Texas Motor Speedway

TMS chief praises fans, not so much Fort Worth brass, in 20th season

TMS president Eddie Gossage always has something going on. Last week Texas Motor Speedway unveiled its Checkered Past craft beer along with Scott Lindsey, Audacity Brew House.
TMS president Eddie Gossage always has something going on. Last week Texas Motor Speedway unveiled its Checkered Past craft beer along with Scott Lindsey, Audacity Brew House. mfaulkner@star-telegram.com

Eddie Gossage has been in the midst of a never-ending fight to promote Texas Motor Speedway.

He fights for coverage from media outlets. He fights for recognition and respect from city officials and politicians. He fights for his voice to be heard with racing’s sanctioning bodies. Heck, sometimes he even has to fight for money to do capital improvements with his bosses at Speedway Motorsports Inc.

Whether that’s the media or sanctioning bodies or city officials … they don’t get it. ... But the good thing for us is the fans have always gotten it.

TMS president Eddie Gossage, on the track’s battles for recognition

“You’re always swimming upstream,” Gossage said. “Whether that’s the media or sanctioning bodies or city officials … they don’t get it. All of those kinds of things are frustrating.

“But the good thing for us is the fans have always gotten it. They understand what we’re doing and have always realized that we go to great lengths to fix things and make the experience great.”

That’s why Gossage is excited about another racing year, the 20th season for TMS. It begins this weekend with a pair of NASCAR races, highlighted with the Sprint Cup Series’ Duck Commander 500 on Saturday night.

Korie and Willie Robertson, stars of Duck Dynasty, talk about their hit reality TV show and the last Duck Commander 500 during theTMS media day in Dallas, TX, Wednesday, March 30, 2016. (Star-Telegram/Max Faulkner)

Thousands of fans will make the trek to north Fort Worth for the race weekend, and Gossage and his staff are trying to ensure another memorable event. TMS can’t control what goes on during the race, of course, but it goes all-in to put on the best show possible.

Thanks in large part to Gossage, TMS has become known for its antics during race week. The track has done promotions ranging from monkeys selling souvenir programs to daredevil Robbie Knievel jumping IndyCars and Hummers to the current “No Limits” theme.

You never know what Eddie and TMS is going to do, they’re one of the best innovators and promoters in the sport. I wish we had more of them.

IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves

“You never know what Eddie and TMS is going to do, they’re one of the best innovators and promoters in the sport,” IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves said. “I wish we had more of them.”

For Gossage, it’s simply about putting on the best event for fans. Tracks are much like movie theaters. They have no say in what NASCAR or IndyCar or Hollywood is going to produce — they just have to provide an experience worth returning for.

“At the end of the day, we’re just a venue,” Gossage said. “I always remind our team that we can affect everything up until the green flag and from the checkered flag on. It’s like anything else — you buy a ticket to a ballgame, it may be a barn burner or it may be a blowout. You’ve got to affect all the other things you can.”

The Fort Worth racetrack partnered with Audacity Brew House in Denton to create No Limits Checkered Past, an easy-drinking craft beer that will make its debut at the Duck Commander 500 in early April and then be available in stores.

That’s why Gossage takes pride in the pre-race events the track hosts, such as the Lynyrd Skynyrd concert Saturday and the Victory Lane celebrations. Drivers certainly respect the way TMS goes out of its way for signature moments.

It’s the track of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s and Jeff Burton’s first career Cup wins. It’s where IndyCar driver Tony Kanaan won the 2004 championship and celebrated in style.

“I will never forget that night. It was awesome,” Kanaan said. “Eddie is one of the best promoters I’ve ever met. That championship celebration in Texas was unforgettable.”

Highs and lows

Most people like to remember the good times, and Gossage rattled off a handful that came to his mind in his tenure.

He recalled the “heavyweight fight” between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards in the fall 2011 race, and how it played out perfectly with Stewart and Edwards finishing 1-2.

The fall 2007 race featured Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth battling it out in the final laps is a favorite of Gossage’s. So are all the IndyCar races in the early years that had breathtaking finishes.

And who can forget the fights? Texas has made a name for itself for the brawls that seemingly always happen at the track.

Arie Luyendyk and A.J. Foyt. Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton. Gordon and Brad Keselowski.

Contrary to popular belief, though, there is no under-the-table money changing hands between Gossage and the drivers.

I never got paid. But I’m sure Eddie didn’t mind it either.

Former NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Jeff Burton, on any extra cash for driver fights

“I never got paid,” Burton said, chuckling. “But I’m sure Eddie didn’t mind it either.”

Said Gossage: “The best moments like that happen organically, as a millennial would say. They just happen on their own.”

For all the great moments in the track’s history, it’s had a fair share of controversy and struggles as well. The inaugural race in 1997 stands out for its parking and weather-related issues.

Gossage knew it had been a disaster and even offered to become the scapegoat for it, but SMI wasn’t going to part ways with him. Instead, Gossage and the track learned from the experience and did its best to ensure the controllable factors, such as parking problems, wouldn’t happen again.

“I’ve tried to forget that, but it’s through hardship that you see real character,” Gossage said. “We’ve gotten through it and I learned a lot about myself from that.”

For some lifelong fans, the inaugural race has become somewhat a badge of honor. It’s a source of pride to have been there and done that.

For some lifelong fans, the inaugural race has become somewhat a badge of honor. It’s a source of pride to have been there and done that.

