Gil LeBreton

Rain, teenager problems have never stopped TMS

A pit crew member for Paul Menard uses a roller to push water out of the teams pit box after a rain shower before the Duck Commander 500 on Saturday.
A pit crew member for Paul Menard uses a roller to push water out of the teams pit box after a rain shower before the Duck Commander 500 on Saturday. Star-Telegram

Before the first spectator arrived in 1997 for the first-ever Cup event at Texas Motor Speedway, rains had flooded the yet-unpaved parking lots.

After more showers in the second year, the track itself wept.

But if 20 seasons of NASCAR Sprint Cup races at TMS have taught us anything, it’s that there’s no crying in auto racing.

You wait out the rain. You keep the nacho and beer stands open. You jet-dry the track.

You start the engines and wave the green flag.

To be honest, worse weather days than Saturday have descended upon the track called “The Great American Speedway.”

Rain postponed the 2014 Duck Commander 500, pushing the race back to Monday — on an already hotel-strained NCAA Final Four weekend, no less. Weather also postponed the 2002 and 2010 Cup races.

Foul weather happens in NASCAR, especially in April in Texas.

Alas, there was one weather casualty in that inaugural TMS race. The late great Van Cliburn was booked to perform the national anthem.

His piano made it. But the helicopter that was supposed to pick up the renowned pianist was grounded, and Uber wasn’t invented yet.

In the years that followed, track CEO Eddie Gossage would oversee the asphalting of hundreds of adjoining acres for parking. But the lots for that first race were mud bogs.

A 16-mile traffic jam ensued down Interstate 35. State troopers allowed paying customers to park on Highway 170, where shuttle buses had to be enlisted to bring them to the track.

When the race finally began, a now-legendary 13-car pile-up halted things in the first turn of the first lap.

But Gossage and TMS got lucky. Jeff Burton, who had urged fellow drivers during the week to “give the place a chance,” won the inaugural race for his first Cup victory.

The track has changed. The only “dual banking” now is in Gossage’s Southlake driveway. The transition coming out of Turn 4 was altered in 1998.

Seats were added. Condos sprouted along the turns. A video board as big as Argyle was erected along the back stretch.

The one constant has been Gossage, the eternal showman.

After 19 years, the pre-race festivities tend to blur. But I seem to remember guys being shot out of cannons, a giant fire-breathing robot, and Robbie Knievel jumping over 21 Hummers.

My favorite Speedway pre-race performer, however, had to be the guy, circa 1999 — maybe it was one of the Wallendas — who flew back and forth in front of the main grandstand while dangling by his feet from a trapeze suspended from a flying helicopter.

We waited to see how big a splatter he was going to leave on pit row. But the acrobat defied what seemed like quasi-certain death, and instead of having the helicopter lower him triumphantly to the ground for wild applause, he was last seen flying off toward Oklahoma, still dangling by his toes.

It’s as good a metaphor for the Speedway’s 20 years as any.

The Victory Lane traditions of cowboy hats and randomly firing six-shooters into the Denton County sky have continued. Fortunately, A.J. Foyt’s post-race punk-slap of Arie Luyendyk (IndyCar, 1997) was a one-time affair.

The Great American Speedway saw Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s first Sprint Cup win. In 2009, Jeff Gordon finally won at TMS.

In the years since the first race, the Rolling Stones performed here. Aerosmith. ZZ Top. Britney Spears. The Dave Matthews Band.

The list of visitors posted in the Media Center includes the names of President George W. Bush, Tom Landry, Chuck Norris, Shaquille O’Neal.

NASCAR race day, with its noises, its smells and its circus atmosphere, seems to bring out the people like that.

It doesn’t seem like 20 years, Gossage said Saturday afternoon, and he’s right.

But I’m sure he’ll think of something for the next 20. After all, the Speedway is no longer a teenager.

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