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Pioneer Meyer Back Behind The Wheel At Motorplex

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 16 2015
The Texas Motorplex has a well-known man back at the helm for this weekend's racing.

The Texas Motorplex has a well-known man back at the helm for this weekend’s racing.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

ENNIS, Texas – Billy Meyer temporarily has re-assumed the duties of Texas Motorplex general manager, a role that might include diaper duty before the weekend has run its straight-line course.

nhra logoGabrielle Stevenson, Motorplex president/GM, officially is back on-site after giving birth this summer to twin sons Luke and Jake. During a visit to Gabby’s office-turned-nursery on Wednesday prior to this weekend’s 30th annual AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals, “Uncle Billy” welcomed the next generation of drag racing fans while reflecting upon his own ticking clock.

“It’s hard to believe I’ll be 62 next year, and it’s (The Plex) been half my life,” said Meyer, a former Funny Car driver who opened NHRA’s first “Supertrack” in September 1986. “I’m not the type to just quit working. With the staff we have here with Gabrielle, I don’t have to spend as much time as I used to on the day-to-day business. I handle more with the marketing and promotional side, and I guess you get smarter and manage better as you get older.”

In an era when new stick-and-ball palaces like AT&T Stadium _ aka Jerry’s World in nearby Arlington _ continue to raise the “wow factor” for fans and competitors, The Plex remains the standard for big-time drag racing. Meyer’s facility off U.S. Highway 287 in Ellis County introduced the three-story, stadium-style horseshoe tower with 28 enclosed corporate boxes to the sport, along with hospitality and meeting areas, 29,000 grandstand seats (since expanded to 40,000), upgraded media center and plenty of restrooms. And its post-tension/all-concrete quarter-mile surface was hailed as revolutionary. Before the Motorplex ramped-up, a major domestic drag racing facility had not been built in 11 years.

“Yeah, it’s kind of cool to be recognized for that,” Meyer said. “All the tracks now are still built in mimic style (of The Plex), I guess.”

Meyer won 12 NHRA Funny Car national events, 11 in the IHRA and that sanctioning body’s 1980 world championship during a career that spanned a decidedly less-corporate drag racing landscape from 1970 to 1987. “You’ll recall back then that NHRA and IHRA used to be equals, and we raced both because both had backing from Winston Drag Racing,” said Meyer, who counted the late T. Wayne Robertson, president of R.J. Reynolds’ Sports Marketing Enterprises, as confidant and corporate ally.

“My whole concept was I wanted to take care of the racers, sponsors and spectators because nobody had ever done that,” said Meyer, whose $8-million facility on what was once 540 acres of cornfield opened to rave reviews.

“I was at that inaugural race,” said Jack Beckman, far removed from his status as 2012 NHRA Funny Car world champion and current Countdown to the Championship contender. “I drove 500 miles one way from my Air Force base to sit in the stands and watch that race. I remember driving up on it in 1986. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, and out in the distance you see something that resembles more a baseball stadium than what would have been considered a contemporary drag strip, and it even has this digital sign out in front, and it was just so different. It took us to a new level and I think it showed the other racetrack operators and potential racetrack developers what they needed to compete against.

“That race yielded the quickest Top Fuel pass of all time (5.261-seconds over 1,320-feet by Darrell Gwynn), and that track was unlike any other back in that era. It really set the benchmark for it.  You know, lately you could say Bruton Smith has done similar things with Las Vegas (The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway) and now Charlotte (zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C.), and I think our fans have come to expect a higher standard of facilities. It probably started with Billy Meyer’s place in 1986.”

Indeed, the three drivers who emerged as class winners from the inaugural Chief Auto Parts Nationals stand as a drag racing icons _ “Big Daddy” Don Garlits in Top Fuel, Kenny Bernstein in Funny Car and Bob Glidden in Pro Stock.  Similarly, the Motorplex’s first Pro Stock Motorcycle national event in 1987 was won by George Bryce, who doubtlessly inspired a young Antron Brown.

“Oh, absolutely, and the thing about it is the Motorplex has always been a special place for me,” said Brown, who recorded 16 PSM national event victories before moving on to Top Fuel and a world title in 2012. “That was my first race win on Pro Stock Motorcycles back in 1999, with the Troy Vincent days and era. That place always has a special place in my heart.”

