If you pass the Texas World Speedway while driving on Texas Highway 6, you will more than likely miss it, much like anything else on the highway. You can only see the control tower sticking out like a hitchhiker’s thumb over the hill where the grandstands lie hidden.
You take the exit, but it is not immediately apparent that you are near a racetrack as much of the area around the track is mostly fields of undeveloped green grass. Once you make the turn onto the access road leading to the infield tunnel, you can hear the racecars zooming overhead.
Once you are inside the 2-mile oval, it is somewhat clear that the track is living on borrowed time. The high-banked superspeedway sits in repose with the retaining walls looking faded and worn since the last major race held on the oval in 1993.
The words “ARCA Hooters Cup Series” faded on the wall in turn three and a water tower above turn four is decorated in the colors of Exxon, the Houston-based oil company that sponsored the final professional level race held in 1996.
The pavement of the steep 22-degree banking of the oval is gouged and scratched, just begging for a repave. The road course of the circuit is in better shape, but there are plenty of cracks filled in with sealant.
The last major run on the oval came in 2009 when former NASCAR driver Greg Biffle tested his Roush Racing Ford Fusion.
Biffle set a lap with an average speed of over 196 mph, nearly 10 mph quicker than Page Jones’ pole speed for the ARCA race in 1993. The speeds going into the corners were much higher with Biffle’s Ford Fusion reaching around 218 mph. Biffle described the experience as nothing he had ever experienced before.
“[It was] very fast,” Biffle told NASCAR.com in 2009. “A little bit bumpy, which is to be expected of a race track that the pavement is that old, but just a very fast place. It’s kind of a fun race track, but our cars today are probably pretty dang fast for a race track like that.”
With the higher speeds come greater danger, and Biffle’s comment is a testament to that. The track is void of catch fencing, which keeps cars and debris from leaving the track in the event of an accident, and SAFER Barriers which have reduced the impact of cars and thus lowered the number of injuries suffered by drivers.
The main grandstands lie empty with no bleachers for spectators to sit, just a brown deteriorating concrete foundation. The spectators that turn out to watch the few events at the track are not out of luck as they can watch from the VIP grandstands overlooking the pitlane and offering a decent view of the entire track. Unlike most racing venues, spectators can park their cars near sections of the infield road course and get a close-up view of the action.
The garage area has the basic amenities, which is pretty much just a roof over your head while you work on your racecar.
Gone are names like Mario Andretti, who set a record lap at TWS of 214.158 mph in 1973, and in are names like Formula Mazda driver John Entistle that are trying to climb the ranks of racing, and his owner Moses Smith who still gets behind the wheel occasionally to shake down the car.
The track was slated to close in June of last year to make way for a master-planned community that would include 1,400 homes, commercial sites, nature trails and space for a school.
That time has come and gone as construction was delayed and the track continues to operate while the issues with the land developer get sorted out. During that time, a group of investors that initially planned to build a replacement circuit for TWS has expressed interest in continuing the track’s legacy.
The question is, is Texas World Speedway worth saving? While the track has the notoriety of being one of just seven oval tracks greater than two miles in length and was very racy and fast with Andretti’s record lap being a testament to that, it has a very rocky past.
The track opened in 1969, nearly the same time that the Atlanta Motor Speedway, Ontario Motor Speedway and Michigan International Speedway were slated to open. The former was almost a carbon copy of TWS, with only 4 degrees less banking, which was no coincidence as both tracks were built by American Raceways Incorporated, which was owned by Larry LoPatin.
LoPatin had a plan to build several 2-mile superspeedways across the country with Michigan and TWS being the first two. The track was the first of its kind in the Southwest, and was met with a warm welcome from the local crowd and brought a national touring series to the state of Texas for the first time, which was a stark contrast from the local short track scene of south Texas.
NASCAR had never run a points-paying race in South Texas at that time, a promoter from Meyer Speedway in Houston talked a few NASCAR teams into running one of their features when the NASCAR teams were traveling back on Interstate 10 from Riverside, California. The races were not sanctioned by NASCAR, though.
“It was glorious!,” said Neil Upchurch, former president of the Texas International Drivers Association and track announcer at TWS. “When this 2-mile, 22 degree banked track opens up in College Station, a lot of Texas stock car fans, or any kind of racing fans were just thought it was marvelous to have such a facility down in Texas because we never had that before.”
The first race at the track was held on December 7, 1969, in front of 22,000 fans.
Bobby Issac, one of NASCAR’s most successful drivers in the 1970s, won the 500-mile race by over two laps over Donnie Allison. Following the inaugural event, LoPatin was forced to sell the speedway and NASCAR did not return to the track until 1971.
Come 1973, the track was well established as a staple in the world of stock car racing, with NASCAR not only hosting its crown jewel Winston Cup Series but its Winston West division and the ARCA Racing Series moved in as well.
That same year, the USAC IndyCar Championship Trail took to TWS for the first time. Aerodynamic designs in IndyCar were going through a revolutionary change at the time and speeds were climbing as a result. With the highest banked corners on the calendar, high speeds were no surprise at TWS when USAC rolled in.
