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SPORTS CRASH COURSE

NASCAR fanatics and first-timers convene during the rain- and wreck-filled inaugural weekend at Dallas-Fort Worth’s newest mega sports facility, the Texas Motor Speedway.
By MIKE SHROPSHIRE |

ALL OF THOSE JOKES ABOUT SHEEP AND THE NASCAR FAN base are forgotten at once as you drive through the south tunnel of the Texas Motor Speedway and onto the infield. The enormity of the place assaults the optic nerve, They ought to give this track a couple of congressional seats and a separate area code. “Troy Aikman. who’s a big racing enthusiast, didn’t believe me when I told him you could fit eight Texas Stadiums in our infield,” said Eddie Gossage general manager of the facility. “So I invited Troy to get a football and pass it across our infield. Now he’s convinced.”

But the visual effect is not the thing that jumps out and rattles your sensory perceptions. It’s the acoustics. A black and yellow race car takes a 200-mph practice spin along the back stretch. The noise of the engine ricochets off the almost empty grandstands that extend along the main straightaway, creating a Dolby-like effect in the infield. That sends off deep reverberations into some body cavities that I didn’t even know I had. Bulletin to all you folks residing in mobile homes: That big wind that knocked down your trailer park didn’t make a noise like a freight train, It sounded like Dale Jarrett running practice laps at the new track.

On the Thursday before the inaugural race weekend in April, about 400 worker drones representing almost every English-language news outlet in the Northern Hemisphere had congregated inside the media center at what is now being called the TMS. Bruton Smith, not at all bashful about answering to the title of “owner” of the track, might be described as “habitually attracted” to this kind of setting. His grand entry into the press center had been strategically timed at 15 minutes past the noon hour. Smith realized that the presentation of a free lunch would instantly transform the Press Corps into the Salivation Army.

So the room was full when Smith barged in, sporting a wardrobe and posture that shouted, “C’est moi! ’Tis I!” Of course, if you were about to stage the biggest event in Texas since the Battle of San Jacinto, you’d probably want to be seen, too. Bruton Smith’s master project, the Winston Cup Interstate Batteries 500, was now just two sunsets away. This epic presentation of noise, fury, velocity and danger, plus a traffic jam that could only have been produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, was ordained to permanently alter the sports landscape of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. For this weekend at least, Jerry Jones had been relegated to the back burner of yesterday’s news.

Smith, operator of several NASCAR super speedways and apparently the kind of man who takes most of his meals standing up, helped himself to a plate of vegetarian lasagna (lunch courtesy of Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse, now heavily involved with race car sponsorship) and waited for the reporters to assemble around him. And after perhaps three swallows. Smith’s unscheduled interview session was under way.

Every North Texas sports fan vividly remembers that strange Saturday night press conference when Jones announced that he was taking over the Dallas Cowboys and firing Tom Landry. But in terms of genteel behavior and social graces, Bruton Smith makes Jerry Jones look like David Niven. Certain comments from the track owner indicate that Bruton Smith might have formerly worked as a speech writer for Clayton Williams. Some reporter asked Smith about the 11th-hour pavement improvements at the northern Tarrant County speedway-a construction project of a magnitude that rivaled the building of the Aswan Dam.

As he talked with his mouth full and gestured emphatically with a plastic fork. Smith said, “They brought in some extra contractors. You know. It’s like some old gal who’s trying to get pregnant, but can’t. She just keeps (…) and (…) and nothin’ happens. So what do you do? You put more men on the job.” Smith was so amused by his own remarks that he almost choked on the lasagna, but, quickly, his mood darkened when a reporter asked him to comment on remarks attributed to NASCAR driving star Dale Earnhardt that were less than complimentary about the raceway. “Bullshit!” answered Smith. “I talked to almost all of the drivers personally and didn’t hear any complaints.”

The reporter persisted. “Earnhardt told me that the groove coming out of Turn 4 was way too narrow, that it’s dangerous and thai he doesn’t feel good about racing here,” the reporter said.

Smith reacted like somebody who’d been told (hat his little girl had lips like Daffy Duck’s. This Texas Motor Speed way happened to be Smith’s $110 million baby and he wasn’t going to take kindly to any poor reviews. A mist seemed to appear on Bruton Smith’s designer sunglasses. “Look,” he said, “I’m not gonna stand here an.-’” (pause)-“who are you with?” Smith demanded of the reporter. “Philadelphia Inquirer” said the reporter.