From the outset, the message was clear _ drag racing’s superstars shine bright deep in the heart of Ennis. “It started it all,” said Greg Anderson, a four-time Pro Stock world champion. “The Motorplex name was perfect for it. A lot of people have followed suit ever since, and now we’ve got a lot of great facilities on the circuit. It definitely started there. It’ll always be the Motorplex and it’s still just as good a race surface as it ever was. It’s still fun to go there.”

Meyer continues to be somewhat taken aback by the universal praise heaped upon the Motorplex.“It is kind of comical,” said Meyer, a resident of Spicewood, along the booming Austin corridor. “I’m recognized more for that (building The Plex) than for my Funny Car racing career, which was a top-four career at the time. Obviously, this lasted a whole lot longer than my racing. I got my Funny Car license when I was 16 in 1970. First two years I was still in high school, just racing match races. And I had a period when I drove for Gene Snow (of Fort Worth) and couple teams in California, so it had its on-and-offs.”

At 16, an ambitious Meyer became the youngest driver licensed to compete in a pro Funny Car. At 20, he became the youngest driver to win a national Funny Car race when he captured the IHRA Springnationals in Bristol, Tenn.

A graduate of Richfield High School, Meyer never attended college. He is, instead, a product of SMI _ Success Motivation Institute, Inc., of Waco _ a sales training, goal-setting, personal motivation company founded by his late father, Paul J. Meyer, in a garage converted into an office in January 1960.

“I was raised to never give mental recognition to the possibility of defeat,” Meyer said during an interview with this reporter that was published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on April 10, 1988. “I don’t look at things as how they are. I look at things how they can be. I just like to see things get done.”

Then a resident of Waco, Meyer basically could have built the Motorplex anywhere in the Lone Star State. Why Ennis? “Multiple reasons,” Meyer said. “I wanted to be on a four-lane divided highway because nobody had done that.” Meyer noted that racetracks back then typically were located off two-lane back roads where traffic jams were frustratingly common.

“Second, I needed to be in a city limits and in a county of over 50,000 people,” Meyer said, “because we were going to do our financing with an industrial revenue bond and that was part of the prerequisite to get the bond.

“Third, I needed to be in an area that was a wet precinct. Even though Ellis County was a dry county, Ennis was a wet precinct in a dry county. Be hard to have a racetrack and not sell Budweiser.”

Even with all those boxes checked, Meyer said his original business plan in 1985 covered 25 years of inhaling nitromethane and burning rubber, not to forget the ear-ringing noise. “The actual Metroplex area was growing south at the time because the Superconducting Super Collider was going to be here,” said Meyer, referencing a particle accelerator complex whose construction began in the Waxahachie vicinity during the mid-1980s. Unfortunately for the economy, the program was cancelled by Congress in October 1993 after a running up a reported $2-billion price tag.

“We assumed that the value of the property and the collision of households and stuff with a racetrack in the middle of it wouldn’t be worth fighting over, and we’d have to start over at another location,” Meyer said. “We learned in the early 1990s that we had a longer business plan (in Ennis). And of course, we wouldn’t have done all the improvements if we hadn’t had a longer business plan.

“I know it’s (The Plex) real, real important to this county that it’s here and may become more important as other sports stay north.”

Meyer said fan amenities _ particularly toilets _ always were prominent in the Motorplex’s original blueprints, based mainly upon his experiences courting sponsors.

“In 1981 I was the original Skoal Bandit race team,” Meyer said, “and I partnered with Hal Needham and Burt Reynolds where I had the team and would sell sponsorship and they would have a NASCAR team. First drag race was at Pomona (Calif.), and Hal Needham and his wife came to the race in a Rolls-Royce and she had a mink coat on. She was standing in the back of the starting line _ there was no tower _ when the cars were doing burnouts and got black stuff (tire rubber) all over her coat. And then ABC came over for an aerial shot with a helicopter and the wind blew her hair everywhere. She left and said she’s never coming back to a drag race.

“Then we go to Daytona for the 500 with Stan Barrett, the guy who was their NASCAR driver, and now we’re with Hal’s wife and the Chairman of the Board of U.S. Tobacco, Lou Bantle, drinking champagne in a suite. U.S. Tobacco’s headquarters were located in Connecticut and they decided to come to Englishtown, N.J., for the (NHRA) Summernationals in 1981.

