In honor of this weekend's Samsung 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway, here are a few quick Lone Star stories from the Great American Speedway. And no, they aren't April Fools tales. They just seem like it.
The inaugural event at TMS is legendary … but for all the wrong reasons. Bruton Smith had declared that his new 1.5-mile speedway would revolutionize motorsports. He promised state-of-the-art amenities, luxurious condominium accommodations and a progressive banking layout that would allow stock cars to race way up on the banking of the 24-degree turns while Indy Cars could run on the wide, flat apron.
But when we arrived for race weekend on April 6, 1997, the place simply wasn't finished. The electricity cut in and out, crews were still painting all the way up until race time and bad weather turned the area into a windy mud bog.
I felt terrible for track president Eddie Gossage because he deserved a better launch. A dozen years later, people still kill him over how the weekend went. Especially the traffic, when 200,000 fans were stuck for miles trying to get on and off I-35W. Pit crews barely made it into the infield in time for the green flag and exiting the track was even worse. Nearly everyone missed their flights home.
The next month, we were at the Charlotte Motor Speedway (now Lowe's), a track also owned by Smith and the place that Texas was modeled after. On race morning, the prideful mogul was walking through the garage when he was called over by Chocolate Myers, the legendary gas can man on Dale Earnhardt's GM Goodwrench Chevy.
"Hey, Bruton, that Texas track is really something else."
"Well, thanks, Chocolate."
"But I had no idea y'all had the longest tunnel in the world down there. I'm surprised you don't make a bigger deal out of that."
"The infield tunnel? That's not the world's longest."
"Hell if it ain't. It took us three hours to get through it."
1997 -- The B— Slap Heard 'Round The World
Two months later, the Texas Motor Speedway was much closer to the sparkling facility that we know and love today. The plumbing and electrical power worked, the walls were painted and the Texas Highway Patrol had developed a much better traffic pattern to get fans in and out.
So when the fledgling Indy Racing League rolled into town, other than the heat, the track was much better equipped to handle whatever was thrown its way.
Unfortunately, we the media were not.
Tony Stewart won the pole and was running away with the race with nearly a full lap lead when, late in the race, his engine exploded like it had a grenade strapped to it, sending his Oldsmobile (R.I.P.) into the wall in turn one.
I was there that night as a field producer for RPM2Night (R.I.P.) and drew the short straw, so I was sent to Tony's hauler in the garage to ask him to describe his feelings about the one that got away. It is worth noting that, at this point in his career, Stewart's typical response to such a question involved him questioning the nature of one's relationship with their mother.
As I stood there waiting with my fearless photographer, the checkered flag flew on the True Value 500 and Billy Boat, driver for team owner/living legend/four-time Indy 500-winner A.J. Foyt, headed to Victory Lane. Problem was newly-crowned Indy 500 champion Arie Luyendyk believed that he had won the race and was also headed to Victory Lane to express his feelings over what he believed to be a timing and scoring error. (Turns out, Luyendyk was right and he was awarded the win the following morning. But at this particular moment, no one knew that.)
So when Luyendyk arrived, Foyt -- aka Super Tex -- told him to leave. Arie refused. Screaming ensued.
Blissfully ignorant back in the garage and still waiting on Stewart, my radio crackled. It was fellow field producer Dan Fromm from Victory Lane.
"Hey Ryan…where are you?"
"Waiting on Stewart."
"Okay, stop doing that and look out for Luyendyk! He's headed your way!"
"Why? Stewart is the story…"
"Because A.J. Foyt just b— slapped Arie Luyendyk in Victory Lane."
1998 & 2000 -- Junior Achievements
Few will admit it now, but most of us that cover motorsports for a living had our doubts about Dale Earnhardt Junior as a career racecar driver. We'd seen him struggle on the short tracks of the Carolinas and we'd seen him slug his way through nine lackluster Busch (now Nationwide) Series starts in 1996-97. Our doubts were reinforced when he started 1998, his first full Busch Series season, with two terrible runs at Daytona and Rockingham.
Then the Little E that we know and love today suddenly showed up. He reeled off four straight top-10 finishes and nearly won at Las Vegas and Bristol. One week later he blew into Texas and smoked his way through the closing laps to take the lead and take his first win.
Almost two years to the day, we were back in Texas, only this time Junior was in a Cup ride. Again, most of us experts thought it was too much too soon. Plus, the uber-hyped "Countdown To E Day" that Budweiser had used to kickoff his big league career had worn everyone out.
Again, he backed up our fears with a terrible start to the season, averaging a 25th-place finish with two wrecks over the first six events. But on the big oval north of Fort Worth, he became a Texas tornado, leading 106 laps and stomping Jeff Burton by nearly six seconds.
The images that most of us still carry around from those two days have nothing to do with streaks or trophies or even the start of a legendary career. What I can still picture is Dale Senior twice showing up in Victory Lane and giving his son the patented Intimidator back-of-the-neck death grip, followed by the mustache smile and a bear hug.
Several weeks later I asked the Man in Black which felt better, winning a race or watching his son win a race? He never hesitated.
Then he smiled. "But it's closer than I'd like to admit."