Texas Gas ~ NASCAR History Lost?
I hate to see us lose our history. We have such a long, interesting and rich history that it hurts when we lose a part of it.
It may be a team closing their doors or a long-time sponsor deciding to go in a “new direction.” Every driver who leaves by choice or otherwise changes our history. Same with car owners, crew members, media members… or fans. It could be something as solid as a track or as ethereal as a racing web site. Once gone, we lose a part of history.
Or it could be something that on the surface you never knew was even a part of racing history.
Sadness… that’s the way I felt a couple of weeks ago when I went back home to Owensboro, KY for a short visit with our family. I don’t get back there as often as I’d like but it seems that every time I do, something has changed. Sometimes, it may not be obvious at first, but if you look real close usually you can find something different. Other times there is no mistaking it.
Sometimes it’s for the better... sometimes not.
A recent change I’d put in the good category is the ’s Grand Opening and 2018 Induction Ceremony that took place a few weekends ago. It looked like it was quite a celebration and as a bluegrass music fan, having a top-flight facility like this in my hometown is hard to top.
A bittersweet change was the June addition of the MotoGP World Championship at Laguna Seca. We miss him, but this tribute helps ensure we won’t forget him or his smile.. The “Kentucky Kid” was tragically killed in a bicycle accident in Italy in 2017 and the recently unveiled statue captures that special time in 2006 when Nicky won the
This trip almost broke my heart as we headed down the main drag on our way out of town only to spy the building and grounds at 3800 Frederica St. The building had been headquarters to Texas Gas Transmission. Its architecture is unique for the town and its time, as it was the most noted Modern building in Owensboro. It was designed by the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which is best known for their design of the United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel.
The once proud building was long vacant. Boards covered the broken windows vandalized over the years. The magnificent trees that surrounded the property were all gone. The once manicured lawns were dozed under. It was almost surreal and the once peaceful grounds had been transformed into a construction zone… or a destruction zone, depending on your position.
Texas Gas is a natural gas pipeline company that transports gas from the Louisiana Gulf Coast through Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky to its customers in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. It was created in 1948 from a merger of Memphis Natural and Kentucky Natural Gas and it located its headquarters in the distinct Owensboro building in 1962. It became a local landmark of sorts for the company that had so much impact on this community and beyond.
Nearly one-third of the 1500 Texas Gas employees who once worked there, worked in the Owensboro-Daviess County area. Employees and their families participated in every facet of the community and served in leadership roles in city government, school boards, service clubs, Chamber of Commerce, charitable organizations. They prepared leaders for the future as they were a major force in Junior Achievement programs on the local and national level. Employees served their local churches in all denominations. They were truly a significant part of the Owensboro “fabric”.
Texas Gas played a significant role in my life.
They were my first employer out of college, working as the low man on
the totem pole in its pipeline survey crew. My future wife was from a
“Texas Gas family” and worked there in the summers. Her father, a civil
engineer for the pipelines had helped land me that first job. He has been
an employee there probably as long as there was a company, so Texas Gas has
always been a big part of our lives and its headquarters was always the
ever-present reminder of that place in our lives.
So to see it in this shape really hurt.
But what you may not know is that from that building came many things that would impact our sport of NASCAR. In the late 1960’s the President of Texas Gas was Frank Rader. Mr. Rader had two daughters. Carol, the older daughter went to high school with a local race car driver. That driver would one day come to Mr. Rader’s office at that building and ask his permission to marry his younger daughter, Stephanie. He reluctantly (understandably so) gave his permission and she became known to NASCAR as Stevie Waltrip, wife of three-time Cup Champion, Darrell Waltrip.
What you may not know is Stevie is a woman of great determination who would go on to break NASCAR’s “gender barrier.” She didn’t do it as a driver as we normally think of, but as a crew member. Prior to Stevie joining her husband’s crew, handling scoring and fuel mileage calculations for his team, a female in the pits was even more rare than a female driver. Pit road was man’s country… that is until Stevie came along, quietly going about her job, slowly opening that closed door and holding it open for other racing spouses to walk through and now occupy the pits.
Also working at the building was Chairman of the Board, Mr. William Elmer. An avid race fan, he once posed the question to Rader and DW what it would cost to “put a car in the Daytona 500?” The search began for a suitable car for big-time racing. Holman-Moody had the old Mario Andretti Daytona 500 winning Fairlane that had been converted to David Pearson’s Cyclone for sale for $12,500. The information was passed back to Mr. Elmer and DW soon found himself on the circuit, launching a 29-year Cup career that we all know.
