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Texas racing fans not slowing down

Far From the Finish

NASCAR thundered back to Texas in 1997, almost three years after track owner Bruton Smith announced plans to build a superspeedway in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

NASCAR (the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) first brought its premier touring series to Texas in 1979 and 1980, with two events hosted at Texas World Speedway near College Station. Texas race fans would have to wait 17 years before the circuit returned to the state. With the coming of TMS, Texas race fans finally have an event of their own. But NASCAR fans weren't the only ones to benefit.

Racing returns
When TMS hosted its first event in April 1997, capacity stood at 150,061 and every seat was sold. Permanent seating has been expanded another 4,800 seats, and the 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup race drew the largest crowd to ever attend a sporting event in Texas. Add in 194 luxury suites and the crowd in the track's infield, and a race-day crowd can easily surpass 200,000. Sarona Winfrey, TMS media relations director, says the crowds started coming out for the very first races, and they keep coming.

"We always say people who don't like racing haven't been to one," Winfrey says. "We easily have more than a million people come through the gates each year. When you have 110,000 people for the (NASCAR) Busch series race on Saturday and over 200,000 for the Winston Cup race the next day, that's more than 300,000 fans in only two days. That's a pretty good start."

TMS is a year-round facility with a gift shop, tours and a NASCAR driving school open--for a price--to the public.

"Almost 15,000 people took the tour last year," Winfrey says, "and we continue to get fans here of just about every kind of racing there is."

In addition to the main NASCAR events of April, TMS also hosts NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series as well as the Indy Racing League for two races each.

Texas-sized impact
In November 1994, the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce's Economic Development Department estimated the economic impact of TMS on the local economy. The report projected that the facility, when fully operational, would add about $111 million annually to the Dallas/Fort Worth regional economy.

Seven years later, Street & Smith's SportsBusiness Journal reported that the 2000 NASCAR "race weekend" (actually about four to five days) alone generated more than $165 million. Eddie Gossage, TMS executive vice-president and general manager, says that is the kind of support they were hoping for.

"We've been blessed with tremendous support locally, regionally, nationally and internationally, and those fans from around the world spend tremendous amounts of money in Fort Worth, Dallas, Denton, Irving and surrounding areas," Gossage says. "This isn't money spent at the speedway--this is money spent on hotels, motels, restaurants and the like by fans while in town for our race."

Not every race fan reserves a hotel room, though.

"We'll camp close to 40,000 people on the (TMS) grounds over a NASCAR weekend," Winfrey says. "That's bigger than a lot of towns around here."

Winfrey says taking care of that kind of crowd requires everything from extra security to basic essentials such as food. At least one national grocery chain will set up a temporary store on the site to serve race fans. These amenities create a substantial number of temporary jobs.

"TMS employs anywhere from 100-150 full-time personnel during the year," says Winfrey, "but when it comes to an event weekend, that number usually rises close to one thousand, including volunteers. Look at it this way: they'll seat 63,000 to 65,000 people for a (Dallas) Cowboys game. Well, we'll park 60,000 cars for a race. That kind of effort takes people."

All over the tracks
The popularity of motor sports in the United States has exploded in the last decade. NASCAR has led the way, reporting increases in attendance of nearly 65 percent during the 1990s. More than 6.5 million fans attended Winston Cup races alone last year. Television ratings continue to soar, with 2001 television audiences estimated to be 31 percent larger than in 2000.

But there's a new number two on the popularity list. National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) drag racing, a sport with deep roots in Texas, has moved into position in motorsports television ratings.

Texas Motorplex in Ennis, south of Dallas, was built in 1986 and is known around NHRA circles as the "father of modern drag-racing supertracks." It is one of two stops in Texas for the NHRA, along with Houston Raceway Park. Texas Motorplex general manager Jason Baffrey says the popularity of NASCAR and TMS have helped out just about every type of racing.

"There's no doubt that Texas Motor Speedway created new racing fans," Baffrey says. "It made racing in general more appealing to fans and to the media. That's been the greatest benefit for us. We always had attention for our national events, but [TMS] brought full-time media coverage to the area."

Like TMS, Texas Motorplex builds its year around a national event, the O'Reilly Fall Nationals. But the Motorplex's current season begins in February 2002, and the facility runs races almost every weekend until Thanksgiving.

"On our schedule this year we've got 97 event dates," says Baffrey, "so if people want to see cars race, we've got them."

More than a half-million people attended races at Texas Motorplex in 2001, and Baffrey feels things are just warming up.

"The state of our sport is excellent," says Baffrey. "We're number two behind NASCAR right now and NHRA has a new national sponsor and a new television package. If it brings attention to motorsports, it helps everybody."

Up the road at Mesquite's Devil's Bowl Speedway, track owner Lanny Edwards agrees. "Auto racing has grown so much it's unreal," says Edwards. "We saw an increase in attendance as soon as they [TMS] announced they would build the track."

The 8,300-seat Devil's Bowl is a dirt-track facility east of Dallas and was joined on the west side of town by a 15,000-seat dirt track opened at TMS in 2001. Edwards says his business has not been hurt by its larger neighbor; instead, he thinks it helps.

"Anytime you put 15,000 people in the seats for that type of racing you're going to get some exposure for everybody," Edwards says. "Eighty-five to 90 percent of our racing features local racers from the area. [TMS] can't host a race every weekend [on the big track] but that's what tracks like ours can do."

Racing to the races
The U.S. has more than 1,300 racetracks, and Texas is home to more of them than any other state. Whether it's a hometown dirt track or the quarter-mile strip at Houston Raceway Park, racing appears firmly planted here.

"Every type of racing gets its die-hard fans," Winfrey says, It's just been great to see how many race fans there are in Texas."

Clint Shields