Bobby Unser set a pole lap with an average speed of 212.766 mph for April’s race at TWS, which set a world record on a closed circuit. That record was short-lived as Mario Andretti lapped the course in 33.62 seconds or an average speed of 214.158. To contrast speeds, the 200 mph average lap was the goal for that year’s Indianapolis 500 and Johnny Rutherford came very close to breaking that lap but had to settle for 198.413 mph.
“At the time, the aerodynamics were not what we enjoy today, so at the time 214 was pretty quick!” said Andretti.
The lap officially made Texas World Speedway the fastest racetrack in the world, which gave the race a boost.
“It was great press for the track because they were able to send out a press release to all the media around the state of Texas which further emphasized why the people should come there on Sunday,” Upchurch added.
Despite the thrilling high speeds, the track went silent again, but was of no fault of the track’s own gas crisis of the 1970s began to take its toll. Lines at gas pumps grew and families were forced to cut road trips off the agenda. Auto racing itself was also in the crosshairs as some folks up in Washington labeled it as a frivolous use of fuel.
Come 1976, USAC returned with both their IndyCar Series as well as their stock car series.
The 1978 running of the Texas Grand Prix, the second race of the year at TWS, was somewhat outdone by series politics as the ever-growing divide between the Indy Car team owners and USAC was reaching its ultimate boil. The four-cylinder Offenhouser engine was not nearly as competitive against the Cosworth V8s and teams were upset about engine costs and boost restrictions and tensions had reached a boil. Furthermore, the 13 four-cylinder-powered cars all qualified around 50-60mph in protest, nearly 150mph off the pole time set by Team Penske’s Tom Sneva.
This didn’t sit well with track president Dick Conole.
“It made him really, really mad,” said Upchurch. “He was thinking, ‘You bring your problems down here and put them on display at my racetrack? How dare you!”
“He was right, he paid a lot of money to put on this USAC IndyCar race, and he didn’t want to turn it into a political situation.”
The four-cylinder cars were up to speed during the race, with Patrick Racing’s Gordon Johncock running at a dangerously high boost level to keep pace with the V8s. Johncock made his way into the lead, but his engine blew on lap 74 of 100.
The race was won by AJ Foyt, who wanted nothing to do with the controversy and when asked about the controversy in victory lane replied, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”
The highest finishing 4-cylinder car was Steve Krisiloff, who finished 3rd.
The controversy was just a part of a season-long dispute between the Indy Car owners and USAC which led to the formation of the Championship Auto Racing Teams, or CART as it was known. CART would become the mainstay Indy Car series until 1996 when Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George formed the Indy Racing League.
NASCAR returned in 1979 with a 400-mile race won by Darrell Waltrip. Come 1981, the track’s surface became very bumpy, and NASCAR competitors and management alike demanded that the track be repaved – a job costing around $500,000. Conole agreed to repave the track under the condition that NASCAR would commit to running at least one NASCAR race at TWS for the next ten years to justify the expenses of resurfacing the track.
France balked at the idea and instead demanded that the track be repaved and have a group of NASCAR experts come and survey the job before talking about NASCAR returning. That move would have not guaranteed NASCAR to return to the track, which irked Conole.
An exchange of phone calls between NASCAR representatives and Conole lasted for a few days before NASCAR came back with an ultimatum. Conole vigorously disagreed to NASCAR’s terms and got a call from France, Jr. the same day. Upchurch recalls the conversation:
“He (France, Jr.) said, ‘Are you telling me that you’re willing to relinquish your NASCAR Grand National race dates at your race track?’ Conole said, ‘Yes sir, that is exactly what I’m telling you, that is unfair to want me to repave at the cost of over a half million dollars and maybe never see you guys again. France replied, ‘Nobody’s ever done that! No one has ever taken a NASCAR date off the calendar.’ Conole replied: ‘Well there’s a first time for everything, Mr. France.”
From that moment on, NASCAR never returned to Texas World Speedway ever again.
After NASCAR left, the only form of professional racing ran at TWS was the Texas International Drivers Association, which ran on the 2.0-mile interior road course. TIDA had initially run on a road course in Monterey, Mexico but Upchurch wanted to bring the race to TWS.
The Texas Race of Champions began in 1976 and was won by Ed Sczech of San Antonio. The race continued until 1988, and the list of winners includes 2-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Terry Labonte as well as Houston native H.B. Bailey.
Come 1988, the track was bought by Ishin, a Japanese corporation that intended to restore the oval and bring the track to modern standards. During that time, the Texas Race of Champions ceased and the track sat quiet once again.
The hiatus only lasted for three years as the ARCA Racing Series returned in 1991 with ARCA champion Bill Venturini winning the race by over 27 seconds ahead of second-place Bob Keselowski. The Texas Race of Champions returned at that time as well.
The 1993 ARCA race featured a combination race of ARCA and the NASCAR Winston West Series, which produced a record 44 car field. The race also saw the return of three big NASCAR names: Darrell Waltrip, Ken Schrader and Dale Earnhardt. The trio started in the back of the field because the Winston Cup race in Atlanta was postponed to the day before the TWS race due to a snowstorm, which didn’t allow them to qualify their cars.
