50 Years Of NASCAR Racing ~ Texas World Speedway: Field Of Shattered Dreams (Post 52)
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor's note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin's "50 Years of NASCAR Racing", written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration that year. Matt has kindly granted me permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
The Texas World Speedway was designed and built with the best of intentions, with the promoter and investors believing that the track would be the site of one of the premiere Winston Cup races every year. Now three decades later, the Speedway lays unused, slowly returning to the earth, a monument to one man's misguided ego, misfortune and chance.
The Texas World Speedway was a dream child of Larry LoPatin, the CEO of ARI [American Raceways Inc], a publicly held company looking to make a big splash in the racing world. In addition to Texas, ARI built the Brooklyn Michigan track, and bought up Atlanta and the Riverside road course. They had plans to construct yet another 2-mile speedway in South Jersey as well. Bill France was one of the fans in attendance at the inaugural IndyCar race at Michigan. He was impressed by the facility, which was state of the art. LoPatin stated that it was ARI's intention to make their tracks fan friendly, with comfortable seating, clear view lines, adequate, clean restrooms and other amenities, in an era most tracks still had bleacher seating and porta-potties. France arranged for a meeting with LoPatin and the two seemed to hit it off well. Larry wanted NASCAR events at his tracks, and France saw ARI as a company that could help NASCAR "reach the next level" as he tried to divest stock car racing of its reputation as a regional sport, of interest only to the Southeast. After the meeting, the pair announced that they had signed a long term contract to hold two Grand National events at Michigan. The Texas World Speedway was also given the highly coveted season finale date for 1969.
The honeymoon between France and LoPatin didn't last long. France's own new track in Alabama was hit with a driver's boycott just prior to the inaugural Talladega event. LoPatin openly sided with the drivers, earning Big Bill's wrath. In fact, it appeared that the inaugural Texas race might not take place after all. France decided that the purse ARI was offering was too small for a superspeedway race, and dropped the event from the calendar. LoPatin frantically went out and raised enough money to increase the purse to $100,000, and the race was returned to the schedule. That uncertainty as to whether the race would be held or not did not help ticket sales; neither did the weather. The College Station area, where Texas World Speedway was located, was hit with heavy rains for three days prior to the event. The torrential rains flooded the infield to the point they had to be closed to the public for the race. It turned out not to be a problem. Less than 24,000 souls showed up to see the race.
The race itself is best remembered for two separate incidents. Cale Yarborough was involved in the worst wreck of his career, a wreck that doctors were surprised he survived. Cale would be sidelined for the early part of the 1970 season. Buddy Baker was also involved in a wreck, and while he was not hurt, Baker was very embarrassed. He clearly had the fastest car that day and was dominating the race. While he was leading the race under a caution flag the pit crew held up a message board telling him to take it easy. (Two way radios were not in common use at that point.) Baker looked over to read the message and gave his crew chief a thumbs up. While he was distracted and looking away from the track, Buddy plowed into the back of James Hylton's car, destroying the nose of his Dodge Daytona, and eliminating himself from the race. It had not been a great year for the Dodge Boys, despite the debut of their winged warrior, and Mopar executives were furious with Baker. Fortunately, Bobby Isaac stepped into the void and won the race in another Dodge Daytona. Chrysler got even better news that week when Richard Petty announced after a yearlong dalliance with Ford, he was returning to the Plymouth camp for 1970.
Not far into the 1970 season, Larry Lopatin was forced out of his position in disgrace after bad weather and the resultant low attendance at ARI tracks had put the company on the ropes. The 1970 event at the Texas World Speedway was canceled. A company spokesperson said the cancellation was the result of a strike at Goodyear that resulted in the company being unable to test the new tires developed for Texas. Low advance ticket sales probably made the decision a lot easier.
The Winston Cup season ended at Texas again in 1971. No doubt the owners had hoped the title race would be a close one, and that the championship would come down to their season finale. It was not to be. Richard Petty had sewed up the title several races beforehand at Richmond. To add some excitement to the event, the Texas promoters tried to encourage some of the USAC ( today's CART) drivers to enter the race. USAC threatened any driver who entered with suspension. Only 18,600 people showed up for the race. Richard Petty beat Buddy Baker (who was driving a Petty Enterprises Dodge that year) by 18 seconds. Of special note, it was the last race the King won with backing from Chrysler. Chrysler had announced they would no longer support any NASCAR teams, and in 1972 Petty started his successful association with STP that continues to this day.