“It’s July 1 in Englishtown, N.J. _ it’s 100 degrees, 80 percent humidity, all the camping and wild stuff was still going on like Woodstock, there’s no suites and no permanent bathrooms. Here’s Lou and his wife flying in in a Gulfstream private jet…and no bathrooms at the track. I was lucky in that (Top Fuel driver) Gary Beck had built a semi-trailer with a lounge in the front of it with a bathroom and air conditioning (where the Bantles eventually could relax).

“Anyway, at the end of the year U.S. Tobacco pulled their sponsorship from NHRA and stayed in NASCAR. So it wasn’t 1986 until they got back in with Don Prudhomme. Those experiences were on my mind. Here I am a young guy thinking we’re in a big league sport but we’re playing in Little League ballparks. I decided when I built a racetrack I was going to put more bathrooms in it than Texas Stadium. We went to Texas Stadium (in Irving) and counted them and I made sure I put in one more bathroom than them (176).

“And if you went to Texas Stadium for a Cowboys game, the bathrooms were wrecked by halftime. So we put fulltime attendants in the bathrooms to make sure every one was always clean. And then the all-concrete surface and the suites and our signage and our concessions were all different.”

The Motorplex operated as an NHRA-sanctioned facility through completion of its second national event weekend in 1987. Meyer then shook up the sport by purchasing the assets of the IHRA from founder Larry Carrier of Bristol, Tenn., in October 1987 for an undisclosed price. One of Meyer’s first decisions was to relocate IHRA headquarters to Waco, still home to Billy Meyer Racing.

On Nov. 5, two weeks after his purchase of the IHRA _ founded by Carrier in 1970 _ Meyer appeared before the NHRA Board of Directors and President Dallas Gardner with a proposal calling for a complex purchase of the NHRA’s assets and formation of a new, privately-owned corporation that would run drag racing. While his attempt came off as a hostile takeover, Meyer said then it was meant to be “just the opposite…a commonality.”

The NHRA board rejected the proposal, with NHRA founder Wally Parks _ a motorsports icon on par with any superstar  driver _ objecting in part because the plan would have put drag racing under the control of one person. While Meyer did not propose that he be “The One,” he made it obvious he planned on being an “integral part” of the new management team.

Meyer subsequently was not invited to participate in NHRA track owner’s meetings in December 1987. Meyer cited that as a breach of contract and filed a lawsuit in federal court against the NHRA. The NHRA filed a countersuit and dropped the Motorplex from its 16-race national event schedule in 1988.

Meyer briefly benefitted PR-wise on April 9, 1988, when popular Wichita Falls Top Fuel driver Eddie Hill recorded drag racing’s first 4-second quarter-mile pass at 4.990-seconds and 288.55 mph during the inaugural IHRA Kroger Texas Nationals. But only 17,840 fans witnessed that historic, rotate-the-earth moment shared by Eddie, wife Ercie and Terry “Fuzzy” Carter, crew chief on the yellow Super Shops/Pennzoil dragster affectionately dubbed the “Nuclear Banana.”

The acrimony finally ended when Meyer opted to sell the INHRA to partners Ted Jones and Jim Ruth of Bristol, Tenn., a transaction which cleared the way for Papal dispensation and the Motorplex’s official return to NHRA sanction on Jan. 1, 1989.

In 1991, NHRA signed a contract with Meyer awarding territorial exclusivity for the Motorplex and its national event. The original contract for five years and two five-year options granted Meyer the exclusive right to stage NHRA national events within a 100-mile radius of the Dallas-Fort Worth market. A series of five-year extensions have followed, rollover style. Meyer said 2015 marks the first of the latest five-year contract with the world’s largest motorsports sanctioning body and Peter Clifford, who succeeded Tom Compton as president in July after a 15-year tenure.

Meyer reiterated his personal commitment to NHRA and the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series as the Motorplex prepared to host Round 4 of the six-race Countdown playoffs.

“I love the sport,” Meyer said. “I make more money with other businesses that I own…but when you did something so long as a driver and you’ve got so many friends as racers and sponsors and all the NHRA guys…”

Meyer recalled his earliest dealings with John “Brute” Force, now a 16-time Funny Car world champion and drag racing’s pre-eminent personality, but a wannabe driver during the winter of 1972 in Southern California.

