It’s Full Speed Ahead To Future For Meyer’s Texas Motorplex

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 16 2022

Track co-owner Christie Meyer Johnson, Texas Motorplex Legend Dave Densmore, track owner Billy
Meyer and Stampede of Speed host Joe Castello took to the stage at ‘The Plex’. Densmore was recognized for his PR work during a break in Saturday’s qualifying. (Photos courtesy of Elon Werner/Werner Communications)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

ENNIS, Texas – Billy Meyer’s Texas Motorplex is stampeding into the future with guidance from its “generation next.”

Meyer and Motorplex co-owner/daughter Christie Meyer Johnson will mark the end of the track’s second annual Stampede of Speed Sunday afternoon with eliminations of the 37th annual Texas NHRA FallNationals.

The fourth of six Countdown to the Championship playoff races, the FallNats have been re-invigorated via involvement in the Texas Major Events Reimbursement Program. The Stampede’s 10 consecutive days of music, drag racing and Lone Star State-themed fan experiences in and around Waxahachie have played to largely rave reviews by an A-list of NHRA drivers and personnel.

And 68-year-old Meyer _ a teen-age Funny Car phenom who now is a member of the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame _ has been kept hopping by his energetic co-owner. 

“Now I have two women telling me what to do,” said Meyer, referring to wife Deborah and their 37-year-old daughter. I’m not sure what she’s going to do.”

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 enclosed corporate boxes to the sport, along with hospitality and meeting areas, 29,000 grandstand seats (since expanded to approximately 34,700), dedicated media center and plenty of restrooms.

Texas Motorplex owner Billy Meyer, left, chats with drag racer Doug Kalitta.

Indeed, The Plex and its all-concrete racing surface were built to lure a National Hot Rod Association national event into the Dallas-Fort Worth market. Three-plus decades later, winning at the Motorplex is pivotal to any Countdown driver looking to clinch a championship in the Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle classes.

That said, Meyer termed the track’s participation in the Texas Major Events Reimbursement Program as a windfall. In short, the Event Trust Funds Program aims to help local governments and local organizing committees attract certain events to the state, with the premise they can have a positive economic impact and increase tax revenues. The revenues from some taxes _ general sales and use, hotel occupancy, motor vehicle rental and alcoholic beverages _ estimated to be generated in excess of what would be levied absent these events are used to subsidize the organization of these events.

Among the sports events targeted by the Texas Legislature are the NFL’s Super Bowl, the NCAA’s men collegiate basketball Final Four, NASCAR’s premier Cup Series at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth and FIA Formula One racing at Circuit of The Americas in Austin.

“This is our second year in the program. We now have the opportunity to be reimbursed when we bring in more out-of-state tourism,” Meyer Johnson said.

“You know, our future was not very bright, our desire was not very bright,” Billy Meyer said. “This (program) helped quite a bit. And a lot of this has to do with whether we have NHRA races here in the future long-term. Drag racing is doing great in all forms _ Street Outlaws and all the different races that we do. We now have got it to the point where the NHRA race isn’t the reason why we’re here anymore. And so the only reason the NHRA race makes sense now is because we’re able to do the state program…to be involved in that tourism tax dollar.

“The more we bring out-of-state customers/spectators…that’s what the state is looking for, people to spend tax dollars that aren’t normally going to be spent in Texas. This program has worked really well because we have a big following in Oklahoma and Louisiana. But down the road, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I mean, most likely the racetrack is going to stay here long-term and it may be that we move the program over to Street Outlaws instead of NHRA in the future because it’s grown so much.

“But there’s definitely a reason to be here now. We got that (state program) done and the fact that I have somebody now that’s willing to take over.”

Meyer Johnson said the vibe around the facility and the surrounding community has been decidedly upbeat. “That program has re-energized us, to know that we have something special here _ that we’re not a cookie-cutter event,” Meyer Johnson said. “We want to do something different at the Texas Motorplex than they do across the country at other NHRA events. We want to brand ourselves.”

