Two Races Too Many?

FORT WORTH -- The usually talkative and rambunctious Bruton Smith kept a strangely low profile last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, staying away from the television cameras and reporters in the infield media center.

The reason for the venue owner’s behavior could be centered around his reluctance at this time to answer questions about a possible second date for his 1.5-mile Texas track, which he has lobbied hard and unsuccessfully for over the past few years. Sunday’s Harrah’s 500 at TMS drew 211,000 fans.

Smith was never granted a date for his Texas track by NASCAR officials in the first place. Instead, he bought half of North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway in 1996 -- with the other half going to New Hampshire International Speedway owner Bob Bahre -- and transferred one of its dates to Texas. That gave New Hampshire two Winston Cup dates.

Smith is the chairman of the board of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns TMS, along with facilities in Charlotte, Las Vegas, Bristol, Sears Point and Atlanta. But the repeated advances of Smith to get a second Winston Cup race date at Texas has started to grow thin on some longtime NASCAR supporters.

“If NASCAR had it to do over again, nobody would have two races,” said Jim Hunter, vice-president of International Speedway Corporation, the parent company of NASCAR. “I think Bruton Smith has said he’s going to get a second race here at Texas for so long he’s starting to believe it.”

Winston Cup race dates are at a premium, and many insiders believe Smith is wasting his breath by his needling of NASCAR over the matter. The hot rumor heading in the weekend at Texas was Smith had made an offer to buy Darlington Raceway in order to move its two dates to his Fort Worth and Las Vegas tracks.

“I think I’m in a pretty good position to know if Darlington’s for sale, and I haven’t heard anything about it,” joked Hunter, who recently stepped aside as the track president at Darlington to take his new post with NASCAR. “I’m still the vice president of ISC you know.

“Everybody knows what that’s all about. It’s about Bruton’s wish for a second date at Texas and everybody knows it. Anybody that’s been in this business knows Bill France just said there’s not going to be a second date here. Why Bruton continues to bring Darlington into it is beyond me because I don’t know what his agenda is.

“For all they (SMI) have contributed to our sport, for Bruton to keep coming up with this stuff… there are more pressing issues in this business today than Bruton Smith’s personal agenda.”

While Smith kept a low profile, Eddie Gossage, the vice president and general manager at Texas, said Sunday morning that he’s not given up hope on the Winston Cup tour rolling into his track twice a season.

“I think there’s movement and positive dialog on it,” Gossage said Sunday morning. “I just came from a meeting with Jim Hunter and Brian France, we sat down and talked for about 10 minutes. I felt like there’s some positive and light at the end of the tunnel for the first time in recent years. We all share the same purpose and that’s to make this sport bigger.

“Jim Hunter had never been here before, and he’s just walking around with eyes popping out of his head because he can’t believe how big this place is and how it’s run, plus how the supportive the fans are.

“We’re making progress, and you won’t hear a bad word from me about NASCAR because they’re really working hard to try and make things good for all of us. I think it will happen shortly. Don’t mistake that to mean we’re getting another date next year or the year after that, I don’t know, but I am starting to see some movement.”

As far as Winston Cup drivers go, some seem divided on the issue of whether Texas should get a second date. Veteran Kyle Petty falls under the category of those who feel as if Texas officials should be appreciative of what it has already.

“No market deserves two races, that’s just my personal opinion,” Petty said. “With the sport as healthy as it is now, you don’t need two dates. Indianapolis survives on just one race, so why can’t Texas? It gets one race just like Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Kansas City. When you look at it like that, these places that have been in the sport for 50 years might deserve two races and maybe they deserve it. The new tracks only need one race.”

Others share a different opinion.

“I feel like it deserves another one,” rookie Andy Houston said. “They have a good crowd and the fans really get excited, but they do need to work on the traffic problem a little bit. This place is pretty hard to get in and out of, but other than that it’s a great facility. I think it would be good for them to have another Winston Cup race.”

The traffic situation has become a legendary issue at Texas. Following Dale Jarrett’s victory Sunday, there was a stream of taillights burning well past 8 p.m. local time -- some five hours after the race -- from cars awaiting to hit the two-lane interstate which runs near the track.

Before the race, it was much the same scenario, with traffic lined up for miles even after the green flag was dropped.

Rusty Wallace is a big fan of racing at Texas, and he believes the track should be given another race, just as long as that race is a replacement for an existing date.

“I wished we’d run here a second time,” Wallace said. “I like coming to Texas a lot, but somebody is going to have to give up a date because we sure as hell can’t add another one. There’s no way in the world we can do that. In my opinion, we need about six races off the schedule. We need to be running about 30 races at the most because 36 races are way too much. If Texas gets a second date, we have to get other dates off the schedule.”

Some of the other drivers would just as soon not get involved in the ongoing saga between Smith and NASCAR.

“I’ll be honest, the drivers have no say-so over something like that,” Ricky Rudd said. “So, it’s one of those deals where why should we worry about something we can’t do anything about. We’ve got plenty of things to worry about like making our cars handle and not get caught up in the debate of who needs a second date or whether we’re racing too many dates. Texas is a first-class facility, I’ll give it that.

“The place is an amazing facility and you can tell a lot of money has been spent. Texas has kind of set the benchmark and it forces the other tracks to catch up. That’s the good thing about coming to Texas -- they put pressure on other places to have a facility like this. With some of these tracks, all they seem worried about is building new grandstands, and it doesn’t matter how they build them, they just throw them up. This place has always done a good job.”

Rudd’s team owner, Robert Yates, said with the new 36-race schedule in 2001, not including the two non-points races in Charlotte and Daytona, NASCAR needs to be worried about helping reduce the heavy burden placed on all the teams and drivers.

“The people in Texas are great and so is the track,” Yates said. “We wouldn’t have a problem coming back here again, but we just don’t have any open weekends left. That’s up to NASCAR and we race where they tell us to race, but we wouldn’t have a problem at all with racing at Texas twice. We need these new markets like Texas, and maybe one day we’ll need to have just one race at each track. We can’t race on Wednesday nights.”

Houston agrees with the thoughts of the veteran Winston Cup team owner.

“The only fair way to do it for everybody that wants races is for everybody to have one race,” Houston said. “But then you have a lot of places like Charlotte, Darlington and Rockingham that have two dates, and they’ve been around a long time. There are so many new tracks out there, maybe they need to give everybody one date, so then nobody can complain.”

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