“I used to live in the winter at John Force’s cousin’s house, with Steve Condit and his parents,” Meyer said. “Steve was owner of the L.A. Hooker Funny Car driven by Dave Condit; Steve and Bill Condit worked on it and Bill ended up working for me in 1974. John Force would come over and watch us work on the car in the winter. He was a truck driver then and not racing. So I’ve known John for 43 years _ is that crazy? When you know people that long, it’s hard to know much else as friends.”

AAA TEXAS NHRA FALLNATIONALS FACTS

2014 EVENT WINNERS _ Tony Schumacher, Top Fuel; Courtney Force, Funny Car; Dave Connolly, Pro Stock; Andrew Hines, Pro Stock Motorcycle.

MOST VICTORIES _ John Force, Funny Car, 7; Tony Schumacher, Top Fuel, 6; Warren Johnson, Pro Stock, 5; Cruz Pedregon, Funny Car, 4; Greg Anderson, Pro Stock, 4.

TRACK RECORDS

Top Fuel _ 3.761-seconds by J.R. Todd, Sept. ’14; 326.71 mph by Doug Kalitta, Sept. ’14

Funny Car _ 4.039-seconds and 314.90 mph by Courtney Force, Sept. ’14

Pro Stock _ 6.550-seconds and 211.99 mph by Allen Johnson, Sept. ’12

Pro Stock Motorcycle _ 6.828-seconds by Hector Arana Jr., Sept. ’11; 197.22 mph by Michael Phillips, Sept. ’11

NATIONAL RECORDS

Top Fuel _ 3.680-seconds by Antron Brown, Aug. ‘15, Brainerd, Minn.; 332.75 mph by Spencer Massey, Aug. ‘15, Brainerd, Minn.

Funny Car _ 3.897-seconds by Jack Beckman, Oct. ‘15, Reading, Pa.; 330.47 mph by Matt Hagan, Sept. ‘15, Madison, Ill.

Pro Stock _6.455-seconds by Jason Line, March ’15, Concord, N.C.; 215.55 mph by Erica Enders-Stevens, May ‘14, Englishtown, N.J.

Pro Stock Motorcycle _ 6.728-seconds by Andrew Hines, Oct. ’12, Reading, Pa.; 199.88 mph by Hector Arana Jr., March ’15, Concord, N.C.

TELEVISION _ ESPN2 will televise one hour of qualifying coverage Sunday at 4 p.m. (EDT). The network also will air three hours of coverage Sunday starting at 8 p.m. (EDT).

TICKETS _ Call (800) 668-6775. Tickets also are available at www.texasmotorplex.com.

POINT STANDINGS _ Top-10 following the third of six playoff races in the NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, and the 21st of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series:

Top Fuel _ 1. Antron Brown, 2,432; 2. Tony Schumacher, 2,338; 3. Brittany Force, 2,238; 4. Larry Dixon, 2,234; 5. Richie Crampton, 2,187; 6. J.R. Todd, 2,181; 7. Shawn Langdon, 2,177; 8. Doug Kalitta, 2,173; 9. Steve Torrence, 2,160; 10. Dave Connolly, 2,158.

Funny Car _ 1. Del Worsham, 2,361; 2. Jack Beckman, 2,345; 3. Matt Hagan, 2,271; 4. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,263; 5. Ron Capps, 2,256; 6. John Force, 2,211; 7. Cruz Pedregon, 2,169; 8. Tim Wilkerson, 2,162; 9. Alexis DeJoria, 2,154; 10. Robert Hight, 2,140.

Pro Stock _ 1. Erica Enders, 2,385; 2. Greg Anderson, 2,313; 3. Chris McGaha, 2,281; 4. Larry Morgan, 2,240; 5. Allen Johnson, 2,227; 6. Drew Skillman, 2,212; 7. Vincent Nobile, 2,187; 8. Jason Line, 2,179; 9. Shane Gray, 2,149; 10. Jonathan Gray, 2,119.

Pro Stock Motorcycle _ 1. Andrew Hines, 2,378; 2. Eddie Krawiec, 2,289; 3. Hector Arana Jr., 2,277; 4. Jerry Savoie, 2,259; 5. Matt Smith, 2,244; 6. Chip Ellis, 2,223; 7. Karen Stoffer, 2,199; 8. Hector Arana, 2,167; 9. Jim Underdahl, 2,126; 10. Scotty Pollacheck, 2,076.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, October 16 2015
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