Speed

Will NASCAR auto racing be a driving force in Texas? With 150,000 tickets sold for its debut this month at a plush new track near Fort Worth, it’s certainly off to a fast start.

ON A CHILLY SATURDAY MORNING in mid-January, two thousand people braved winds whipping across the prairie fifteen miles north of Fort Worth to stand in line in front of a one-story building. Some of them had camped out overnight. At nine the doors opened, and they all patiently filed in for their turn to buy tickets, priced anywhere from $5 to $80 each, that would admit them nearly three months later to the grandstands of the Texas Motor Speedway, still under construction half a mile to the west.

At least they got what they came for. Others, who tried to get tickets over the phone, were less fortunate. An hour after the doors had opened, so many callers flooded the switchboard that the telephone system melted down. Within ten days 150,000 tickets had been snapped up, assuring that on April 6—the inaugural run of the Interstate Batteries 500 and the highlight of the first weekend of major league automobile racing in Texas—more people would be on hand than could fit in Texas Stadium, the Ballpark in Arlington, and Reunion Arena combined.

But even with those mammoth sales figures, 50,000 standing-room tickets in the infield remained at $35 to $50, and anyone who ponied up from $750 to $2,000 for a Lifetime-Plus Preferred Seat License could buy a season-ticket package and the right to prime seats for years to come. Otherwise, fans of the hottest sports entertainment going would have to settle for watching the big event on CBS and attending the warm-up Coca-Cola 300 Busch Grand National Series race the day before or one of the two Coors Light Silver Bullet Qualifying Day rounds open to the public on April 3 and 4. Plus, there would be other, less prestigious contests in June, including the first-ever night racing of Indy-style cars.

The rest of the year, the track and the surrounding buildings will host non-racing events like sales meetings, auto shows, and driving schools that let you ride in or even drive a race car. On June 14 CountryFest 97, a country music concert starring Wynonna, Vince Gill, and Travis Tritt, among others, is being staged; promoters predict it will attract more than 250,000 people, the largest mass gathering ever in Texas. And RockFest 97, held at the speedway a week later with bands like Bush and Counting Crows, could draw just as big a crowd. But make no mistake about it: It’s speed—in particular, the touring races organized by the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing ( NASCAR)—that will make this facility hum. From humble beginnings in the South nearly fifty years ago, NASCAR has spread to the West Coast and the Northeast, and today no fewer than seventy Fortune 500 companies have a stake in stock car racing. Still, not even the sport’s biggest supporters dreamed how well it would play in Texas. “To be honest, we underestimated NASCAR’s appeal here,” said Eddie Gossage, the general manager and executive vice president of the Texas Motor Speedway ( TMS). “It has exceeded what we expected so much that we haven’t really had the time to tell our story yet. We’re too busy building.” Gossage, a dapper 38-year-old with a trim beard, oozed confidence and spoke in the understated, button-down manner of an investment banker. Looking forward to Texas’ first major NASCAR race, he said, “It’s like attending the first-ever Dallas Cowboys game in 1960, except this isn’t being played in a high school stadium.”

No kidding. The TMS cost $107 million to build and is the largest spectator-sport facility in Texas and the third largest in the world, behind the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Maracana soccer stadium in Rio de Janeiro. In the middle of the track, which is called the infield, rises the eleven-story Lone Star Tower, which has 67 condominiums, priced between $275,000 and $575,000. (All of them have been sold to promoters, advertisers, and wealthy fans—even though the building won’t be finished until November.) Each of the track’s 208 luxury boxes is as plush as any in Irving or Arlington, with two rows of theater-style seats behind a full glass window, the best view of the track from high above the grandstands, a wet bar, closed-circuit televisions, his and her restrooms, and VIP parking. (Half of the boxes have been leased for $65,000 to $100,000 a season, which covers seven to nine event days a year.) The infield, large enough to contain eight Texas Stadiums, has two covered, climate-controlled garages; a hospital with a helipad; parking for 1,300 RVs; two cafeterias; and a full-service media center, including individual darkrooms, interview booths, and an auditorium with theater-style seats and a stage big enough to roll in the winning car along with the winning driver.

The TMS’s centerpiece, its one-and-a-half-mile asphalt track, sports a double-dogleg front stretch and 24-degree high-banked turns. Giving me a tour of the track, public relations director Tony Troiano stopped his Bronco on one of them. It was so steep, I almost fell out of my seat. NASCAR racers ride high on the banks to take advantage of centrifugal force, which lets them maintain top speeds as they hug the turns. “When I push the speed above eighty, I can go around and around without steering,” Troiano said with a laugh. He punched the accelerator and the Bronco felt as if it were gliding on air.

From all appearances, the Metroplex has a severe case of racing fever. And that’s precisely what track owner O. Bruton Smith was counting on when he announced its construction in 1995. The sport has all the elements Texans love: speed, power, and well-mannered athletes. It’s an enormous money-maker too. As the chairman of Speedway Motorsports, Incorporated—which also owns tracks in North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, California, and Illinois—Smith knows a potential NASCAR market when he sees one. And racing in Texas looks like a can’t-miss proposition.

IF YOURE BEFUDDLED BY THE PHENOMENON of NASCAR-style auto racing, relax. The basics are simple: Several dozen drivers in American-made

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