Hall Of Famer Billy Meyer Is Flushed With Pride

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 12 2020

A young, long-haired Billy Meyer gets a handshake after winning at Orange County International Raceway in 1972.

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

The numbers that define Billy Meyer’s drag racing career include one IHRA Funny Car World Championship, 12 NHRA Funny Car national event victories…and 176 restrooms.

The first two stats cover Meyer’s career as nitromethane Funny Car driver/tuner, a barnstorming journey that began as a brash teenager. The latter figure confirms Meyer’s status as visionary builder/owner of the Texas Motorplex, big-time drag racing’s first stadium-style, fan-and-corporate friendly facility dating to the fall of 1986.

And as Meyer’s management team begins to celebrate The Plex’s 35th season in Ennis, the key element behind that build remains the opportunity to find and flush a clean toilet. It’s an anecdote Meyer likely will recount during induction ceremonies Thursday night in Gainesville, Fla., as a member of the 2020 class of the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.

“We put in one more bathroom than Texas Stadium when we built it (the Motorplex). That’s a true story,” Meyer said during a phone interview with RacinToday.com. “Here I am a young guy thinking we’re in a big league sport but we’re playing in Little League ballparks, no question.  But I didn’t understand the extent of how much it hurt each area of the sport _ because you have spectators and sponsors and race teams _ those three elements. I always thought about it as the racer originally because I’m worried about bad racetracks and bad shutoff areas and things like that.

“I decided when I built a racetrack I was going to put more bathrooms in it than Texas Stadium. We went to Texas Stadium (formerly located in Irving and famous for its hole-in-the-roof) and counted them and I made sure I put in one more bathroom than them. 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.”

Meyer and his five classmates were notified last October by the selection committee of the IDRHOF, which is housed at The Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Fla. Meyer ‘s classmates are Supercharged Gasser legend  Robert “Bones” Balogh, championship-winning nitro crew chief Lee Beard, Jr. Fuel standout Don Enriquez, Pro Stock driver/instructor Roy Hill and former nitro team-owner/driver Larry Minor. 

Billy Meyer lights up the tires of the Pontiac Firebird in race in 1982.

The HOF Founder’s Award will honor Don Prieto while the Partricia Garlits Memorial Award will be presented to Etta Glidden, wife of Bob Glidden, the late 10-time NHRA Pro Stock world champion. Thursday’s ceremonies will serve as a prelude to the 51st annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway.

“This is quite an honor for me and everyone that supported me throughout my racing career, especially my wife Deborah,” said Meyer, a 65-year-old resident of Spicewood, Texas, a community along the trendy Austin corridor. “I fell in love with drag racing as a teenager and never looked back.”

Since Meyer’s competitive driving career ended in 1987, his track record largely has been overlooked by a generation of fans. Meyer won 12 NHRA Funny Car national events, 11 in the IHRA and that rival sanctioning body’s 1980 World Championship during a career that spanned a decidedly less-corporate drag racing landscape from 1970 to 1987.

Born on May 12, 1954 in Miami, Billy’s family moved to Waco when he was 4-years-old. Billy’s need for speed began in go-karts before switching to drag racing as a teen. He remains the youngest person _ at age 16 _ to earn a Funny Car license.  Still in his teens, Billy left home in 1972 six weeks after graduation from Richfield High School to pursue a full-time racing career.

Meyer described his late parents, Paul J. and Betty Meyer, as “very devout, strong Christian individuals.” But Billy did not come home from school to find Ward and June Cleaver waiting for him in the kitchen.

“I wouldn’t say I was in a dysfunctional family. I was in a divorced family at 14,” Meyer said. “My dad ended up authoring quite a few Christian books and my mom was a sweetheart. And they both found someone that was more compatible to their personalities. But I was on my own, if you want to call it that, when my dad left home and so I was probably wilder than most people.

A trip to Canada in 1977 ended up badly for drag racer Billy Meyer.

“I had been racing go-karts from when I was 9 _ my mom called me ‘Wild Bill’ and my dad called me ‘Wide Open.’ That kind of fits my personality. I live large. I love every day and try to get the most out of everything I’ve tried. If I do anything I’m going to try to win, whether it’s playing ping-pong or golf or whatever. I just happen to have a pretty competitive personality.”

Meyer never attended college. He is, instead, a product of SMI _ Success Motivation Institute, Inc. _ a sales training, goal-setting, personal motivation company founded by his father 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. “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.

“The way I was raised…I think everybody knows the motto that my dad had famously authored as part of his company _ don’t ever give recognition to the possibility of defeat. Or…’Whatever you vividly imagine, ardently desire and sincerely believe in and enthusiastically act upon must inevitably come to pass.’ So when you’re raised like that, it’s kind of a damn the torpedoes/straight ahead mentality. I think everybody knew how competitive I was and still am.”

In the fall of 1972, 18-year-old Billy won drag racing’s most prestigious independent Funny Car race, the 1972 Manufacturers Funny Car Championship at Orange County International Raceway in Irvine, Calif. “I went on tour, one employee and me and a truck and an enclosed trailer and crew cab pickup,” Billy said. “I luckily won the Manufacturer’s Funny Car Championship, which was back then the biggest race in America for Funny Cars with 64 cars. It was kind of like winning The Masters at 18, so that got me a whole lot of recognition which helped me get all the bookings and things going.”

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

The Texas Metroplex in Ennis. Billy Meyer was big on bathrooms.