Ron Capps, the two-time/reigning NHRA Funny Car world champion from California, credited Meyer for working with the state’s politicians on behalf of big-time drag racing. “It’s a pretty elaborate thing they did and it’s so smart business-wise,” Capps said. “Billy’s been known to get into the (wrong) side of NHRA over the years, but I think it (the Stampede) raised the bar for NHRA and a lot of the track-owners.

“It has been such an educational thing, I guarantee it’s probably sent NHRA back to the chalk board in a lot of different ways. I think it raised a lot of eyebrows on what could happen and how to go about it and not just be like the old-school ‘Let’s get somebody to sponsor and try to do this.’^”

To that end, Meyer Johnson and her husband, Barry, are working as the track’s co-managers. “It’s become even more of a family affair,” said Meyer Johnson, referring to 10-year-old daughter Charlee and 8-year-old son Sam. “Our kids are here and it’s become kind of a repetition of where I grew up. I was here with my parents and now my kids are here with me and their grandparents and it’s kind of a beautiful thing.”

Meyer Johnson attended Baylor University in Waco, majoring in home economics. “I was a home economics teacher for several years and a cheerleading coach and never dreamed I’d be involved in drag racing,” Meyer Johnson said. “One day I decided the classroom wasn’t for me. So my dad gave me this opportunity. I really appreciate he did that so I could learn, and have mentors like (former general managers) Elon Werner and Gabrielle Stevenson and people that taught me the way. A lot of wisdom imparted over the years.”

Meyer Johnson said her legal role as company president and Motorplex co-owner evolved over the last four years. “I’ve been here 15 years,” she said. “My dad started having me work in the souvenir stands, so I sold t-shirts and worked my way up and learned every different department. I’ve sold tickets, helped with hospitality stuff, worked in PR and now being able to make these decisions with my dad. It’s been an exciting adventure.”

Billy Meyer said this calendar year has seen Christie and Barry _ his neighbors in the toney Austin suburbs _ make most of the day-to-day decisions. “Obviously, they call me because I’ve been here 37 years,” Billy said. “The longer you’ve done something the easier it is be able to say, ‘Oh yeah, do this, do that.’ So, they come up every week; one of them is here every week. And we have Zoom call meetings and stuff all the time. We have such a good staff and so many have been here so many years it’s just made it a lot easier.”

Meyer Johnson said credit for the Stampede of Speed initiative should be shared. “My dad, it was his idea to make it (the FallNationals) a little bit longer, but then the team sat around the table and drew out ideas and see what sticks,” she said. “I definitely can’t take credit for it all, but our goal was to make it the longest drag race in the country and to make it something where people out of state come in and get the true Texas experience and Texas hospitality. They get to see great drag racing in a family-friendly environment.”

This year’s program began on Friday, Oct. 7, with the High Noon Cattle Drive of over a dozen head of cattle through downtown Waxahachie. Other attractions were the Funny Car Chaos World Finals; a music festival featuring bull-riding, a beer expo and BBQ contest; Scott Palmer’s Nitro racing side show; an open testing session for Pro Stock, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car in advance of qualifying; the inaugural Champions Dinner honoring the previous year’s FallNats winners; Friday Night Live qualifying featuring music and a guest DJ in-between professional time trials.

Like all brick-and-mortar sporting facilities, Motorplex management is faced with the task of enticing fans with access to social media and ever-shortening attention spans to please come on out and sit in the stands.

“It is hard to get people out,” Meyer Johnson said. “That’s been our goal doing these other promotional events leading up to the FallNationals, to drive people that way. It may have nothing to do with drag racing, but there’s going to be drag racing involved.”

Billy Meyer said a spectator experiencing a pair of nitromethane-burning Top Fuel dragsters or Funny Cars for the first time will be shocked-and-rocked by the sights and sounds of a combined 22,000 horsepower exploding off the starting line. “It takes your breath away. It’s a sensory sport,” Meyer said. “Drag racing is great live.”

