The Dallas Cowboys have taken a lot of ribbing about the hole in the roof of Texas Stadium, but at least there's an adequate football field inside. Not so fortunate is Texas's latest sports-architecture extravagance: Texas Motor Speedway, a tri-oval north of Fort Worth.
Judging from the tub-thumping by the Dallas- Fort Worth media last week, you would have thought Texas Intergalactic Gigaspeedway was opening, with luxury skyboxes that stretched for 15 miles and overlooked a trackside crowd of 20 million. In fact, Texas Motor Speedway has a double deck of sky suites spanning almost a mile. The track's grandstands, with 150,061 reserved seats, have the largest capacity any U.S. sports facility has ever had at its unveiling. There are 900 acres of parking lots (though rain last week turned the 500 unpaved acres into a useless quagmire) and nine helipads to accommodate the NASCAR moneyed elite. (That is no longer an oxymoron.) Nevertheless, the Texas speedway lacks one essential element: a race track that even approaches the standard set by the luxury boxes.
By Sunday's inaugural Interstate Batteries 500, Texas Motor Speedway chairman Bruton Smith's monument to creature comforts was known sarcastically as Bruton World among the guys who earn a living on the NASCAR circuit. The track is like a 1.5-mile roller coaster with no guide rail and cars traveling in excess of 200 mph as they approach the whoop-de-do turns, which are so ill-designed as to slow average lap speeds to the mundane 180s. Sterling Marlin, whose nerve is certified by two Daytona 500 wins, said of the Texas-twister turns, "You go through there telling yourself, I'm O.K., I'm O.K., I'm Oooooh!"
Drivers had barely begun practice runs last Thursday morning when rising star Ricky Craven failed to negotiate Turn 4 and hit the wall backward, suffering a concussion, a fractured right shoulder blade and two broken ribs. Soon thereafter a classic Texas gully washer set in, and the rain didn't let up until the early hours of Saturday, leaving drivers with nothing to do but ponder Craven's fate and fear for their own. They said that the exit of Turn 4 was too narrow, that the banking began too late in Turns 1 and 3 and that the dogleg in the front stretch was too sharp and too narrow, making it foolhardy to pass at the prime spectator spot. (What the dogleg configuration does is create more premium-priced seats.)
As feared, Sunday's race was marred by spinouts and crashes. On the opening lap, 13 cars wrecked in the first turn; at the halfway point, 26 of the 43 cars that started the race had been involved in accidents of varying severity. After his solo crash brought out the fifth caution flag of the day, Rusty Wallace said, "It's so difficult to drive out there, I really believe they are going to have to do a total reconstruction to get it right." Race winner Jeff Burton appeared more relieved than jubilant in victory lane. "It was a matter of being patient," he said, "and not screwing up."
Virtually to a man, the drivers wondered why Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc.—which also owns the NASCAR tracks in Atlanta: Bristol, Tenn.; Charlotte; and Sonoma, Calif.—could build a facility that was magnificent on all counts except the essential one. Truth is, in NASCAR's rush uptown—an abandonment of its backwoods roots for the big markets—the essence of the sport is disappearing at breakneck speed.
In order to get Texas Motor Speedway a date on the Winston Cup circuit, Smith spent $6 million to become part owner of rustic North Wilkesboro ( N.C.) Speedway. New Hampshire International Speedway owner Bob Bahre bought the remaining share of North Wilkesboro for $8 million. The two men cannibalized the historic track for its two Winston Cup dates, Smith taking one to use for Sunday's race and Bahre adding a second date at his track outside Boston. North Wilkesboro, located in the heart of the old moonshine country that gave birth to NASCAR, lies fallow. Now Smith and Roger Penske, whose own sure-to-dazzle California Speedway premieres outside Los Angeles in June, are in a bidding war for Rockingham ( N.C.) speedway. The stakes: Rockingham's two dates.
Last year, at the beginning of the end for North Wilkesboro, Charlotte Observer columnist Ron Green spoke for purists dismayed by NASCAR's callous dash to the big markets. "We have seen the best of NASCAR," he wrote, "and it is past."