Texas track has come a long way in 10 years


Bruton Smith built it, and NASCAR came to Texas Motor Speedway. And then the green flag dropped to kick off the first Winston Cup race at the track in 1997.

And the field started wrecking.

A year later, water seeped through the track, sparking more controversy.

Finally, the track was reconfigured and the competitors were happy.

Smith, wasn't, however, since the facility was hosting just one Cup race a year. Smith insisted NASCAR's Bill France Jr. had assured him that the track would have two dates per year.

Tensions ebbed and flowed until, finally, a shareholder in Smith's Speedway Motorsports Inc. filed suit against NASCAR, saying the track should have a second date.

Finally, a compromise was made. International Speedway Corp., which is controlled by the France family, agreed to sell Rockingham to SMI. At that point, SMI transferred Rockingham's lone Cup date to Texas.

It was NASCAR's version of "peace in our time."

As NASCAR gathers in Texas this weekend, the track is celebrating its 10th anniversary -- and searching for its 11th different winner in as many Cup races.

It's been a short, strange trip for the facility -- one drivers now enjoy visiting. That, however, wasn't always the case.

Michael Waltrip remembers how he felt going to the track the first time -- and how he felt after being there awhile.

"When Texas opened it was so great because the fans were awesome and the place looked so big and nice," Waltrip said. "I couldn't wait to get there. But once we raced on it, that feeling went away.

"The track originally made me sick to my stomach, because you just couldn't race there. It wasn't much fun for the drivers or the fans. Thankfully, [track president] Eddie Gossage and his team listened to the drivers and spent the money to make Texas Motor Speedway one of the best tracks on the circuit today. Last year we were able to race two- and three-wide. That kind of racing puts on a good show for the fans and lets the drivers race. It's one of my favorite tracks now."

Having won at TMS, it's also one of Elliott Sadler's favorite tracks. And in his way, the Virginian figures he played something of a historic role at the facility back while he was still in the Busch Series.

"I think I was the first-ever race car on [the track] when I brought my Busch car down [there] in 1997 with Diamond Ridge [Motorsports]. I think we were the first-ever car to test here," Sadler said. "I think the [other drivers] just weren't used to such a fast racetrack.

"I think they had it pictured in their head that this was another Charlotte and another Atlanta, but when they got here the straightaways were a little bit shorter, the curves were a little bit longer and it was just a lot faster racetrack. I think that caught everybody off guard. When you have new asphalt we're going to run single-file, that's just the way it is, but now this track has aged. This track is going to get better and better each and every year the more it ages."

Sadler admits the fact he's won there greatly contributes to the comfort level each time he returns.

"It's comforting for me because I try to explain it to people like this, some golfers go to certain golf courses and it fits their swing or their golf game better," Sadler said. "This track fits my driving style. I love [that] place. I know when I leave pit road for the first lap where I need to be on the track, how much throttle I need to have, how much brake -- the whole nine yards -- and I have a sense of comfort [there], probably more than anywhere else we go."

Jeff Burton recorded his first Cup win in that wreck-plagued '97 event and enjoys the notoriety that still accompanies the win. He's just hoping to add to that legacy this time around.

"It's cool to go to Texas as the inaugural winner," he said. "It's a beautiful facility. The track has gone through several changes since then, but I'll always be the first winner there no matter what happens. It would be even cooler to have that win, then 10 years later win again, and it's something we have a chance to do. It would be an honor to win at Texas on their 10th anniversary and to be able to show that longevity of winning the first one then come back 10 years later to win again."

If Burton does just that, he'll do so on a track he now really enjoys. He's among the many who point out that tracks with fresh asphalt aren't that great to run on, which is why the track is so much better now that it hasn't been repaved in years.

"The best thing we can have is really old racetracks with old asphalt," Burton said. "That's when you have your best racing. Texas is absolutely the best it has ever been right now."

Terry Labonte, in his final Cup season, has two races left at the only track in his native Texas. Labonte won there in 1999 with Hendrick Motorsports and will be back in one of that team's Chevrolets after running the first five races with Hall of Fame Racing.

Races in Texas hold a special place in Labonte's heart.

"It's a great facility. I always look forward to going down there," Labonte said. "We've got a lot of friends and relatives that come up for the race there.

"When Bruton Smith and those guys built that track down there, I don't think the people down there realized how big a deal it was going to be. It's just been a huge success. It really makes you proud to be from Texas, you go down there and have a facility like that."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com