“Well, that explains it,” said Smith. ’’I think I’d rather talk to that nice man over there from the Atlanta Constitution.” Bruton Smith was grinning again.

In girth and overall physical dimension. Smith closely resembles Clement Stone’s description of St. Nick in “The Night Before Christmas.” Belly shakes like a bowl full of jelly and so forth. Bald on top. Smith has an immaculate white semi-halo mat runs from ear to ear. It looks like he Hew in some craftsman from Italy to put every little hair in place, one at a time.

Those jolly eyes not only twinkled but also radiated a message that teased, “I know something that you don’t know.” Individuals with a keen ability to read body language might have interpreted another unspoken communication from Smith’s eyes and posture that said, “I’m bringing about 200,000 paying customers in here Sunday-the biggest assembly of people in the history of the state- that, after the so-called analysts said I was nuts. If some of these drivers are skittish about the additions, well, hell. They pull down seven figures because they’re supposed to take risks.”

Actually, moments before Bruton Smith entered the pressroom, racing hotshot Ricky Craven, third-place finisher at Daytona this year, lost control of his car for a nanosecond and cracked up on that now-notorious Turn 4 in a practice run. He was carried to the hospital in a helicopter. In fact, the entire weekend’s program came shrouded in health risks. Remember, the Winston that sponsors this big-league NASCAR circuit happens to be the cigarette cartel and not a former British prime minister. Cartons of cigarettes were stacked throughout the press headquarters at the TMS-a NASCAR media perk. The Wellness Fad of the 1990s apparently has not yet infiltrated NASCAR, the national pastime of Dixie. Of course, bumper-to-bumper, balls-to-the-wall racing at 200 mph sometimes breeds jarring consequences. Nicotine and breakneck speed. What a combination.

That danger circumstance happens to be the essential reason why Bruton Smith took what he regarded as a well-calculated financial risk and won big with the Texas Motor Speedway. That also appears to confirm and delineate a dark side to the American psyche. But nobody can deny that this NASCAR craze that sprouted from modest origins in dusty, clay county fair ovals, featuring the driving talents of off-duty bootleg whiskey runners named Fireball and Buck, now stands out as one of the hottest elements in the viciously competitive realm of the entertainment business.

NCE A REGIONAL SOUTHERN HILLBILLY ACTIVITY

where the race drivers customarily owned their racing has become the favored child of brokerage houses. What oil-field supply was to the ’60s and ’70s and biotech and software were to the ’80s, the NASCAR industry is to the ’90s. Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns not only the Fort Worth track but also other similar facilities in Charlotte, N.C.; Atlanta; Bristol, Term.; and the Sears Point Raceway in the Sonoma Valley of California, decided to take his company public in 1995. “We watched a big old company like Nabisco come into our sport as a corporate sponsor the same time the national television ratings continued to go up, up and up some more,” said Smith, “so the only conclusion was that our outlook was fan-tas-tic.”

“What we saw was that NASCAR was heading into a strong power curve. We felt there would be a 10- to 12-year period of strong growth, and we needed the capital to take advantage of it.” The speaker was H.S. “Humpy” Wheeler, president of this same motor sports company that Smith so loveth. The NASCAR track stock went off at $!8 a share and, adjusting for a 2-for-l split, it has now more than doubled. Within one year, Speedway Motorsports Inc. saw net income rise 36 percent from $ 19.5 million, or 53 cents per share, to $26.4 million, or 64 cents. On the Friday before the inaugural running of the Interstate Batteries 500, the raceway company showed a tola! market capitalization (the price of one share of stock multiplied by the number of outstanding shares) of $880 million.

When Bruton Smith first began poking around North Texas in 1994 seeking a site for his operation, some Dallas land developers were actively hyping a site west of the city on 1-30. They claimed to be enthusiastic about a speedway project, yet in reality, they viewed the car racing facility as simply an appendage to a gambling casino. Smith quickly X’d the Dallas promoters off his list and in February 1995 announced that he would build his missive track at the site of Ross Perot Jr. ’s Alliance Development Corporation site between Fort Worth and Denton.

