The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series’ most recent stop was in Texas for the (deep breath) O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA SpringNationals presented by Super Start Batteries, and anyone who knows anything about drag racing knows that the Springnationals holds a respected place in NHRA lore. Many fans know it best for its long run near Columbus, but the event actually has some early Texas roots that tie it to today’s event.
The Springnationals was one of NHRA’s original four races, joining the U.S. Nationals and Winternationals on the schedule in 1965, the same year that NHRA also introduced the World Finals. The Springnationals debuted at Bristol Dragway in Tennessee and ran there three years until moving to Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown in 1968, then it was on to the fabulous new Dallas Int’l Motor Speedway for a three-year run (1969-71) before packing up for a long stay at National Trail Raceway in Ohio.
This history lesson comes after I stumbled across a thick photo folder of early shots of Dallas Int’l Motor Speedway (hereinafter referred to as DIMS) that reminded me how magnificent the place was and how short its lifespan. Built in early 1969 and in the wake of the West Coast jewel known as Orange County Int’l Raceway, the track’s signature starting-line tower stood tall above the Texas skyline just outside the town of Lewisville, on I-35E. Lewisville was still a small farm community of less than 10,000 people when the track opened in June 1969 and probably didn't have many more when the palace stunningly closed just four years later.
Ben Parks was the president of DIMS, and with his lieutenants – Vance Job (VP and treasurer), Jim Tibbitts (VP and general manager), and Jim McKamy (VP and in charge of construction) – they overcame Mother Nature and a tight deadline to have the track ready for the opening event, the 1969 Springnationals. Before construction even began, heavy rains soaked the region, and management was forced to plow the land to allow the soil to dry. According to legend, the pit area was still being paved even as the event began June 13.
The track’s four-story tower – reminiscent of but bigger and more luxurious than the Cragar tower at York U.S. 30 and the three-story Champion tower at OCIR --- was a project unto itself, with steel ties buried 45 feet into the ground to support the top-heavy design.
Even with the bad weather that seemed to plague the region – it rained heavily on Saturday of the Springnationals -- NHRA must have liked what it saw because by year’s end, NHRA announced that DIMS would also host the World Finals, making it the first NHRA venue to hold more than one national event per season. The Finals moved there after a four-year run in Tulsa, Okla., and it offered an opulent setting for the crowning of champions, much more so than gritty Southwest Raceway.
Although the drag races – the two national events and two divisional events – did well, other events proved a financial drain. The track tried to diversify, adding a deluxe 2.5-mile road course for SCCA events, but one event alone lost more than $200,000 (remember, these are 1970s dollars). Other forces also were at work. Mother Nature was not kind. Several events were rained out in 1970, and the track even endured a good-size flood – none of which was good for business, and even when there was racing, the neighbors were not happy about the noise and traffic and pressured the Lewisville City Council into setting a 10 p.m. curfew.
(The facility seemed cursed in other ways. At the first Springnationals, Funny Car driver Gerry Schwartz, driver of the Ratty Cat Cougar, was killed in a midtrack collision in round one with low qualifier Pat Foster, who was driving Mickey Thompson’s Mustang. Two years later, while the track was running under IHRA sanction, Dallas TV news reporter Gene Thomas, of WFAA Channel 8, was killed while riding along with Art Arfons in his two-seat Super Cyclops jet dragster in October 1971, an accident that also claimed the lives of two track workers. There’s a stirring account of this accident here, written by Chuck Richardson, a news camera operator for rival KTVT Channel 11 in Fort Worth who witnessed and filmed the fatal pass.)
Future NHRA television and announcing personality Dave McClelland was lured to Dallas by NHRA Division 4 Director Dale Ham from his position at Southland Dragway in Houma, La., to take over control of the facility in early 1971, and he served as vice president and general manager for the first six months of 1971. The Springnationals went successfully into the books – and was shown on live TV, according to McClelland -- but, according to some sources, the owners, hoping to take advantage of a more favorable offer on gate percentages, switched to IHRA sanction for the latter half of 1971, forcing NHRA to move the Finals to Amarillo, Texas. McClelland left the track and a few months later and began his long career with NHRA.