Meyer Johnson said a country music festival on Sunday, Oct. 9, was a portal that introduced approximately 15,000 fans to drag racing. “The grandstands were as full on Sunday in-between band sets as they are on a Friday night of the FallNationals,” Meyer Johnson said. “It was an extremely diverse crowd from all areas of life coming and seeing drag racing for the first time.

“Whether it’s a lantern release or bull-riding or the Scott Palmer show where they’ve never seen cars like this _ we’re driving people to buy tickets for the FallNationals.”

Angelle Sampey, a three-time NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle world champion and a mom, said the Stampede has showcased the sport’s family-oriented environment.

“I just know that every race could be this big if everybody really wanted to put into it what Billy does,” Sampey said. “As a competitor, it makes me feel like I’m involved in something that’s so big, and like how could anybody in the world not know about us? But there are a lot of people that don’t know about drag racing. How could you not know who John Force is? You kind of realize when you step away that maybe it’s not as big as I thought it was being involved in it.

“But then when we have an event like this, if all the tracks did this and we promoted the races as big as Billy does, I think it would elevate the whole sport. So I’m really proud to be a part of this race and appreciative of Billy for doing what he does.”

With the closure of Houston Raceway Park in Baytown after April’s national event, the Motorplex is the lone Texas stop on a schedule that has varied from 22 to 24 events during recent seasons.

Asked if he had been involved in discussions with NHRA officials on a possible second race date for North Texas, Meyer was blunt. “I don’t want ‘em here twice a year,” Meyer said. “We would have to have a totally different format whether it’s an all-star race or something.” Meyer Johnson added any second NHRA event would have to be “off-the-wall.”

And likely, off live TV. Sunday’s FallNats eliminations will not be carried live on either FOX or FOX Sports 1, NHRA’s broadcast partners. “We won’t allow it to be live,” Billy Meyer said. “We think it hurts the crowd if you can sit at home and have a Bloody Mary and popcorn and your own nachos. The NFL blacks-out if they don’t sell-out within a 100-mile radius. So far, FOX hasn’t been willing to do that with NHRA racing.”

So, for fans not expected to be on-site, a two-hour qualifying program is booked for Sunday at 9 a.m. (CDT) on FS1. A tape-delayed, three-hour broadcast of eliminations tentatively is set to air Sunday at midnight on FS1 _ subject to the Major League Baseball Playoffs schedule.

Meyer admitted that while there is a sense of nostalgia attached to the Ennis locale, he is not married to it. “To make it say, another 30-something years, we probably couldn’t do it here, I will predict,” Meyer said. “This year I’ve had three cities call me talking about moving. We have met with two cities. One is not far from here. There’s a lot of people that understand the benefits of this a lot more than the City of Ennis does. It’d be hard to say this is going to be a Fenway Park because it would be 70-years-old, right?

“Yeah, people do want to be here. Honestly, I have dreams of a new-style Motorplex. You never know.”

Even if it is relocated in this burgeoning market, Meyer Johnson believes the family will still own The Plex 37 years from now. “My kids are already planning on it,” Meyer Johnson said. “My daughter and son, their goal is to run the Texas Motorplex like their mom and dad one day. We’ll see what happens. Right now we’re in a really great place and have the opportunity to do some special things here.

“We obviously want to grow drag racing but we also have the ability to do a lot more lifestyle events and concerts. We have 500 acres to play with so we have a lot of dreams and visions for the next five years. We’re taking one step at a time. Every year we re-evaluate and right now, I mean, I can’t imagine us doing anything else.” 

Editor’s Note: John Sturbin is a Texas-based journalist specializing in motorsports. During a near 30-year career with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he won the Bloys Britt Award for top motorsports story of the year (1991) as judged by The Associated Press; received the National Hot Rod Association’s Media Award (1995) and several in-house Star-Telegram honors. He also was inaugural recipient of the Texas Motor Speedway Excellence in Journalism Award (2009). His list of freelance clients includes Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, Rome (N.Y.) Daily Sentinel, Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller Times, NASCAR Wire Service, Ford Racing and Used Car Dealer magazine).

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 16 2022
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