The financial history of big-time motor racing in Texas would discourage the conventional promoter from attempting what Smith and his group have put together in Fort Worth. Take, for example, the Dallas Formula One Grand Prix at Fair Park in July 1984. The new asphalt came apart beneath the fearsome Texas sun while the Eurotrash participants grumbled in several tongues. What was obvious was the Formula One business featured way too many Nigels and not enough Neds to capture the heart and spirit of Texans. The Texas World Speedway in the College Station area that was built in 1969 and equipped to handle major NASCAR events was another paramount entry on the list of unsuccessful ventures.

“But this-” Bruton Smith spreads his arms. “History will be rewritten here. We still have some detractors, but this track will prove to be an awesome facility.”

In Bruton Smith’s thinking, all of these operations went bust because, whatever was built, wasn’t built big enough. “One of the race drivers calls this place the TMS] the eighth wonder of the world,” Bruton beamed.

The track might not be that, but it’s the longest physical structure built in the Fort Worth area since the bomber plant was built in what was called Liberator Village at the start of World War II. The main grandstand has a seating capacity of 160,000. and it’s two-thirds of a mile long. And in Fort Worth, length is the only measurement that matters.

While Bruton Smith appears to foster a genuine passion lor meeting and greeting the press to discuss money, his personal life stays in the shadows. I asked a full-time track publicist a fundamental question about Smith: “How old is he?”

“I don’t know,” said the publicist.

“Is he married?”

“I don’t know that, either.”

So I avoided those topics in my brief private audience with the raceway impresario and attempted to work the angle that, henceforth and forevermore, Smith, and not Jerry Jones, would reign on the throne as High Roller Number 1 in the Texas sports and entertainment industry.

“Bruton,” I asked, “I read somewhere that you said to tell Jerry Jones thai if he knows what he’s doing, he’ll never schedule a Dallas Cowboys game on the same day as one of your car races out here. Is that true?” Actually, I’d never read anything of the kind, but I wanted to see how Smith might answer.

“Well… I think that the intent of a remark like that involved traffic. I mean, can you imagine what kind of mess could happen here? But the Atlanta Falcons scheduled a couple of games on the same day we had a NASCAR event on our track down there, and the football game had some empty seats that day. Maybe 30,000 or 50,000 empty seats. I forget.”

The real issue here, apparently, is that if the Cowboys and the TMS should go head-to-head on some future given Sunday, which event would Jones himself attend? Jones, by the way, was listed among the celebrity spottings at the Interstate Batteries 500.

Bruton Smith, with a glance at his Rolex, indicated that he’d spent way too much of his time with me but, before moving on, he offered me some business counseling. “Listen,” said Smith. “When you get around to building your own super speedway, don’t build it in Houston. That place is a deathtrap for outdoor events. It rains whenever it wants to.”

THIS RACEWAY SIMPLY REEKS OF MONEY. By THE Sunday morning of the 500-mile race, more than 600 private planes were parked at the nearby Alliance Airport. In most cases, the planes were transporting race sponsors and their customers, or potential customers. They would sit in the sold-out VIP boxes and condos and buy refreshments from the track, which you have to do if you own one of these suites. Soft drinks at $40 a case. Beer for $80 a case. Top-shelf vodka at $900. Plenty of elegant women, wearing boots made from the flesh of some now-extinct animal species and high-fashion Parisian jeans that looked like they had been painted on, boarded the elevator up to the luxury suites. I don’t know whether the track supplied these women or if the suite owners had to bring their own.

Because of my heavy backlog of freelance writing projects, I had to tell Bruton Smith that, for the time being, I simply didn’t have the time to build my own super speedway. But the possibility of owning my own small stable of NASCAR racers seemed appealing-just as it did to an engineer who used to own a construction business until he became married to stock car racing.

Gary Bechtel, 45, was enjoying a big weekend. Phillips 66, after a five-year hiatus from racing sponsorship, announced that it was buying into one of Bechtel’s cars that runs in the Busch races, the one driven by Elliot Sadler. This name is not yet associated with NASCAR stardom, but he’s young, tall and gifted, and Phillips 66 and Gary Bechtel are gambling that Sadler will be the next Rusty Wallace or Jeff Gordon-and soon.

