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The Callahan Report: Racing in Texas is big for fans and drivers

30 March 2000

By Terry Callahan
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel
DALLAS-FORT WORTH, TX: Money talks. In fact, it shouts loud at the Texas Motor Speedway. The big shout is fitting since "big" is the term always associated with Texas. When the NASCAR Winston Cup Series returns to the sparkling facility for the fourth time this weekend, big relates to wallets. The estimated purse for the Direct TV 500 is nearly $4.5 million. The winner's share should be a whopping $400,000. When the winning driver takes the checked flag at the conclusion of the race Sunday, he literally "takes the green."

From its sprawling grandstands to its state of the art add-ons such as jumbo-tron viewing screens, penthouse suites, sparkling garages, and stadium style seats, the Texas Motor Speedway exceeds "first-rate" status. Texas sets the standard for modern day racing facilities. It didn't start out that way.

When the speedway opened in 1997, the racing line was too narrow. The first race, held in 1997, was a follow-the-leader affair. The Texas Motor Speedway management took the appropriate action immediately. Spending millions of dollars, the track was widened to provide drivers with a safer racing line. The investment benefited everyone. Fans were re-introduced to side by side racing action synonymous with NASCAR Winston Cup racing. Track management was rewarded with satisfied paying customers and contracts from big-money sponsors.

Drivers complained loudly about the track during their first visit. Those complaints have now flipped 180 degrees as driver now look forward to their annual visit to the Texas Motor Speedway.
Ward Burton

"Texas is a neat track," said Ward Burton, the winner at Darlington two weeks ago driving a Pontiac. "I think the speedway has done a great job with the new configuration. It has made for better racing since they made the changes."

Robby Gordon, who returns to Texas for the first time since it's re-design said, "A lot of the newer tracks are following the same basic design. What probably helps us the most about Texas is that it's new, other teams don't have hundreds of races under their belt there."

A.J. Foyt
There are several personalities on the NASCAR circuit with a Texas connection. The most colorful of those individuals is the legendary A.J. Foyt. The outspoken Texan started his own Winston Cup team this year, but is very familiar with the importance of the sport in the nation's largest state.

"It's going to be great. I love Texas. We've always run quite well in Texas," said Foyt, who also owns a successful racing team in the NorthernLight Indy Racing Series, which races at Texas twice a year.

Foyt, who has raced in other NASCAR events in Texas, continued. "Even when NASCAR came there years ago I drove for the Wood Brothers, set a track record and got beat by about a foot at the finish line. I tried to get by Buddy Baker, but they had that big, ol' Hemi. It ran pretty good. I almost got by him, but he made that car of his a little wider on that last lap than normal," Foyt reminisced.

The racing Labonte brothers are also Texas natives. Terry Labonte sent legions of fans home happy at the 1999 NASCAR event as he pulled off the victory from his fourth place starting position. Bobby, the younger brother, also led last year's race on two different occasions.

There is something about visiting your home state that raises the competitive level in a driver. A "back-home" visit also requires a driver to make more personal appearances than normal.

"Yeah, it's the same thing, but it is a little crazy," said Bobby Labonte, the current Winston Cup points leader. "I am going out a little earlier. They do have me running around quite a bit. So it is busier, but it's not bad."

Concerning the racing action, Labonte said, "It's a race track we like to go to. A track like that does kind of have the same characteristics as Atlanta and Charlotte, but it's different. But you do have the same mindset going into it."

Of course, the Texas natives will have to deal with some other hungry and talented masters of the series. Dale Earnhardt had little trouble figuring out the tricks of Texas last year. Always a mediocre qualifier, Earnhardt sliced through traffic last year to an eighth place finish. He started 38th. Veteran Sterling Marlin matched Earnhardt's performance with a ninth place finish after starting 39th.

Ford drivers do very well at Texas also. Dale Jarrett, the 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup Champion, finished in second place a year ago. He began the race from the sixth row (12th place). The first two winners of the Texas race were also Ford pilots. Jeff Burton won in 1997 and Mark Martin found victory lane in 1998. Considering the fact that Texas is similar to Las Vegas where Jeff Burton won earlier this year, Burton could be the biggest threat to the Texas natives this weekend.

Plenty of racing action awaits race fans at Texas this weekend. On Thursday and Friday nights, the World of Outlaws will be competing on the Speedway grounds. Also on Thursday, the NASCAR Busch Grand National series drivers run qualifying laps. The Busch series race will be held Saturday. The Winston Cup drivers qualify on Friday and Saturday. The racing weekend wraps up with the Direct TV 500 on Sunday afternoon. The race will air on CBS at 2 p.m. Eastern.

No matter who wins at Texas, you can place your bets on one thing. There will be big things in victory lane. Big smiles and a big check await the winner of the Direct TV 500.

Editors Note: To view hundreds of hot racing photos and art, visit The Racing Photo Museum and the Visions of Speed Art Gallery.