When the green flag dropped, the three drivers slithered their way through traffic and by lap 33, Waltrip moved into the lead. Waltrip picked up a lap lead on the field as he stayed out during one of the race’s caution flags and ran the remainder of the race uncontested.
Following the 1993 ARCA race, Ishin had defaulted on the track and ownership returned to Dick Conole. By that time in May of 1994, some hope for a NASCAR return surfaced when Conole hired an auction company to sell the track.
A few hundred people showed up for the auction, but midway through it, the auctioneer suddenly called it off. It was called off due to a lawyer representing a group of four investors from North Carolina had gotten in touch with Conole to purchase the speedway privately.
The investors were: Richard Childress, Bill France, Sr., Roger Penske and Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Negotiations lasted for three weeks, but both sides could not agree. That squashed any hopes for a NASCAR return as the purchase was not made.
NASCAR eventually returned to the state of Texas in 1997 when Bruton Smith opened Texas Motor Speedway just north of Fort Worth, which has hosted races in both NASCAR and IndyCar ever since.
“Had those four managed to complete the purchase and own the property, there would not be a Texas Motor Speedway today,” said Upchurch. “They had enough political crops starting with Bill France, Sr., they would have never agreed to Bruton Smith to give him anything.”
“They would have poured resources into that track to make it the star of Texas automobile racing and Houston of course kept growing in all directions. The outskirts of Houston would practically have been at the doorstep of Texas World Speedway today.”
“Road systems would be better to get from Houston to Texas World Speedway and there wouldn’t be any competition in Fort Worth because the track would not exist.”
Since the auction fallout, the 2-mile oval has sat without a race, just giving a reminder of what once was but is no longer. The final professional level race held at the track was in 1996, when the IMSA Professional Sportscar Series ran their second event at the track. That same weekend, the Texas Race of Champions ran for the final time, but on an oval layout consisting of roads from the road course and a bit of the front stretch.
Future Rolex 24 at Daytona winner Wayne Taylor and co-driver Jim Pace were victorious in the final 500-mile IMSA race on May 5, 1996.
Conole maintained ownership of the track well into the 2000s as only club racing series such as the local chapters of the Sports Car Club of American and the National Auto Sport Association.
Conole passed away in 2007 and in 2012 the track was purchased by the McAlister Opportunity Fund, who continued to operate the road course.
With the recent population and real estate boom in College Station, Bill Mather, CEO of TWS then announced plans for the track’s demolition in place for a master-planned community. The track was scheduled to close in 2015 but complications with the project have delayed the closing of the track.
Fast forward to December of 2015, when a group of investors going under the name of Club Track Holdings, LLC, announced plans to buy the track and rebuild the road course as well as add additional facilities such as a hotel, condos and a go-kart track.
Details of the negotiations remain confidential and it may not be until later in the Spring that we know the fate of Texas World Speedway. With the track’s storied history in mind, we now go back to the question of whether or not the track should be saved.
The track was a favorite of the many drivers that raced professionally there, including Andretti, who set the fastest recorded lap at the speedway.
“We loved the place, I loved going there,” Andretti said. “The shape of it, the banking– because of the banking the corning speeds were much higher that what we experienced anywhere else. That in of itself provided a lot of fun for us as drivers. We want to go fast and the track had that kind of design and because of the banking there was a lot of good passing which made the races much more exciting for us and to watch.”
With that in mind, the 1969 Indianapolis 500 champion feels that the track should be saved but admits that there are a lot of things to consider for the parties involved in saving the track.
“If there is enough investment to bring it up to today’s standards as far as the track and the rest of the facility, it could be very attractive,” he said. “The venue is still good.”
“I’m sure they (Club Track Holdings) are doing their due diligence about proximity, how accessible it is and all of that. All these are factors that play huge before you make an investment.”
“Personally would I like to see it back, yes because it has a history to come back to. It would be another revitalized venue which was a good venue that we enjoyed tremendously.”
That same sentiment is shared by Moses Smith, a former NASCAR West Series competitor who now builds Formula Mazda cars in Cresson, Texas. Smith’s company fields a handful of cars in SCCA’s Texas division who recently competed at TWS’s infield road course.
“The layout of the road course is much more fun to drive on than most other road courses and oval combination courses,” Smith said. “It has hills and some great turns to race on where other courses like Daytona and Kansas that just run in the infield and then come back onto the oval.”
Upchurch, who spent the better part of 20 years working for and at the track, has mixed feelings about the track possibly closing.
“I don’t have a thought on that, ” he said. “I’d hate to see something that I for one put an awful lot of work into for about 20 years. I’d hate to see that go down the drain.”
While Texas World Speedway’s future is shaky at the moment, there is no denying that the track has a place in the history of motorsport. The track hosted nearly every American racing series and broke several records in its brief history and while the checkered flag seems to have flown in professional racing, the legacy is being kept alive by the club racers that trek to College Station to compete at Texas World.