 2021 and this year, the circuit schedule included a cup race and the series’ annual All-Star race. Next year, in a situation that would have been hard to imagine during the track’s peak years, there will be just one TMS Cup race, while the Atlanta, Las Vegas, Kansas and Phoenix tracks will have two races.
Another madness came in 2021 when the Circuit of the Americas, the world-class road course near Austin, was added to the Cup schedule. Located about three hours south of Fort Worth, COTA was considered an unlikely location for a cup race for years due to its proximity to TMS.
Additionally, the All-Star event was moved to North Wilkesboro Speedway, a track that opened 50 years before Texas Motor Speedway.
Racing at the track, where the bank angle at Turns 1 and 2 is now 20 degrees (down from 24), has suffered in recent years. Kyle Larson led 256 laps in his TMS win last year, the most laps led by a winner in 29 races there. At this year’s All-Star race, winner Ryan Blaney led the final 84 laps and there were only four leaders overall.
In recent months there have been rumors and rumors about possible major changes to the TMS racing interface or its configuration, none of which have been justified by the track officials. But as the quality of racing has mostly been dull in recent years, some sort of adjustment seems possible, if not likely.
Let the next chapter begin.