Texas had two dates on the 1972 Winston Cup calendar, with a new race scheduled for late June. Perhaps someone should have considered that it gets pretty hot in Texas in the summer. The temperatures were in the 90s, and closer to 140 degrees in the cockpits of the race cars. Richard Petty beat the field and the brutal heat to win again in Texas. The facility once again hosted the season finale, and going into that event there was actually a points battle between Richard Petty and Bobby Allison for the championship. That helped sell 33,000 tickets, well more than average for the track, but still nowhere near capacity. The championship battle turned out to be an anticlimax. Bobby Allison never got up to speed, failed to lead a single lap for the first race that year, and wound up fourth, a lap off the pace. Petty, Buddy Baker and AJ Foyt engaged in a spirited battle for the win, in the best finish in the track's history. Baker redeemed himself for the blunder of 1969 by beating out AJ Foyt by a matter of feet to the line. Petty was inches off Foyt's rear bumper. While Buddy won the battle, Richard won the war and clinched the championship.
NASCAR decided they wanted to hold their season finale back in the heart of stock car country in 1973 and Texas lost its season ending date to Rockingham. Richard Petty won the June race in Texas in convincing style, beating the second place driver by over two laps. The second place finisher, a brash new rookie, was a bit of a surprise. Darrell Waltrip, who owned and drove a Mercury at that point, was better known for his prowess on the short tracks than the superspeedways in those days. He raised a few eyebrows by finishing second that day.
The 1974 event at Texas had to be canceled for reasons well beyond the promoters control. In the wake of a humiliating loss to Israel in the October War, the oil producing Arab nations banded together in a cartel called OPEC. One of their first orders of business was to launch an oil embargo against any nation that had sided with the Israelis during the war, which included the United States. Overnight the lifeblood of the American economy, cheap oil, dried up. The nation was faced with skyrocketing energy prices, long gas lines, and a mounting recession. While it was just a blip in the grand scheme of things, the owners of the Texas World Speedway knew they could not hold a race. The track was located in the middle of nowhere, and with gas stations closed Saturday nights and Sundays, they were facing even worse attendance problems than usual. They canceled the event rather than facing a financial blood bath. The official announcement said racing would return to Texas, after the energy crises ended. In fact, the Winston Cup circuit would not race at the Texas World Speedway again until 1979.
A lot of things had changed on the Winston Cup scene during those years. That brash rookie, Darrell Waltrip was a star of the sport by that point. There was a new crew of talented rookies battling for the Rookie of the Year honors in 1979. One of them was Dale Earnhardt. Waltrip battled all day with Dale, until with 11 laps to go, Earnhardt lost control and slugged the wall a ton. DW cruised on to victory. After the race he was quoted as saying, " It looks like after all the seasoned veterans retire, it will be Dale Earnhardt I will have to contend with." Darrell's words turned out to be prophetic. He and Dale would become fierce rivals, and during the eighties, they combined for 6 championships between them. In light of that sometimes bitter rivalry, it is somewhat ironic that these days DW is driving for a team owned by Dale Earnhardt. Only 11,500 fan showed up to see the race, the worst attendance figure ever.
The 1980 season in Winston Cup marked a changing of the guard. When the Winston Cup scene paid their annual June visit to the sun-baked plains of Texas, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt were locked in a fierce points battle. Earnhardt looked like he might open up a bigger gap on the King, as Dale battled for most of the race with another member of the Old Guard, Cale Yarborough. Earnhardt's efforts were thwarted by an overheating problem late in the race, and he wound up ninth, while Richard finished second, though without ever threatening Cale for the win. While the Old Guard won that day, Richard Petty's title efforts were hampered by a savage crash at Pocono that summer which left him with a broken neck. Earnhardt would go on to win the first of his Winston Cup titles.
The writing was already on the wall when the Cup circuit returned to Texas in 1981. The promoters had been losing money in vast sums due to the horrendous attendance at the races. The facility had been allowed to fall into ill repair, and the track surface had some major problems. The 18,000 fans who showed up to see that race saw a good one, and certainly they had plenty of elbow room. Benny Parsons and Dale Earnhardt scrapped for the lead for the entire race, with Benny prevailing in the end by about three car lengths.
After the event, Bill France Junior said the track and the facility needed to be improved if NASCAR was going to stage another event there. The promoters loudly protested there was nothing wrong with the track. When the 1982 schedule was released Texas was not on it. It would be 1997 before big league stock car racing returned to Texas.
Of course the new Texas Motor Speedway is also owned by a gentleman who has gotten on a member of the France family's bad side. The first event was plagued by bad weather, and the weather also caused a lot of problems this year. NASCAR has said they want to see repairs done to the track before they return. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
History repeats itself; first as tragedy and then as farce. -Karl Marx
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