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NHRA Notes: Drivers Love Billy Meyer’s Place

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, September 21 2010

Robert Hight brought home a Wally last year from the Texas Motorplex. (File photo courtesy of the NHRA)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

During a time when new stick-and-ball stadiums continue to raise the “wow factor” for fans and competitors, Texas Motorplex remains the standard for big-time drag racing.

Track-owner Billy Meyer’s facility in Ennis will play host to the 25th annual O’Reilly Super Start Batteries NHRA Fall Nationals Thursday through Sunday, and a pair of world champions are anxious to get re-acquainted with an old friend.

“When I first saw the Motorplex, it was like seeing Rome. It was like, ‘You’re kidding me!’ ” said 14-time Funny Car champion John Force. “This thing built out in the middle of nowhere but in a great marketplace that drew from all corners of Texas. Right next to Dallas and this thing was this giant stadium. It looked like where the Romans fought, the gladiators, the lions and all that stuff.  It was like, ‘Wow!’ ”

Almost to the word, two-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Larry Dixon has similar memories of the first time he saw The Plex. “I still vividly have the picture in my mind driving south on (Highway) 287 and coming up on the track and just seeing it off on the left-hand side,” Dixon said. “I mean, it was like the Roman Coliseum. It was just like, ‘Wow, you’ve got to be kidding me!’ Because they didn’t have any of the wraparound towers…nobody had done anything like that and the stadium seating and stuff.

“And we weren’t running down the straightaway at Darlington or something. This was all for drag racing, nothing else. And it was just like…all for us. That was the coolest – that Billy Meyer would invest that kind of money into us drivers. That made you feel proud to be in the sport.”

Meyer, a former Funny Car driver, changed the look and perception of drag racing in 1986 with the Motorplex’s stadium-style horseshoe and tunnel entrance design, fan amenities including enclosed corporate boxes, hospitality and meeting areas and an upgraded media center. And plenty of toilets.

NHRA’s annual fall visit clearly is the highlight of the Motorplex’s schedule. But the venue hosts a number of racing and car show events between March and November each year and also features the Champions Club, an 11,000 square-foot facility serving fully-catered events throughout the year.

More important to NHRA’s Professional and Sportsman drivers is the Motorplex’s all-concrete surface. “That means you can race on it, you can set national records, and I did there,” said Force, Funny Car points-leader heading into Round 3 of the NHRA’s six-race Countdown to the Championship.

“It’s a great place. Billy Meyer was an innovator that knew the dream and he delivered, of that time, the state-of-the-art,” said Force, driver of the Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang. “Today there’s only a few stadiums that compare with him. Most of them are built by Bruton Smith, but his is still ‘the one.’ When you come down that freeway, there it is.”

Dixon returns to Ennis for the 20th race in the 23-event Full Throttle Drag Racing Series as Top Fuel points-leader after scoring three consecutive victories. Included were the opening two Countdown events – the prestigious Mac Tools U.S. Nationals outside Indianapolis and the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals at zMax Dragway in Concord, N.C.

But the native Californian was a 20-year-old mechanic, working as bottom-end engine specialist for Larry Minor Racing, during the inaugural NHRA national event weekend at the Motorplex.

“It was a big awakening for all of us,” said Dixon, driver of the Al-Anabi Racing Dragster. “An all-concrete track – holy cow. There’s places we went that only had 60-feet of concrete. We come here and you got 1,320-feet of concrete. That’s unheard of. And then especially in the early years, before NHRA got prepping the racetracks, this track was so far ahead of its time. You’d come here and see Don Garlits and Darrell Gwynn taking blows each session, re-setting the records and it was just like bam-bam-bam. I mean, everybody kept anteing-up.

“It was the first supertrack and right now…each track, they run out of ways to ante-up and now they’re trying to do four lanes (at zMax Dragway). And we’ll see how that goes.  But the Motorplex was the first supertrack on the tour and now everybody that builds a track, that’s the minimum standard. You’ve got to have everything that this place does. It helped our sport tremendously.”

Silver Wally to mark anniversary: Silver-plated Wally trophies will be awarded to winning drivers Sunday in honor of the Texas Motorplex’s 25th anniversary celebration.

The O’Reilly Super Start Batteries NHRA Fall Nationals will be the lone event offering the distinctive hardware, named in honor of NHRA founder Wally Parks, in 2010. NHRA competitors raced at two 25th anniversary venues in 2009 but only received a silver Wally at Firebird Raceway in Chandler, Ariz. Eddie Krawiec, the 2008 NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle world champion, earned the PSM victory in Reading, Pa., last year but didn’t receive a silver Wally.

“Every win and every Wally is spectacular because it takes so much from an entire team of people to get to the final round and earn that victory,” said Krawiec, rider of the Screamin’ Eagle/Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson V-Rod. “But any time you can be part of history and win an anniversary race and take home a unique Wally is even more special.

“We earned the runnerup spot at Texas Motorplex in 2009, and I’m going to do everything possible to get back to the final round but take the win light this time.”

“Big Daddy” returns to The Plex: Drag racing legend “Big Daddy” Don Garlits will be a special guest of Texas Motorplex during the track’s 25th anniversary celebration this weekend.