Car owner Bechtel ranks as typical of the background cast of thousands who totally defy the NASCAR spit V whittle, Wild Turkey image. You would guess that Bechtel might be the product, perhaps, of the California wine industry, and his racing outfit, Diamond Ridge Motorsports, sounds like an appropriate label for a Napa Valley cabernet.

Bechtel, in fact, grew up in San Francisco, moved his business to Charlotte and one day decided that it might be “politically OK to say, ’Yes, I’d like to go see a NASCAR race.’ What struck me immediately was how many similarities there are between this [NASCAR] and the engineering-construction business. It’s people. It’s technical. If you set the right plans in motion, if you plan and organize and control, then you should succeed.

“The challenge in racing,” says Bechtel, standing in the din of the huge garage area at TMS, “is the limited number of qualified people because it’s not that big yet.” When Bechtel talks about qualified people, he’s talking about race drivers. “There are plenty of good drivers out there, but they haven’t gotten it all together yet to get into this league.”

The car owner must present the right driver and the right equipment in order to tap into what Bechtel appreciatively refers to as the “large flow of sponsorship dollars that weren’t available in the earlier days of NASCAR when personalities like Richard Petty would hock their homes to go racing.”

These cars are all adorned with insignias and badges that make them look like Colin Powell’s dress uniform. To understand the business of NASCAR, one must only decipher a car’s paint job.

Take, for example, this Number 75, driven by Rick Mast. On the hood you find the emblem of Winchester Firearms, along with the slogan “America’s Oldest Gun Manufacturer.” On the trunk, you’ll find the logo of Smoky Mountain Snuff. On the doors and fenders, you can find more than 30 stickers, promoting RCA, Goody’s Headache Powder and so forth. This isn’t Bechtel’s car, but he explains what it means.

“The primary sponsor will appear on the hood and with a Winston Cup race car, that involves a sponsorship outlay of SI million and up. An associate sponsor, one that might appear on the trunk, would put it somewhere in the upper six-figure range. How the car is doing in the point standings determines what the market will bear. Some cars will have several associate sponsors. The stickers on the door represent contingency sponsors. Sometimes they’ll barter into a sponsorship deal and supply you with gaso-line or tires or whatever and then throw in bonus dollars if you win a race, or finish in the top 10 or qualify for the pole position. From an operational point of view, stickers represent dollars.”

High income, high outflow. Diamond Ridge Motorsports maintains a payroll of “oh, 60ish people and another 20ish group of what I call weekend warriors who fly in for the race, to do various jobs and then fly out again to go back to their regular jobs,” he said. “My job, on race weekends, is to develop and perpetuate sponsor relations. Also, it’s my responsibility to be honest and straightforward with the sponsors that we have on-line and communicate the good, the bad and the ugly.

“’In the engineering-construction business, you can be part of building a monument like a powerplant or a D/FW Airport and you can drive past the thing year after year and appreciate your contribution. In racing, people are very quick to forget who won last week’s event.

“And back in the garage, they have guys wondering what makes that Number 8 or Number 29 car go so fast and they adjust. So if you sit around and talk about how good you are for more than 20 minutes, they’ll be outrunning you again. If you don’t spend every single second trying to get better, then you’ll be smokin’ rope in the back of the pack. So, when you ask me if this is a medium- to high-anxiety kind of business, then the answer is yes.”



“JESUS, what a hard-looking outfit.”

“Them Okies? They’re all hard looking.”

“Jesus. I’d hate to star! oui in a jalopy like that.”

“Well, you and me got sense. Them goddamm Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain’l human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand to be so dirty and miserable. They ain’t a helluva lot better than gorillas.”

John Steinbeck produced that dialogue in a well-known novel. So anybody who says nobody’s ever written a great book about NASCAR racing obviously hasn’t read The Grapes of Wrath.

It is Race Day, and that is what I was thinking as I prowled in the infield assembly of RVs that had been camped there for days. The license plates revealed the reach of NASCAR’s appeal: Indiana. Kansas. Ontario. Minnesota. And a lot of “Alabama- The Flea Market State” or “Georgia-The Wide Load State.” Also, the biggest collection of Confederate flags since Shiloh.

