Thursday, April 6, 2017

April 6, 1997 - Texas Motor Speedway Arrives Alive

Schaefer Hall of Fame co-founder Philly and I made multiple efforts to attend the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994. Tickets were available of course, but at some ludicrous prices. We held our ground and refused to overpay. Result: We missed the show. Oh well, life goes on. And we did get to go to the second Brickyard in 1995 thanks to my brother-in-law taking care of us.

Three years later, a similar scenario arose. Bruton Smith's new Texas Motor Speedway scheduled its inaugural event for April 1997 - the Interstate Batteries 500. Again, Philly and I wanted to be there for Race #1. Unlike our failed Indy venture, however, the Texas trip played out perfectly. Well, it did for us - though not so much for many others, fans and competitors alike.

My sister and brother-in-law had relocated to Farmers Branch TX - a Dallas 'burb. As luck would have it, he wrangled tickets for all of us for the first event at the best price of all: FREE! Furthermore, he landed us suite passes for Saturday's Coca-Cola 300 Busch Series race (remember Bruton's praise-rant about Coke during his NASCAR HOF induction speech?).

Next challenge: getting there from Tennessee. I thought I'd won the lottery when I learned I'd been assigned a work project in Terrell, TX the week before the race. Only 50 miles or so lay between my work stint in Terrell and race weekend.

And it rained. Every. Stinkin'. Mile. Of my Friday drive to Farmers Branch. But I arrived! Philly landed at DFW the next morning, and race weekend was officially underway.

I've previously blogged about the start to race day by my brother-in-law as well as my pre-race lap adventure around TMS. A few other non-racing memories from that weekend still make me smile as I recall them.
  • My brother-in-law introduced us to Razoo's Cajun Cafe. Lawdy, did we put a dent in a monster-sized platter of fried seafood and hushpuppies. As we waited near the bar for a table, I spotted a couple wearing white golf shirts and white hats. Both simply had the NASCAR logo on them. I smiled, nodded, and asked "How are y'all? First race this weekend?" They were stunned a bit as they replied pleasantly "Yes! How did you know that?"
  • We had four suite passes for Saturday's Busch race - but also a stowaway: my niece. Upon arrival at the elevator, we were (rightfully) given the third degree about our passes, the need for a wristband, etc. The deal breaker was our fifth person. The cute smile and blond hair of a four-year old fortunately warmed the guy's heart; however, and he sent all five of us on our way.
  • The Busch race was the first time for Philly and me to watch one from a suite. We'd always wanted to do so, but once there we concluded it was too sterile of an environment for us. Plus our host booked it on the cheap. No munchies, sandwiches, or beer. Just a few meager Cokes and water. If for no other reason other than to have some fun at my brother-in-law's expense, we leaned on him. "C'mon man. Nothing to eat? And no beer?? Fix this mess." He asked around and returned with an answer that the catering fee for a case of beer was eighty dollars and a sandwich board two hundred bucks or something like that. We held his stare, said we didn't care, and to make it happen. To his credit, he got his host to pony up more from the marketing budget!
  • The track distributed rally towels for the Cup race. I still have mine, keep it in my race pack, and wave it often 20 years later at the races I attend.
Though we had a good time, fortunes weren't so great for some at the track. I cringed when I got word Thursday evening that Ricky Craven wrecked hard during a practice session. He destroyed his #25 Hendrick Motorsports Budweiser Chevy, and the wreck nearly destroyed him. Fortunately, Craven returned to race another day (and win). But by his own admission, his health today is very much affected by the wrecks of his racing career - perhaps most notably by his Texas lick.

Race day excitement in the Lone Star State was amp'd. Well, maybe except for many fans bitter about the transfer of a race date from North Wilkesboro to Texas...or those stuck in traffic or muddy parking lots. Nonetheless, the fans, drivers, Ken Squier, etc. were pumped about getting the 500 underway.

We were standing at our start-finish line seats and watched the field roar past the green as they barreled into turn one. And then what happens? The Big One. In the first turn of the first lap of the first race at a new track.

Johnny Benson got into Darrell Waltrip, and the rest of the field piled in like a game of Buck Buck by Fat Albert's friends.

In less than a quarter of a lap, all sorts of fan favorites were essentially done for the day. Both of the Petty cars driven by Kyle Petty and Bobby Hamilton: Involved. Both continued - but neither were a factor. And Darrell Waltrip's chrome-wrapped 25th Anniversary Western Auto Chevy returned to the garage looking like a ball of aluminum foil.

About fifteen laps later, NASCAR's Three Stooges of that era - Bobby Hillin Jr., Derrike Cope and Greg Sacks tangled in another turn 1 accident. All could just about be assured of being involved in an accident on a week-to-week basis. But I'm not sure you could've secured Vegas odds to have all three involved in the same wreck.

For those who made it beyond the lap one wreck, many found their way to the front. Lap bosses included Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon, and crowd favorite Terry Labonte. Others getting a shot at clean air included Bobby Labonte, Sterling Marlin, Ricky Rudd, and Todd Bodine who was hired as the substitute driver for Craven.

Just shy of halfway, Rusty Wallace lost the edge in his #2 Miller Lite Ford, hit the wall coming out of turn 4, and drifted slowly through the quad-oval frontstretch. Several other cars spun to avoid Wallace or because of the fluid from his car. Ernie Irvan - Swervin' Irvan - tried to bonsai his way through the accident in an effort to make up a lap by passing leader Terry Labonte. He instead drilled at full speed a slowing Greg Sacks - this after Sacks had returned from his earlier accident. Rather than getting a lap back, Irvan nearly found his engine block sitting in his lap.

Throughout the afternoon, a steady presence on the track was the #99 Exide Batteries Roush Ford of Jeff Burton. Crew chief Buddy Parrott tweaked the car and worked with the fourth-year Cup driver to set both up for the finish.

As the race entered its last 100 miles, the 99 got a nose for the front. Burton took the lead from Bodine (who *ahem* wrecked while leading) and led the rest of the way to notch his first career Cup win.

A 20+ minute recap of the race.

To date, the inaugural race is the only one I've attended at Texas. I genuinely want to return, but circumstances just haven't played out yet to do so.

Over 20 years, the track has had its share of storylines including:
  • opening weekend jitters with rain, parking, and traffic
  • the lap one wreck
  • a disagreement between drivers and the track's general manager Eddie Gossage that was humorously transferred to a Shut Up And Race t-shirt
  • a subsequent re-working of the track's configuration to blend the sharp transition angle at the apron, and
  • a controversially cancelled CART race in 2001.
Yet my memories of race weekend #1 are nothing but great. My hope is to again enjoy a second memorable experience down there. Meanwhile, I wish nothing but the best to Gossage and his team as they ready for another 20 years of racing.


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