For his first three years on the circuit his car carried the name of Texas Gas subsidiary, Terminal Transport. The barge line’s name was on the car when DW scored his first Cup win at Nashville in 1975. Before the season was over, DW would replace Donnie Allison in the Gardners’ DiGard ride for the final 11 races of the year. The new combination got off to a rough start as DNFs and problems outnumbered complete races. But when they did finish, they finished well, scoring five top-10’s including a 7th, 4th and two 3rds. Terminal Transport was on DiGard’s first winning Cup car when DW wheeled it into Victory Lane at Richmond before season’s end.
Vice President Dennis Hendrix also worked in the Texas Gas building. Hendrix was playing golf one day with Rader and suggested he have his son-in-law contact Hendrix’s fraternity brother, Bill Stokley, head of Stokley Van-Camp. They had a product that Stokley believed would market well in racing but was reconsidering after their efforts to put their product, Gatorade on Johnny Rutherford’s Indy 500 entry. Things had not gone well there as Stokley and Hendrix were treated so badly by Indy officials over their credentials that Stokley was ready to throw up his hands on the prospects of using racing. However, after following Hendrix’ suggestion, Stokley and Gatorade replaced Terminal Transport on the car after signing a sponsorship deal valued at $200,000 for the 1976 season. When the season opened DW, DiGard and Gatorade were not only racing for a Cup Championship but they also broke the “color barrier” in NASCAR. It was not skin color as we normally think of but car color as they carried the Gatorade green on the #88.
Race drivers are a superstitious lot and then the color green was considered unlucky. Few, if any drivers would carry the color and most of the older drivers didn’t even want to be around it. So strong, David Pearson refused to park next to DW’s Gatorade ride. It hardly proved unlucky, as over the next five seasons the Gatorade ride carried DW to 25 more wins. Together, they finished top-10 in points every year, establishing DiGard as a team to be reckoned with. DiGard would go on to win a total of 43 Cup races and the 1983 Cup Championship with Bobby Allison behind the wheel.
At the end of 1980, when the chance to drive for the legendary car owner, Junior Johnson arose it was a phone call to Owensboro that produced the final $100,000 of a $325,000 contract buyout that allowed DW to drive a new shade of green, Johnson’s Mountain Dew #11. The first two years together resulted in 24 wins and two Cup Championships. Before that relationship ended in 1986, the Johnson/Waltrip team had won another Cup Championship and a total of 43 Cup races, over one half of DW’s win total and nearly one third of Johnson’s win total. Their success secured Waltrip’s place as NASCAR’s Driver of the Decade (1980’s).
But Texas Gas wasn’t just Waltrip. They supported various forms of racing, even turning their beautiful manicured property into a top class kart track that drew in hundreds of karters from all around. It was first class. Speed bumps were graded out, a new silky smooth pavement was placed down all around and hundreds of hay bales outlined the course that circled the magnificent four story structure. The swarms of single-cylinder karts racing around the improvised road course was truly a sight to behold. The thunderous drone of battling bumble bees would signal their approach and the sicky-sweet smell of spent racing fuel and oil (with maybe a hint of a little something extra mixed in) excited those senses as well.
It was a great day of racing that day, as you would expect from a Texas Gas event. One driver who caught my eye that day was a youngster from Brownsboro IN. Maybe he caught my eye because he was fast and smooth. Or it could have been his snappy leathers that had the name ANDRETTI on the back, just barely visible above the seat top. His uncle Mario was my sister’s favorite driver. We had seen his father Aldo race as well. My lasting thought from that day was “I wonder what’s going to happen to him?”
A few years later we’d find out.
Texas Gas still exists but it is no longer what it once was. Takeover after takeover has left it a shell of what it once was, now a subsidiary of a larger company. Their barge line, Terminal Transport, whose name visited Cup Victory Lane twice in its short appearance in NASCAR was sold off to another company who needed it to fit its need. The Headquarters were vacated and have sat empty for many years now. It and the grounds have been sold, first to the local board of education and recently to a developer. The building that housed Junior Achievement, like the magnificent trees, many planted in memory of employees past, now gone.
It is heartbreaking indeed.
What is its future? Only time will tell. Its impact on NASCAR? Probably memories long past.
But it’s those memories and their significance we need to remember and hold tightly to, for time and change continue their endless march to rob us of our history. Our history, no matter how big or small is just too important to lose.