Iracingone On One:/I Eddie Gossage

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Eddie Gossage is a mover and a shaker. Like his counterpart at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, Gossage, the executive vice president and general manager of Texas Motor Speedway, has helped mold that facility into one of the top venues anywhere in the racing world. He’s encountered many challenges since the track first opened in 1997, but has overcome those obstacles and made TMS one of the true “fan-oriented tracks” around the NASCAR circuit. Gossage talks about the track, its owner Bruton Smith, and the ongoing battle to bring a second Winston Cup date to TMS as we head into this weekend’s events at the 1.5-mile facility.)

RacingOne: Give us a “state of the track” update on Texas Motor Speedway.

Gossage: Things are going great right now. We’re just about all sold out for the Winston Cup race, and Busch race tickets are flying out the door. Everything’s ready to go. Last year, a lot of tracks had some trouble with attendance. Last year, we added about 16,000 to what’s already the second-biggest stadium in the world, and we sold those out, too. We’ve got a lot of fans in Texas. We built the place at the right time and in the right place, for sure.

RacingOne: Yours was one of the venues where a driver was killed last year. New Hampshire took a beating for the two deaths that occurred there. How difficult was it for Texas Motor Speedway to weather that storm and for the people to get over the shock of it happening?

Gossage: Of the four, and I don’t want anyone to think I’m trivializing what happened with any of them, ours was the most racing-oriented accident of them all. Adam (Petty) and Kenny (Irwin), we believe, had to do with a stuck throttle. Dale’s (Earnhardt) death apparently had to do with a seat belt. In Tony (Roper’s) case, another truck turned him. It wasn’t something he did and it wasn’t something the track did, it was something that happened in the heat of competition. We’re dealing with an inherently dangerous business. This sport will never be safe. We can make it safer, but it’s never going to be safe. That’s what happened in Tony’s case. You feel hurt and all kinds of emotions. I talked to Tony’s dad that night, and he was reassuring me. He said we’re a racing family and we understand this is one of the consequences you may face. Of the four, ours was the least controversial. That’s not meant to lessen the importance of it. It’s something, however, I never want us to go through again. We’re all in this for fun, and then all of a sudden it gets real serious. It’s just really tough.

RacingOne: Before, you briefly touched on the “lack of attendance” at other tracks. But Texas Motor Speedway has never had a problem with that. Why is that?

Gossage: Apparently, people around the country are interested in what we’re doing. Last year’s race was the second most-watched race in the entire world. Not only did we have the second highest crowd, we had the second highest TV ratings, second only to the Daytona 500. From Day 1, our motto has been, “It’s not just another race.” Apparently the public has picked up on that, and they’ve tuned in with record numbers. We’ve been fortunate. I wish I knew what the magic secret of it all was so I could tell everybody else. But then again, maybe I wouldn’t.

RacingOne: When you were first handed the assignment of coming out to Texas, what was your reaction? You obviously understood what a huge undertaking it was going to be.

Gossage: From a personal standpoint, culturally it was going to be a big difference for me to move from Charlotte to Texas. There was really nobody to call and ask advice from about some things because at that time, only Homestead had been built since the 1960s as far as new superspeedways were concerned. I didn’t know who to turn to as far as answers, so we just had to kinda figure some things out on our own. We stumbled here and there, but overall, we hit a home run in a big way. It’s just one of those things where you realize it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. While I was privileged to do it, I also would never do it again (laughing). But I can look at Texas Motor Speedway and realize this is my baby. It’s really gratifying, particularly when the public obviously loves it because they’re coming in such big numbers. We obviously did something right.

RacingOne: There’s been quite a few headaches and stumbling blocks along the way, but there also have been a lot of rewards, haven’t there?

Gossage: There has. A lot of the headaches were things that people never knew about and will still never know about. Others were issues like, when water comes through the racetrack, or where the transitions from the turns to the straightaways obviously weren’t done correctly. Those were very public issues, and the fact of the matter is I have a journalism degree, not an engineering degree. We have a department of engineers that have diplomas on the wall and funny little calculators that don’t do math the way you and I do math. It’s their job to figure those things out. Obviously they dropped the ball on some stuff like that. But as the boss, it’s my role to have things like that fixed, a “buck stops here” kind of thing. These people made mistakes, but my name is in the paper. That’s a real frustrating and humbling situation. But on the other hand, Bruton (Smith) has said every time we have a problem, you figure it out and you fix it. We’ve fixed our issues and gone on. It’s been really rewarding, I just hate we’ve dropped the ball a couple of times.

RacingOne: When the issue of the water seeping through the track during race time a few years ago came about, you personally had to weather a lot of storms and take a lot of criticism, didn’t you?