The move to IHRA did little to stave off bankruptcy, which followed in 1973, and the track was closed. Xerox bought the land for a new facility that was never built.
McClelland says he tried to convince NHRA President Wally Parks to have NHRA purchase the facility to keep it going but remembers that Parks was reluctant to go into business against NHRA’s own member tracks and declined.
“It’s a real shame because in my estimation – and I’ve seen an awful lot of racetracks -- it was the very first supertrack,” said McClelland. “They talk about Orange County and other places; this place was more impressive. It was magnificent, first-class all the way. Underground wiring, permanent restrooms, paved pits, and, of course, the tower. It was really something.”
Anyway, here’s a look back at the track that probably came too soon and burned too brightly to survive.
NHRA Division 4 Director Dale Ham jumped into the saddle of a bulldozer to kick off construction.
Steel ties rested on the future site of the landmark tower, and the lone tree gave way to another kind of Tree.
NHRA Publicity Director Bob Russo, right, sat high on the tower scaffolding with design architect Jim Furate.
The mighty tower under construction (above) and in completed form (below). On the first floor were offices and restrooms, and the second floor held the announcing deck. Security and monitor control were on the third floor, and the fourth floor was the exclusive International Room, a precursor to today's VIP suites. More on that later.
(Above) This photo shows the proximity to I-35E, and this one (below) shows the property as it stands today.
(Above) The dragstrip was 5,000 feet long, making for a massive paving job. In the foreground, you can see the standing pools of water from torrential rains that delayed construction. (Below) Paving begins.
The Dallas tower may have looked like the one at York U.S. 30, right, but it also included an elevator to reach the top floor and its exclusive International Room.
The tower's top-floor International Room was a membership-based private club, which allowed it to serve alcohol in an otherwise prohibited environment. Bartenders and waiters served the privileged patrons.
Floor-to-ceiling windows offered an impressive view, allowing guests to survey the entire facility and peer down right into the race car cockpits.
(Above) The view from the tower was wonderful. The pits were behind the left-lane grandstands. (Below) Spacious parking and permanent restrooms can be seen behind the right-lane grandstands.
The track was even more impressive at night, with solid lighting all the way down.
Don Garlits was the last Top Fuel winner at the track, scoring at the 1971 Springnationals.
Two years after the last NHRA event, the track went into bankruptcy and closed soon after. McClelland remembers that "Diamond Jim" Annin, who ran a series of successful race cars, contemplated buying the facility a few years later, but by then, the place was in disrepair -- poles and wiring pulled up, fencing torn down, and other carnage; "It was the saddest sight I've ever seen," lamented McClelland -- and they also discovered that there was a covenant in the contract signed by the most recent owners with their farming neighbors that racing could never again be contested on the property. And that was that.
DIMS didn’t just hold some famous drag races; it was also host to a pretty spectacular rock festival. On Labor Day weekend 1969, just two weeks after the famous gathering at Woodstock -- and while the NHRA tour was in Indy for the Nationals, where Don Prudhomme, Danny Ongais, and D.A. Santucci claimed the top titles -- the Texas International Pop Festival was playing before an estimated crowd of 120,000 to 150,000 “bearded, beaded, and bedraggled flower children-types,” according to The Dallas Morning News. The main promoter was Angus Wynne, heir to the Six Flags amusement-park empire.
The 30-act musical roster that played in a 25-acre meadow on its grounds included Janis Joplin, Santana, Sly & the Family Stone, Grand Funk Railroad, Chicago Transit Authority (later to become simply Chicago), Canned Heat, Johnny Winter, B.B. King, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, Sam & Dave, and a young band from Britain, Led Zeppelin.
Compared to Woodstock, it was almost a family outing. There was one death – from heat exhaustion – and although drugs and nudity (mostly skinny-dipping at adjacent Lake Lewisville) were certainly part of “the scene,” bad “trips” and arrests were at a minimum and peace and brotherhood at a maximum. Late Monday, Lewisville Police Chief Ralph Adams went on stage and told the assembled masses, "I can't say too much good about you people. You've shown the elders something they've been hated to be shown for a long time. Anytime you want to come back, the town is yours."
They never did, and before long, there wasn’t a track to come back to.