IRL And Texas Motor Speedway A Perfect Match
June 17, 2000 | 12:00 A.M. EST
To the surprise of most, the combination of the Indy Racing Northern Lights Series and Texas Motor Speedway has been an overwhelming success almost since the first time the IRNLS raced at the track in 1997.
But based on other Indy racing events -- outside the Indy 500 -- nobody's been stealing ideas from Texas. Many of the other IRNLS events have been held in total secrecy.
Attendance -- perhaps the only measure of success for race track owners and series officials -- has been great at Texas, ranging from 60,000 to 90,000. The smallest crowd to see one of the six IRL races held at TMS showed up last weekend for the Casino Magic 500. The track sold 66,000 tickets but much less showed up after the Saturday night race was delayed a day by rain then held on an overcast, gloomy and wet Sunday.
But the people that did show saw one of the most amazing races ever, with IRL records set for most lead changes, fastest race and fewest wrecks (0). The 31 lead changes didn't even count the times when a driver couldn't keep his lead for the entire lap, which was often. On one lap, in which Al Unser Jr. and eventual race winner Scott Sharp battled for the lead, there were five changes.
You could tell how great a race it was by how happy the drivers were at the end of the race. Not only had there been frequent passing, but a group of about six cars ran as a bunched-up lead pack for about half the race. On almost every lap, the group raced just feet apart.
Driver Mark Dismore said afterwards, "This is the most fun I've had with my clothes on." Scott Goodyear added, "Everybody that was in the stands today will be back here again."
The race is exactly what the Indy Racing Series has been trying to sell since it started in 1996 -- exciting racing on ovals produced by cars that can both draft and perform. Unser says the circuit has found happiness in the high banks of TMS, combined with the sticky track, great tires from Firestones and the current IRNLS technical package.
"This formula is the formula of the future," Unser said. "Whoever watched the race today saw a preview of racing in the years to come."
Fans just might get a chance to show up at a CART race at TMS soon, as rumors have the rival open-wheel series scheduling a race at the track for 2001. The IRLNS just signed an extension to their current deal, agreeing to continue to race at TMS twice a year through 2004.
But can others duplicate this formula for success? Does any other track allow for such good racing? Can any other track draw the same crowds?
TMS general manager Eddie Gossage says that some of the reasons for the IRNLS' success in Texas could never be duplicated at any track. "Other places just don't have the kind of heritage that Texas does," Gossage said.
The headliners of this heritage include two drivers that combined to win seven Indianapolis 500s: Houston native A.J. Foyt and Fort Worth's Johnny Rutherford. But it also goes far beyond those two guys. Jim McElreath raced at Indy 15 times, finishing in the top six on six occasions. Lloyd Ruby finished in the top 11 places 11 times in 18 attempts. Still yet another Texan, car owner Jim Hall, fielded a successful team for decades.
Gossage gives credit to his boss. Bruton Smith is the man in charge at Speedway Motorsports, Inc., which not only built TMS, but owns several other tracks, including Atlanta, Las Vegas, Charlotte and Bristol. "You've got to give Bruton Smith a lot of credit," Gossage says. "The most singularly ingenious decision was to come to Dallas-Fort Worth."
Gossage said that because there wasn't a major oval holding NASCAR and Indy events in Texas for most of the 1980s and 1990s, nobody knew what great racing fans were in the state. TMS opened in 1997.
Some past marketing research backs up this claim. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Dallas-Fort Worth area was almost always near the top in the overnight television ratings for the Indianapolis 500. Several times, the market had the best ratings of any market. In addition, as many as two charter planes used to fly out of Dallas' Love Field every year to take fans to the Indy race. Moving to stock cars, the track in Phoenix said that more
tickets for its NASCAR races were bought from Texas than any other state but Arizona.
"I believe that there are more fans -- I mean hardcore racing fans -- in this market than there are in Charlotte, which is supposed to be the hot bed of racing," Gossage said. "Of course, there are more people in this market also. But while other places are having a hard time selling IRL tickets and are having a hard time selling out Winston Cup races, we're just doing great."
Gossage and TMS has some other things going for them. From the start, TMS made a big deal out of buying season tickets to all the events at the track. This meant that to have a great seat for the Winston Cup race, a fan also had to buy it for the IRNLS races. In addition, Greg Ray came along at the right time to further the tradition. A resident of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, TMS has constantly promoted Ray, the 1999 Indy Racing champ.
Gossage says the one thing that other tracks can do is spend more money and energy on promotions. "We do spend more money than other places," Gossage said. "We bring drivers to town early. We do stuff year around. "I've got a theory that if you don't act like it is a big deal, nobody else is going to act like it's a big deal. So when you treat it like it's a Super Bowl, there's a certain amount of self-prophecy in it. That's the way of promotion. But I am convinced and it is easy for me to be enthusiastic with others, including my staff. This is just a great place for racing and these are great events."
Unser, who came to Texas two weeks early to help promote the event, would love it if every track promoted their events as hard as TMS. "They let people know that they've got a great place to race, then they let everybody know when the race is going to be held," Unser says. "It might sound simple, but that's important. If you just do that, then the people who are race fans will show up."