And, despite what most viewed as a miserable weekend, the track still hooked countless spectators into racing. Robert Richardson Jr. was among the fans in attendance for the first race, and fell in love with the sport that weekend.

Richardson Jr., a hay farmer from Pilot Point, improbably qualified for the Daytona 500 for the third time in his racing career earlier this year.

“We did get people hooked and that’s amazing to me,” Gossage said. “People tell me all the time that they were there and loved every second of it, because I hated every second of it. It’s not at all what I envisioned for our grand opening.”

That opening weekend ranks as the lowest point in Gossage’s career, and Year 2 didn’t go much better. Drivers complained about the track surface and TMS responded with “Shut up and drive” T-shirts before eventually undergoing a multi-million dollar resurfacing project.

People tell me all the time that they were there and loved every second of it, because I hated every second of it. It’s not at all what I envisioned for our grand opening.

Eddie Gossage

Other not-so-great incidents range from Indy-car organization CART canceling its 2001 race a couple hours before it was scheduled to run to the controversial decision to let the National Rifle Association sponsor the spring 2013 Cup race.

Through it all, Texas remains a popular track among fans and drivers. More than 25 million spectators have watched races at TMS over the years.

“Eddie does a great job and SMI is always focused on creating a great experience for the fans,” six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said. “All of the fan experiences I’ve done have been great, and the big purse is nice to race for. Eddie likes to remind us of that [biggest purse in NASCAR].”

Keeping up with the Joneses

SMI owns eight tracks across the country, and each president must put together a pitch as to why they should receive money for improvements at their respective tracks.

Gossage has never been shy to state the case for TMS over the years, and had heard SMI chairman Bruton Smith tell him countless times that he had “the new track” and money was going elsewhere.

“Sometimes you get next to nothing,” Gossage said. “Sometimes you end up with the lion’s share.”

Well, after 17 years of making pitches, Gossage certainly earned the “lion’s share” in 2013. That’s when SMI approved plans to construct “Big Hoss TV,” the world’s largest HD screen (218 feet wide, 94.6 feet tall).

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Gossage said, mega-screens are a necessity. That’s what put Cowboys Stadium on the map when it opened in 2009 with its massive center-hung board, and the Rangers followed suit with a video board in right field for the 2011 season.

It’s not just a little bit bigger, it’s 72 percent bigger. It’s just awe-inspiring to see it.

Eddie Gossage, on “Big Hoss TV, which is much bigger than the Cowboys’ more renowned video board at AT&T Stadium

“To me, Big Hoss TV is the ultimate fan amenity,” Gossage said. “It’s funny and frustrating … if you go to the Stockyards and survey 100 people which sporting venue has the biggest TV screen in the world, they’d tell you it’s over at Cowboys Stadium.

“And you look at Big Hoss and it’s 72 percent bigger. It’s not just a little bit bigger, it’s 72 percent bigger. It’s just awe-inspiring to see it. There’s a bigness factor you have to have in this place and that certainly has it.”

Gossage feels the racetrack is ignored by Fort Worth city officials. The TMS track walls now say, “No Limits, Texas” instead of “Fort Worth, Texas.”

Big Hoss TV also served as a talking point in how Gossage feels TMS doesn’t get the coverage and recognition it deserves. Nothing on the city of Fort Worth’s website, Gossage pointed out, mentions that the city is home to the world’s largest HD screen.

It goes beyond that, as Gossage is always pushing the city and local news outlets for more coverage. He said the track spends $70 million annually to bring fans from across the country to the area and brings a positive $300 million economic impact every year.

“But you drive to downtown Fort Worth and there isn’t even a ‘Welcome Race Fans,’ banner on race weekends,” Gossage said. “There are banners everywhere about some other event or activity going on. It’s unfortunate.”

Because of that, the track walls now don “No Limits, Texas” instead of “Fort Worth, Texas.”

City officials had yet to respond to a request for comment.

The city isn’t alone in Gossage’s hit list. He is constantly on news outlets for more coverage, and took a not-so-subtle shot during the track’s media day last week.

The Cowboys tout their Frisco facility that will cater strictly to fans as the “first of its kind.” Gossage says TMS opened a dining club where fans could work out, eat and watch practice in 1999.

Gossage has seen several stories on a “first of its kind club” in Frisco, referencing the Cowboys’ new practice facility that sold exclusive memberships to fans. TMS has had its Speedway Club since 1999 offering similar things.

“First of its kind where you can work out, have lunch or dinner, look out over the playing field and watch practice,” Gossage said. “I scratch my head. Didn’t we open that very thing in 1999?”

But Gossage acknowledged that he’s had “a pretty cool gig” for the past two decades. He’s got a loyal staff of about 100, which includes 18 employees who have been with him since Day One.

That’s why Gossage wasn’t worried about things running smoothly when he was diagnosed with cancer six years ago. The doctors had caught it early enough that he could plan his treatments around the race schedule, and he beat it and it has been in remission since.

Things have gone back to normal for Gossage and TMS with another race season upon them. Sometimes it feels like’s it’s been 20 years, and sometimes it doesn’t.

“It seems like a lifetime ago that we were building this place and it also seems like yesterday. It’s a conflict,” Gossage said. “Twenty years is a long time and I think we’ve had some legendary moments and not-so-proud moments. But we’ve always had moments, and I think that’s pretty cool.

“When you come out here, you’re going to witness something.”

Drew Davison: 817-390-7760, @drewdavison

Duck Commander 500

6:30 p.m. Saturday, TMS

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram

  Comments