Texas Motor Speedway's Showman
Eddie Gossage, CEO of the racetrack, pulls out all the stops in the battle for Dallas-Fort Worth’s entertainment dollar.
Gossage traveled to Las Vegas and St. Louis to scout potential track sites, locations that Smith decided eventually not to pursue. Then Gossage made his first-ever trip to Texas in 1994, with Smith, to meet businessman Ross Perot Jr., who owned about 1,000 acres of the land the company was considering for a track here.
The first time they took to the North Texas skies in Perot’s helicopter to see the acreage, they knew they’d found the right spot.
Gossage declines to reveal the final purchase price for the TMS site, other than to say it was much less than Smith was prepared to spend. He later bragged that his lack of any formal business education or training had gotten the best of Perot: “I went to Middle Tennessee State, in Murfreesboro; Ross went to Vanderbilt [in Nashville]; and let’s just say Middle Tennessee came out pretty good on that one.”
(Perot says that after selling the relatively islolated acreage in a tough economy, “We were tickled to death ... We got a lot more than what we paid for it.”)
The rest of the acreage came from local landowners, trailer parks, and anybody else who had dirt in the area. By early 1995, Gossage had assembled 1,500 acres of land for the track, and the largest auto-racing facility built in America over the last 30 years was under construction in North Texas. Gossage obtained a local land-tax exemption for additional savings.
Another lesson Gossage learned from Smith was the belief that, just because he was overseeing the largest motorsports track in an area that had never seen its likes, people weren’t going to fill the facility for no good reason. Additionally, he had to care equally about the blue-collar backbone of NASCAR—the people who fly their Confederate flags and bring their own beer coolers—as well as the white-collar luxury suite or condo owners who may have never seen such races in person, but who wanted to be in on the action.
“I’ve always thought one of the secrets of our success was that we have options for everybody,” Gossage says. “We have more
luxury-suite seats [13,000] than any sports venue in the world. We also have $20 tickets.
“If you were like me growing up, you could watch [drivers like] Dale Earnhart Jr. and Tony Stewart for $20 with free parking while bringing your own cooler, which was a really important amenity.”
It was so important, in fact, that in TMS’s early years, Gossage declined to sell beer at the concession stands, costing the track tens of thousands of dollars, so that fans would be able to bring in their own coolers. Parking was and still is free, and Gossage says he knows plenty of places people can sneak into the track on race days without paying.
For his white-collar friends, Gossage, prodded by Smith, built a double-decker row of luxury suites. Each one seats 64 fans with prime views, luxury food, and televised replays, for an annual cost of $70,000 to $105,000, depending on the location.
Gossage, left, congratulates driver Tony Stewart on winning TMS’s AAA Texas 500 race in November.
TMS also boasts the nine-story, $50 million Speedway Club. It is located hard by “Turn One” and features marble floors, chef-prepared food, a full workout facility, and a classical pianist on duty at all times. Prices range from $1,500 for non-race-day memberships to $30,000 for lifetime memberships.
“When you walk into the Speedway Club, you feel like you’ve arrived,” Smith says. “We always want our fans to feel like they can ‘move up.’ Maybe you are in the infield and you want to be in the stands [25 to 30 percent of which are controlled by so-called Public Seat Licenses]. Maybe you’re in the stands and you want to be in the suites, maybe in the Speedway Club. That’s when you have arrived.”
If crowds aren’t your thing, blue- or white-collar, Gossage also offers more than 75 one-, two-, or three-bedroom condos with outdoor balconies. The condos are located near Turn Two, range in price from $300,000 to $1 million—and are currently sold out. TMS also has a bank of Class A office space off Turn Two. They are leased for $13 to $18 per square foot to a wide range of North Texas companies.
The attention to all segments of the audience has won over the loyalists who grew up going to NASCAR races. “I’ve been to the traditional places like Daytona and Talladega,” says Tennessee native and TMS ticket holder Mike Barrett of Grapevine. “But going from the Texas Motor Speedway to Talladega is like going from Del Frisco’s to Chick-fil-A.”
Along with the creature comforts, Gossage gives his audience a show and an experience, not merely a race. “When you buy a ticket at Texas, you’re not just getting a seat to sit at for four hours while cars whiz by,” Petty says. Gossage “recognizes that the economy is going to be a burden for many people, but if they can scrape the money together, they’re going to come to Texas and see what’s going to happen next. That’s the Gossage magic. He’s always looking to top himself.”
In addition to offering big-name music concerts over the years, Gossage has hired trapeze artists as well as Robbie Knievel, who jumped a line of cars in the infield. He flew in Van Cliburn to play the national anthem, and had former President George W. Bush wave the starting flags. He also arranged for helicopter-transport planes to swoop down over the infield to deliver the pace car, a personal Gossage favorite.
“I had one of my sponsors ask me why I didn’t tell him in advance. I don’t have to share all of my plans with everybody,” he says with a laugh. “You can sell and promote a race a lot of ways. A lot of people who come to this track are struggling. So you might as well smile and laugh while you are at the races and make it memorable.”
To cope with the challenging economy, Gossage has cut back on all of his race-day staff. He also dropped one energy provider and picked up GDF Suez Energy North America at a much lower cost, and pared back on some landscaping services.
But he has not laid off a single full-time TMS employee. This is the result of a vow he made to himself from his days working at a brewing company, when a consultant proposed a 15 percent layoff, separating Gossage from some of his closest friends.
Although he has avoided some personally hard decisions, Gossage admits he still struggles as the North Texas face of a publicly traded corporation (stock symbol TRK), which measures results in quarterly earnings, not the amazingness of your latest promotional stunt.
“Being a promoter is contrary to Wall Street,” he says. “We talk in hyperbole; they talk in facts. Before the race, our general counsel reminds me what I can’t say, this and that, and when I say those things, he reminds me again. I tell him, ‘Bruton says you lawyers are just
people who we paid to give us an opinion we don’t have to listen to.’ ”
Midway through his second decade at Texas Motor Speedway, North Texas’ CEO of Speed promises to keep entertaining, to keep promoting, and to keep making money in the area’s largest sports venue.
“I once had a journalist tell me, ‘You’ve never really done anything until you’ve worked with an elephant,’ ” Gossage says, mulling over his latest promotional brainstorm. “We’ve already had a monkey selling programs, but a real elephant, wow. We could have him on pit row, step on a couple of cars. It would be great!”