It was still about 90 minutes before race time, and the fans on the infield mostly remained confined inside their rolling homesteads. Since NASCAR has promoted itself as the sport of the coming century, I could only presume that most of the enthusiasts were in there working their web site: “www. deliverance.com”

Inside the garage area, the mood was much more intense. One by one, the race cars were pushed out onto the track. The Winston Cup qualifying had been canceled because of the rain, and practice time on the new track had been limited to virtually nil. What the contestants did understand was that the contours of the Texas Motor Speedway reminded them of the legendary stock car track at Darlington, S .C. In the case of Darlington, the word “notorious” might be more suitable than “legendary.” With its steep banks and narrow, treacherous turns. Darlington offers a quick ticket to intensive care.

Driver John Andretti (you may have heard of his uncle, Mario) watched his RCA-sponsored, Ford-powered race car being shoved to the starting grid and expressed some candid concerns about what might be about to happen. “It’s going to be a lot like racing at Darlington,” Andretti conceded. “You’re going almost 200 mph into Turn I. The track is flat and fast and the car almost jumps out from underneath you going into Turn 1 and then the banking kind of catches you. It’s not a fun turn to do in practice; it’s not one you look forward to, kind of like Turn 4 at Darlington. You kind of don’t look forward to getting there.”

Andretti, who would prove prophetic within the hour, presented additional critiques. “I think the front straightaway needs to be wider. The front straightaway is like one big turn and it’s so narrow, it’d be easy to block there or get caught up in an accident.”

Yep. Yep. Andretti had read the tea leaves. “The back straightaway is real wide, but then it’s like Darlington, where you’ve got all the pavement, but you can only use so much of it. The track here is different. Any time you start with a new track you hear guys complaining because we’re all starting with a clean sheet.”

John Andretti marched off to meet his destiny while the pre-race festivities proceeded. Bruton Smith’s voice boomed over the public address system, encouraging all the fans to reach over and introduce his or her self to persons seated nearby. Some of that good, old-fashioned Pentecostal networking.

The festival aspect of the pre-race show was a huge flop. Van Cliburn’s appearance to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” had been made even more celebrated by earlier remarks from Fort Worth City Councilman Jim Lane. “Ya’ mean, Van Cliburn will be playing for Bubba?” Lane had inquired in print. Track general manager Gossage had taken umbrage about the Bubba characterization, protesting that “Bubba” constitutes an ethnic slur in his thinking. Interesting, too, was the fact that Lane was often seen walking the streets of Fort Worth wearing the same kind of yahoo cowboy hat that all the great white hunters sport at the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup.

Now, after all the ballyhoo, Van Cliburn was a no-show. The official explanation was that the pianist’s helicopter couldn’t land because of heavy air traffic. Nothing could have sounded fishier. What more likely happened was that just prior to departure, somebody broke the news to Van Cliburn that NASCAR does not stand for the National Academy of Science, Culture, Arts and Religion.

When the race finally started, the direct predictions of John Andretti, among others, quickly materialized.

I was standing in the infield, not 100 feet from Turn 1, and I can testify that the scene sounded like Pearl Harbor, looked like Hiroshima and smelled like Mount St. Helens.

That went on for the remainder of the afternoon until Jeff Burton won the race. Burton was happier while the remainder of the field bitched about the track well into the night. But I learned a lot about NASCAR racing on this first weekend and mastered the lingo. The only two phrases required of the race fan are “tight” and “loose.” If a car is tight, it hits the wall with its front end. If it’s loose, the car spins into the wall rear end first. Tight and loose. 1 don’t know the origins of the nomenclature, but that’s all there is to know.

When they tally the final score of the inaugural weekend at TMS, consider these numbers. It attracted more paying customers than the entire population of San Jose, Calif. CBS said that other than the Daytona 500, the Interstate Batteries 500 attracted the highest coast-to-coast TV rating for any NASCAR event ever.

A truck race at TMS on June 6, followed the next night by an Indy Racing League 400-mile race that will feature the winner of the 1997 Indy 500 (whomever that will be), figures to draw another 200,000 or so race fans.

So the Dallas-Fort Worth sports complex now welcomes a new and very conspicuous member to its extended family. Imagine your sister-in-law just got married to a state senator from Louisiana. The guy might be loud and often crude, but you better get used to him because he’s here to stay.