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Happy birthday, Texas Motorplex

16 Oct 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

By the time you read this, I’ll be in Dallas for my annual trip to the AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals at Billy Meyer’s Texas Motorplex, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this season. I won’t say I’ve been to every NHRA national event held there, but I’ve been to most of them, and I’ve seen some incredible things happen during the years.

From the time it opened in 1986, not only did the Motorplex and its unique all-concrete quarter-mile became the place to set records, but the facility also set the bar for customer amenities unlike those seen at a dragstrip since the short life of its Texas-sized predecessor, Dallas Int’l Motor Speedway, in the 1970s.

I spoke to Meyer earlier this week – it was a dual-purpose call, to learn more about the history of the Motorplex and to gather more information for the next installment of my Teen Terrors of the ‘70s columns – and hung up with enough information for a half-dozen columns, but I’ll work on boiling it down to just two (but no promises): Motorplex this week, Teen Terror next week.

So what inspires a guy like Billy Meyer, still a very successful Funny Car racer at the time, to build the Taj Mahal of dragstrips and pave the way for many future tracks? Although Texas Motorplex rose into drag racing lore in 1986, the seeds were planted long before Meyer bought the famous plot of land on Highway 287 outside of Ennis, Texas, and came out of what Meyer viewed as a necessity for the sport born of a bit of a personal embarrassment.

In 1981, U.S. Tobacco’s Skoal brand of chewing tobacco was making its first foray into motorsports, sponsoring both a NASCAR stock car and Meyer’s Chevy Citation Funny Car. Hal Needham, the famed stuntman who owned the Skoal-backed NASCAR team, had worked with Meyer on a jinxed land-speed-record car that Meyer was supposed drive in the 1970s and had provided Meyer the ”in” with Skoal. The stock car would debut at the Daytona 500, so when Meyer’s Hawaiian Tropic/Skoal Bandit Funny Car made its debut at the Winternationals a few weeks before that, Needham naturally wanted to see the launch of the Skoal Motorsports program.

Needham and his wife, Dani, arrived in Pomona for the event in a Rolls-Royce, she in a mink coat. Of course, there was no VIP tower there at the time, and before long, her beautiful coat was covered in “Akron fallout” from the burnouts, and the TV helicopter destroyed her hairdo. “It was an absolute disaster; she swore she’d never come back,” recalled Meyer. Making matters worse, the couple then traveled to Daytona to see the stock car’s debut, where they sat in a private suite sipping champagne and eating caviar. Can you see where this is going?

Meyer finally convinced Lou Bantle, the longtime board chairman of U.S. Tobacco, to come see the drags for himself. Unfortunately, the first race he could get to was the Summernationals. Raise your hand if you remember Julys in New Jersey? That’s right, 100 degrees with 95 percent humidity, a rowdy crowd holding “colorful” signs in the grandstands, and no permanent bathrooms. Another nail in the coffin, and Meyer’s Skoal contract was not renewed for 1982.

“I knew we had a major-league sport, but we were playing it in Little League ballparks,” said Meyer. “It was just stupid.”

Billy Meyer chose to break ground on this plot of land outside of Ennis, Texas, largely because of its easy access from four-lane Highway 287.
(Above) This sign, predicting a late 1985 opening, proved a little too optimistic. (Below) Heavy rain and mud certainly didn't help speed construction.
Using a new process known as post-tension, Meyer created a seamless, all-concrete racing surface on which records were quickly set.
The centerpiece of the facility was this racetrack-spanning VIP tower.
Kenny Bernstein was among those providing jaw-dropping performances at the opening NHRA national event at Texas Motorplex in 1986.

Meyer didn’t have the money at the time to fix the problem, but he wasn’t the only one thinking the same thing. When Dallas Gardner became NHRA’s second president in 1984, one of his key initiatives was the improvement of facilities, and he had led the charge toward purchasing the tracks in Indianapolis and Gainesville to “experiment” with, and soon each had a VIP tower sprouting from the earth. Other tracks – most notably DIMS, Bristol Dragway, and Atlanta Dragway – had led the way with multistory towers, but soon everyone could see the advantages.