Not only is Garlits the first racer to win an NHRA Top Fuel event at the Motorplex, he also is an Eagle Scout. As such, Garlits will help celebrate the Boy Scouts of America’s 100th anniversary on Saturday. The Motorplex is offering all Boy Scouts exclusive activities, merit badge advancement opportunities and a discount on tickets Saturday, which will feature the third and final rounds of Professional qualifications for the O’Reilly Super Start Batteries NHRA Fall Nationals.

“Garlits has meant so much to the sport and has been one of those bigger-than-life figures for some time,”  said Gabrielle Stevenson, Texas Motorplex general manager. “When Billy Meyer (Motorplex owner) called and asked him to join our celebration, Garlits didn’t hesitate. He’s going to bring a car and help fans celebrate our anniversary as well as the Boy Scouts’ anniversary. Garlits has his Boy Scout uniform hanging in his museum (in Ocala, Fla.), so it’s a special organization to him to this day.

“Texas Motorplex was lucky on that first NHRA race day in 1986. Garlits won Top Fuel, Kenny Bernstein earned the Funny Car win and Bob Glidden earned the Pro Stock title. That’s three incredible legends kicking off our racing history in style, and we will have one of those cars back at the track during the 2010 event.”

Bernstein, a former Top Fuel and Funny Car champion, remains active on the NHRA tour as owner of the Copart Top Fuel Dragster driven by son Brandon. And Glidden, a 10-time Pro Stock champion, entered but failed to qualify for the 16-car field during last weekend’s Countdown race at zMax Dragway.

NHRA racers to bowl with fans: A bowling party for NHRA drivers and their fans will kick off Texas Motorplex’s 25th anniversary celebration Thursday at Splitsville in Arlington.

Fans are invited to join a number of NHRA champions, tour regulars and supporters at Splitsville, located at 401 Curtis Mathes Way in Arlington. Racers will sign autographs, hand out Texas Motorplex cupcakes and bowl with fans from 6-8 p.m.

Racers confirmed for the event are Larry Dixon, Robert Hight, Greg Anderson, Jason Line, Hector Arana, Andrew Hines, Eddie Krawiec, Jeg Coughlin Jr., Cory McClenathan, Melanie Troxel, Del Worsham, Morgan Lucas, Shawn Langdon, Larry Morgan, Karen Stoffer, Roger Burgess, Raymond Commisso and Jay Payne.

Chef Pugh working the menu: Guests who purchase Champions Club seats for the 25th anniversary racing weekend will be treated to the culinary works of Chef Ivan Pugh. Owner of The Alligator Café for seven years, Pugh specializes in Cajun and Creole favorites with a Southern flair.

Champions Club tickets remain available. For complete ticket information, call (800) MOTORPLEX or visit the Web at www.texasmotorplex.com.

Daily on-track information: Gates will open for the O’Reilly Super Start Batteries NHRA Fall Nationals at 10 a.m. on Thursday, with Sportsman qualifying scheduled between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Gates will open at 8:30 a.m. on Friday, with Sportsman qualifying starting at 8:30 a.m. The first two of four rounds of Professional qualifications are scheduled for 2:15 p.m. and 5:15 p.m.

Gates will open at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, with Sportsman eliminations starting at 8 a.m. The final two rounds of Professional qualifications are scheduled for 11:15 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Gates will open at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, with pre-race ceremonies starting at 10 a.m. and final Professional eliminations beginning at 11 a.m.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, September 21 2010
One Comment

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  • Rob Garrett says:

    I was at the Motorplex the day it opened and saw Eddie Hill run his first 5.39 there. At the time he’d never run a 5.40. I was also there when he ran the first 4. One of my favorite things to do was to be at the track during the Nationals as soon as it opened – all four days – cruising the pits and picking out my favorite Stock and Super Stock racers to root for. In those ranks I’ve always been a lonely Pontiac fan. In Pro Stock I always rooted for Bob Glidden, as did my then-toddler son – except when he as up against Bruce Allen. For some reason he was a huge Bruce Allen fan and he sure would glare at me whenever I’d root against him. He started going with me to the Nationals before he started school, and we never missed a race for many years. He got to meet Bruce and the team at the All Star event during the period when the Reher-Morrison team was sponsored by Levi Garrett. He was speechless and star-stuck the whole time, even when Bruce gave him a Levi Garrett hat, but as soon as we walked away he started jabbering about the experience so rapidly he could barely get his breath. We were still within ear shot of the team and they all thought it was hilarious.
    My son is grown now, out on his own, and successful. I remember Buster’s farewell season and still have a hat he signed. We didn’t know at the time that he was ill. We haven’t been to the Nationals in quite a few years. Neither of us knows exactly why, but it has to do partially with our perception that all the old rivalries, innovation, and other things that made all the teams different from each other are mostly gone. In the fuel ranks especially it seems that folks are racing bank accounts instead of cars. Remember Bernstein’s towel? I also remember each year, my son and I going out to the Motorplex trying to predict how many national records would get reset during the weekend. I’m not sure one can even talk about records now with 1000′ racing. Driver safety is super important and I hate that drivers have been killed or maimed, I just wish there’d been some other way to address the problem. Maybe someday we’ll get back into it, my son and I. Those days we spent together at the track and watching the Diamond P coverage on cable were really special. Maybe when we get the 69 GTO we’ve been working on done we’ll go out some weekend and see what it’s got.