After winning at Bristol, Billy claimed the No. 1 qualifying position at the prestigious NHRA U.S. Nationals outside Indianapolis in his Mustang flopper.  Meyer finally won his first NHRA race three years later _ following an ill-fated, two-year hiatus to pursue the land speed record _ when he beat Funny Car pioneer “Big Jim” Dunn in the final of the 1977 NHRA Fall Nationals at Pacific Raceways in Kent, Wash.

In 112 NHRA races, Meyer advanced to the final round 22 times, or 20 percent. He won 12 of those national event finals, or 55 percent. 

Meyer finished as NHRA Funny Car point runnerup to Dallasite Raymond Beadle in 1980, Frank Hawley in 1982 and Mark Oswald in 1984. Billy’s 1982 season included a victory at the U.S. Nationals, NHRA’s longest-running national event. Meyer’s colorful list of peers during that period and through 1987 included Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen, Ed “The Ace” McCulloch, John “Brute” Force, Kenny Bernstein, Tom Hoover and Dale Pulde _ a bona fide list of Funny Car legends.

Meyer: “I never looked at anybody as a legend, including myself. I was just younger than everybody and kind of wanted to prove a point.” Meyer did so by finishing in the top-10 of the Winston Series Championship in 10 of the 11 seasons in which he pursued the world title.

Meyer also partnered with Hal Needham and actor Burt Reynolds in the Budweiser Rocket Car _ the first land vehicle to break the sound barrier by traveling at 739.666 mph at Edwards Air Force Base in California in October 1979.

Meyer won eight IHRA Funny Car races in 13 final-round appearances and the series’ Winston Funny Car World Championship in 1980. As was the case in NHRA, Billy served as his own crew chief for all but the last six months of his career. That was just another element in a career that came so very close to going over the edge…and actually, into a lake.

“There was the time I drowned in Lakeland, Florida,” Meyer said, recalling the 1973 IHRA Winternationals. “I was 18 and they brought me back after going off the end (of the strip) with the throttle hanging wide-open with the chutes not coming out.” Knocked unconscious, Meyer was pulled from his Mustang’s submerged chassis by crewman Ronnie Guymon, who drove the team’s truck through a multi-level barbed-wire fence that had stopped the rescue crew and dove into the water.

“And then the stupid pit accident in Pomona, when my cowboy boot got stuck underneath the bellhousing just warming the car up,” said Meyer, alluding to an incident that occurred on the Thursday of the 1977 NHRA Winternationals. Meyer’s Success Motivation Institute Motivator Chevrolet Camaro ran into his van, a competitor’s truck and hit a Porta Potty…reportedly knocking fellow-Funny Car driver John Collins out of it.

“I mean, that was kind of crazy,” said Meyer, whose list of injuries began with180 stitches. “I was in a coma for three days, broke my collarbone, broke all my ribs and punctured my lung. That was probably the worst by far, and it wasn’t even on the racetrack.”

Meyer also suffered potentially life-altering burn injuries when the engine in his car exploded at the Le Grandnational in Quebec during the summer of 1977. The engine detonated moments after Billy had defeated Al Hanna in Round One. The resulting fire left Meyer with second- and third-degrees burns to his hands. Both hands remained bandaged for eight months, he couldn’t play golf for five years and almost lost both thumbs.

“Life-altering? Yeah, because I never could have hitch-hiked. Wouldn’t have a thumb,” Meyer joked. “That was not a wreck. That was an explosion and a fire and what happened was we had vented fuel caps back then to vent the fuel tanks. When it’s sucking fuel through the motor that vent is open, so the fire went down the vent and it exploded the fuel tank. So there was a double explosion, which made it hotter. I was in the fire so long it stopped, because it was a finish line fire, that it burned the stitching out of the gloves. That’s why my hands got burned. I mean, I didn’t get burned anywhere else.”

Meyer won the last tour event in which he competed, beating McCulloch at the 1987 Winston Finals in Pomona before retiring at age 33 to pursue family interests and devote more time to his diverse business portfolio. “When I got out of the seat, I turned my attention to the Texas Motorplex wanting to assist in taking the sport to the next level,” Meyer said.

In an era when stick-and-ball palaces like AT&T Stadium _ aka Jerry’s World in Arlington, Texas _ continue to raise the “wow factor” for fans and competitors, The Plex remains the standard for professional drag racing. Built at a cost of $8-million, 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 approximately 36,800), dedicated media center and all those restrooms.

Additionally, the Motorplex’s post-tension/all-concrete quarter-mile surface remains revolutionary. Before the Motorplex ramped-up, a major domestic drag racing facility had not been built in 11 years. “This has been 34 years,” Meyer said, “and the only thing we’ve ever done to it (the racing surface) is laser-cut the top quarter-inch off it about 10 years ago. It obviously has been extremely successful.”

While Meyer plans to remain an active participant in Motorplex operations, he does have a succession strategy. “I’m not a ‘retirement person’ by any means,” Meyer said. “My succession strategy is pretty simple. My daughter, Christie Meyer Johnson, now is part-owner in the company and so she plays a pretty good part at the racetrack. And so I assume that will be the direction we go, unless it’s just time to sell.

“Drag racing, you know it’s really never gotten its credit for being an extreme sport like it really should. And the way that the world has changed, in that people can’t concentrate for more than seven seconds at a time any more, the sport’s becoming more popular because it is an extreme sport. And it is pretty wild-looking.”


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 12 2020
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