ON A SATURDAY MORNING IN MAY, B. J. “Red” McCombs, San Antonio’s billionaire car dealer, oilman, rancher, broadcaster, real estate magnate, and all-around sports addict, found himself pacing up and down the sidelines, as is his habit. “Take no prisoners!” screamed the exuberant 71-year-old, who stands six foot three and has large red-tufted hands and a face full of freckles. “Come on, Joseph! Hit that ball!”
The ball was a baseball, as in machine-pitch baseball—as slow and awkward as any game—and the Joseph in question was McCombs’ ten-year-old grandson. The shy, sweet boy glanced nervously at his grandfather, whom he calls Pop-Pop, before facing the creaky windup of the contraption on the mound. After missing the first two pitches, he smacked the third, and it sailed long and low over second base. Joseph was so relieved as he ran to first base that he practically floated along the base path. “What a hit!” yelled McCombs, turning a finer and more precise shade of—what else?—red.
The last time McCombs was that animated was a few months before, on January 17, when his newly acquired professional football team, the Minnesota Vikings, came within a single game of making it to the Super Bowl. After the Vikings lost to the Atlanta Falcons in overtime, 30—27, he lingered on the sidelines of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome and groaned, “I never thought we weren’t going to win the Super Bowl. I just can’t grasp it.” That kind of sentiment might sound corny or contrived coming from some people, but not from McCombs, whose can-do approach to every business he’s in, sports included, is a throwback to an earlier era. He really thinks he can will himself to succeed, and maybe he’s right. When he outbid best-selling author Tom Clancy and other high rollers and paid $250 million for the mediocre Vikings, he seemed to be in need of psychological help. But after their best season ever—they went an amazing 16—2—it was the rest of us who had to have our heads examined. We never should have doubted him. You never underestimate Red McCombs.
WHEN HE’S IN SAN ANTONIO, McCombs heads to his office bright and early to attend daily seven-thirty meetings. He owns half a dozen skyscrapers and could have his pick of the swankiest suites in town, but instead he works out of a small space above one of his busy Ford dealerships off Interstate 10, where he can mingle with his salesmen as they chat up customers. “I like the action,” he says. “I like seeing the public.”
Most days he wears khakis, an open-collar shirt, and boots—“I’m a red-necked, tobacco-chewing Bubba,” he brags—and carries a cowhide briefcase with a bumper sticker affixed to it that reads “God Bless Texas.” Along with his private jet and his fleet of automobiles, which includes a custom-made silver Rolls-Royce, he owns a herd of Longhorns, several ranches, a collection of Western art and artillery, and four heavy silver saddles made by Edward H. Bohlin, Hollywood’s saddlemaker to the stars. “All I wanted out of life was to be the go-to guy, the guy who was in a position of power to make the decisions that really matter,” he says. “I used to think of myself as the little dog that kept chasing the big shiny red fire truck. I finally caught up with the truck, and I know what to do with it: I want to ride.”
Billy Joe McCombs was born on October 19, 1927, in Spur, a town of fewer than two thousand about seventy miles from Lubbock, into a family in which the ability to make cars go and trucks shine was taken seriously. His father, Willie, was a mechanic who worked for the town’s only Ford dealer. Willie had a third-grade education, but Red says he could “instantly diagnose a mechanical problem and see the solution.” One of Red’s strongest memories of his father is of watching him look through mountains of scrap metal in junkyards on the weekends, searching for just the right parts.
Spur wasn’t just Red’s home; it was his first market. At age nine, he sold peanuts to itinerant Mexican farmworkers—and figured out that he could improve his margins by putting fewer peanuts in each bag. At age eleven, he washed dishes after school in a cafe in downtown Spur, then got up at five in the morning and delivered newspapers. No one, least of all Red, knew exactly where he got his drive. Perhaps it had something to do with his father’s unrealized ambition, but at any rate it was ferocious. “Nobody knew what an entrepreneur was in the 1930’s and 1940’s, but I was one,” he recalls. “All I knew is that I wanted to have enough money to buy Arrow shirts.”
One day in June 1943—a day that McCombs says he’ll never forget—Willie moved the family to Corpus Christi, where he went to work at the naval air station. Red realized that both his father and his hometown had lost their place in the world because, as he puts it, “they didn’t have a hook—they had nothing to sell.” Spur was not a county seat and had no college or large employer; it couldn’t compete with larger cities for the manufacturing plants that were being built to supply the troops during World War II. The lesson seemed clear to him: Always have a hook.
Though his father eventually made more money at the naval air station, McCombs was so unhappy about the move that at first he would not leave Spur. He stayed there alone that first summer and worked full-time at the local drugstore. “My scope was never that big,” he says. “I would have been perfectly happy living in Spur forever. The way of life there was my identity, and I didn’t want to leave it.” In August, however, his mother, Gladys, a strong-willed Baptist who was the dominant force in the household, became worried about her son getting into trouble. She drove back to Spur