Gossage: I really took a beating over that one. It was tough because I know who made the mistakes. It wasn’t me, because I don’t profess to be knowledgeable in those areas. But it is my role to take the hard times that come with it. In a job such as this, you get all the credit and all of the blame. You never deserve either. If Bruton hadn’t been the quality of person he was, it would have been easy to say we’ll hang him out to dry because the spotlight was focused on me. That might have gotten rid of me and people would have said the problem was fixed. But that’s not the kind of guy he is. He’s a great guy. For weeks after that water issue, he’d call me every night and tell me stories about what a mess it was when he opened Charlotte in 1960. The point was he knew I would weather the storm and I’d be fine. Mark Martin called me and said if you just fix these things, you’ll be a hero, and I’ll guarantee you’ll be a hero among the competitors. I talked to a lot of the competitors about what to do and how to make the changes. We made the changes and Mark said, “You’re a hero.” If you admit your mistakes and fix them, it’s a lot better than saying you’ve never made a mistake. It was frustrating and it was tough. People don’t realize when people are talking trash about you on the radio and TV and writing columns about you that you’re family is listening and reading this stuff. My father, who has no understanding of this business whatsoever, was listening to the radio the day after that race in 1998 and just wanted to go fight whoever. I just told him you have to have thick skin.

RacingOne: You have to deal with Bruton Smith every day on some huge issues. Describe your relationship with him.

Gossage: It’s father-son-like. He’s an individual I care a lot about personally. He’s demonstrated he cares about me personally. He’s the greatest boss I’ve ever had. I love working for him. He is the most misunderstood man in auto racing. He is the fan’s best friend. The first thing he says to me every time we talk is, “What have you done for your fans today?” You can never do enough for the fans. We’ve done a lot of things at Texas Motor Speedway. We don’t sell beer, because in Texas if you sell beer, you can’t let the fans bring in their coolers. So, we let them bring in their coolers. That costs us $3 million a year. Bruton told me not to worry about it and do the right thing for the fans. We don’t charge for parking, and we’re the only sports entertainment venue in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area that doesn’t charge $8 to $10 for parking. That’s another $3 million a year. He says to do what is right for the fans. We’re the only speedway to go out and find a sponsor to underwrite the expenses for pole day. You can go to O’Reilly Auto Parts and pick up a free ticket to get into qualifying, which is a $15 ticket. We do that for Cup, Busch, truck, CART, IRL, for everybody. That’s another $2.5 million in revenue. So, that’s $8.5 million a year that directly goes back into the pockets of the fans. If he weren’t the fan’s best friend, he wouldn’t let us do those things. That goes back to why we sell out and other tracks are struggling. We don’t do all of those things. Street and Smith Business Journal did a survey and found out we’re the most affordable superspeedway in the sport – tickets, concessions, souvenirs – we’re the cheapest. That’s the way I want to do it and Bruton is fully on board with that. We make up for it in volume. He’s about 180 degrees opposite of what people think from reading newspapers and watching television. He’s just a warm, kind and very soft-hearted person.

RacingOne: So why is the perception of Bruton Smith that he’s a very standoffish and truculent person?

Gossage: I’m confused why he’d be standoffish because that’s exactly what the media wants him to do. If you’re in a position in this world to make the money he makes – and racing is only part of what he does because he’s the second-biggest car dealer in the world if I understand correctly and he has a lot of other businesses, too – I think you question the motives of some of the people around you. What do they really want from you? He’s only close to a few people, and that’s partly out of necessity. As a result of that arm’s link distance he keeps between himself and pretty much everybody, the media will perceive him in a different light. He doesn’t get close to a lot of folks, and I understand that.

RacingOne: Being as fan friendly as what you’re saying Texas Motor Speedway is, and NASCAR’s ongoing motto about being a fan friendly sport, why doesn’t the facility have a second Winston Cup date yet?

Gossage: You’d really have to ask that question to somebody over there in that red truck (the Winston Cup Series hauler at the track). I couldn’t tell you. I don’t know. It’s very frustrating to us. I know it’s frustrating to our fans, but it’s also pretty insulting to our fans. Apparently they’re not as valuable as others. My answer is I don’t know the answer. Only NASCAR knows it.

RacingOne: Our weekly question: What’s right and what’s wrong with NASCAR racing right now?

Gossage: What’s right is we haven’t forgotten where we came from and how we got here. It’s just fans, fans, fans. I listen to the fans… What’s wrong is we’re in danger in getting away from where we came from. That’s a growing-pain problem. That’s not unusual or unexpected, but that’s the danger. We have to make sure we don’t lose our “regular-guy,” in-touch nature that’s gotten us here. We work hard about it at Texas. Some other tracks have forgotten about it. Some other competitors in the sport have forgotten about it. The fans pay our salaries, all of us, including reporters, drivers, crew members and the guy who cleans up the track.

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