The loss of the Skoal deal turned out to be a huge blessing in disguise for Meyer, who soon was partnered with the Southland Corp. and had sponsorships from its flagship 7-Eleven and Chief Auto Parts brands. Meyer had the foresight to request front-loaded contracts, which gave him some immediate working capital that not only funded the race car, but also allowed him to make some smart property investments. By 1985, he had enough money to not only buy the land outside of Ennis, but also to make another strategic purchase that eliminated a competing bid to build a dragstrip to service the Dallas area.

“I ended up choosing the Ennis plot for two reasons,” said Meyer. “First, it was on a four-lane divided highway, and at the time, there wasn’t a racetrack in America that was on a four-lane divided highway; most of them were on county roads where you couldn’t get in, and you couldn’t get out. Second, it was in a county of 50,000 people, so I could do an industrial bond loan. It needed to be in the Ennis city limits, and it initially wasn’t, so I spent months getting it accepted into the city limits. I also felt like I was safer inside the city limits because I could be controlled by city laws regarding curfew and noise abatement, so no one could sue me for those things; they’d have to sue the city.”

There was some opposition locally, especially in nearby Reagor Springs (the residents of which erected signs proclaiming “Don’t allow rowdyism”), but construction quickly began in early 1986 with some lofty goals.

“My goal was to service the three most important parts of the sport: the spectators, the sponsors, and the racers because I felt like that had never been done at the same time,” said Meyer. “Because of the issues I had back in 1981, bathrooms were a huge thing for me, so I mandated that we had to have more permanent restrooms than they had at Texas Stadium [home of the Dallas Cowboys], and I wanted to be able to say that, and I wanted attendants in all of them. I wanted more opportunities for sponsor signage and a place for them to sit in comfort. And, of course, as a racer, I thought we needed the perfect racetrack."

The facility grew into having a stadium feel of its own, with seats not just flanking the track but wrapping around to meet the tower, which straddled the track behind the starting line with a pass-through tunnel beneath, a design so commonplace now.

Of course, it’s where the rubber meets the road that real ground was broken. Although race cars had been running on concrete surfaces on abandoned or closed airport runways for decades, those all were made of concrete slabs with expansion gaps that made traction tricky. Dragstrips had begun incorporating concrete into their starting areas, first a few feet, then a hundred, then a few hundred, but there was never a complete quarter-mile concrete track.

Meyer contracted Texas-based VSL, which had developed a process known as post-tension that allowed for a continuous, seamless pour (read all about it here) that provided, in essence, a 1,320-foot concrete launchpad. The track opened with a Division 4 event in August and the national event, the Chief Auto Parts Nationals, thanks to Meyer’s ongoing relationship with the company (he was still driving the Chief Auto Parts Funny Car at the time).

Legendary drag racer Don Prudhomme remembers the first time he ever saw Texas Motorplex: "It was like a Field of Dreams."

So, how did the first national event go? On his very first pass down the track, national record holder (5.34) Darrell Gwynn became the first Top Fuel driver to run in the 5.20s and the first to exceed 275 mph with an astounding 5.280 at 278.29 mph. He later ran as quick as 5.261 at 278.55 to reset both ends of the national record. The Top Fuel field sported a record bubble and featured six qualifiers in the 5.30s or better. Funny Car king Kenny Bernstein, whose 5.50 in Indy a month earlier had been otherworldly, not only became the first to run in the 5.40s, but also blasted deep into the .40s with a mind-numbing 5.425. The Funny Car field was also a record grouping of 16 cars. A year and a half later, in April 1988 during a brief alliance with IHRA during Meyer’s reign as sanctioning body president, Eddie Hill recorded the sport’s first four-second Top Fuel run at Texas Motorplex.

“That track has held up so well,” said Meyer proudly. “We’re on our 30th anniversary, and all we’ve had to do was grind it one time. Next year, I’ll be 62 and the track will be 31, and it will have been part of my life for half my life. We’ve had some problems with weather the last few years where the track performances aren’t what we were used to, but we’re really looking forward to this year’s race. The forecast is stupid good, and we’re looking for the return of those big numbers.”

Me, too.