Texas World Speedway is like one of those clown-shaped punching bags. Each time it gets knocked down, it jumps right back up and joins the fight again.
That might not be the most flattering analogy, but it’s an accurate one. Long plagued with a thinning race calendar, financial struggles, competition with bigger venues and an increasingly uncertain future, TWS received what was thought to be its final blow earlier this year upon a decision to turn the College Station, Texas raceway into a new housing development worth $513 million.
With a closing date set for June 2015 and demolition scheduled to begin shortly after, it seemed as if the speedway finally lost its long-endured fight.
But the bulldozers never came. At least, they haven’t yet.
An investing group recently entered the picture, and they have another idea in mind. If successful, plans include a complete reconstruction of the 2.9-mile road course and paddock, an on-site hotel, a kart track, garage condos and residential sites. It’s a lofty goal, but the investors hope to have an answer settled by spring of 2016. If the deal doesn’t go through, the group plans to build a new track about an hour down the road.
Long before that announcement, I took a trip down to TWS during a Sports Car Club of America weekend to get an idea of the how racing community felt about having just a few months left. There was a mix of emotions hovering over the garage. Some felt as if the track’s time just finally ran out, others told me about fellow drivers and officials getting misty eyed when realizing that it was their last time out at the track.
One SCCA member, Richard Jackson, told me all about his plans.
“We’re waiting for the home that’s going to be occupying turn seven,” Jackson said. “We’re all going to line up, rev our engines and go around his corner every day if we can.”
Jackson may not have a home to carry those plans out on now that the track does have a chance to stick around (and he’s likely thrilled), but his sentiment illustrated a bigger point—TWS holds a large place in the hearts and personal histories of racers, from legendary wheelmen to amateur enthusiasts.
Luckily for them, the icon may get another chance after all.
A Look Into The Past
The two-mile facility sprung up on the outskirts of the hometown of Texas A&M University in 1968. After hosting its first sanctioned race in 1969, the speedway played host to some of the biggest names in racing: A.J. Foyt, Darrell Waltrip, Mario Andretti (who set the a world record for closed-course speed at 214.158 mph in a 1973 qualifying session), Richard Petty and many more.
TWS had an uncertain future through most of its existence; location, accessibility and inadequate facilities often led to low attendance figures. Crowd numbers hovered around half of what sister track Michigan International Speedway recorded during its formative years on the NASCAR Grand National Series (now Sprint Cup Series) schedule.
Major motorsports series removed the speedway from their annual stops as a result, with NASCAR being the last to do so in 1981. The track’s heyday—if you could call it that—ended less than thirteen years after its first sanctioned event.
A resurgence in popularity came in the 1990s with visits from the ARCA Racing Series, NASCAR Winston West Series (now K&N Pro Series West) and IMSA, but it was short lived and TWS soon fell into the hands of amateur racing clubs and smaller series for most of its business. Even then, deteriorated banking on the speedway’s oval leaves only the internal road course open for laps.
Though major-league racing bypassed TWS decades ago and the track faded into the background for most of the racing community, it still has deep personal meaning for many of its past and current attendees. Joey Todd, manager of sales and operations at TWS, gets to hear them on a regular basis.
“We get people coming in saying ‘This is where I learned how to drive,’ ‘This is where I learned how to race,’ ‘This is where my first race was’ or ‘This is where I won the SCCA Divisional title,’” Todd said. “There are a lot of great memories here by people.”
Though Todd said rumors of the speedway’s eventual demise began around 2008, those memories are why the false alarm back in June caused such a melancholy atmosphere in the TWS garages—whether track workers or drivers, most didn’t want to see it go.
“It’s been a fantastic track,” said Robey Clark of SCCA, who’s raced at TWS since 1999. “It goes back into the ‘70s when we came out here for Willie Nelson’s picnic as college kids, and with all of the pro racing, and then with the club racing as well.”
The track, Clark added, is “one of the best race tracks” in the United States.
“It’s a very premiere race track—it races very, very fine,” Clark said. “It’s just a fantastic track to race at, and not all tracks are that way.
“Some golf courses are great golf courses to golf on, and some race tracks are the best to race on. Texas World is one of those race tracks.”
Through The Tunnel
I grew up just a few minutes away from this place. And one of the things I regret most is not driving down the road you see above sooner than I did.
TWS’ most successful days are well before my time, and I’ll be the first to admit that—before I became really interested in motorsports (many, many years ago), I treated TWS just as many other College Station residents do: “Oh, that old speedway is still out there? They haven’t torn it down yet?”
But once I stepped inside, that feeling changed immediately. I was engulfed in history. For the people of College Station, all it takes is the 10-minute trip outside of town to realize that emerging from the TWS infield tunnel into the speedway’s interior is like stepping back in time. Age hasn’t treated the track particularly well, though—withering bleachers, rusted signs and cracked pavement are all signs of the state it fell into once the major leagues left in the ‘80s.
It’s a breathtaking and sobering experience, all at once. TWS has the power to do that to anyone—even those not remotely interested in cars or the racing culture.
While seeing a speedway in such condition is always a rather dismal experience, failing short tracks across the nation are much more common a sight. Even so, standing in the center of TWS—which feels virtually isolated from the growing college town with its enclosing, 22-degree banked turns—it’s amazing to think that the two-mile monster of a facility fell into its current state.
As Jackson, the SCCA member, told me during our conversation: “[TWS] is a wonderful place to be, but we don’t own it. We’re just here to borrow it for the weekend.”
Whether or not these racers will continue to borrow the speedway has yet to be decided. Current negotiations regarding TWS’s future are between the aforementioned investing group, Club Track Holdings, LLC, and the existing track ownership.
The track owners remain interested in making the land into a subdivision according to the group, and Club Track Holdings will proceed with plans—whether they be renovating the current property at TWS or building the new Bluebonnet Racing Circuit that would align its opening with the closing of TWS—once a final decision is made next year.
Seeing as how the speedway struggled in the past, the investors seem incredibly optimistic about its chances this time around—but there are a few things to consider. The new plans seem to be geared mainly toward clubs and amateur racers, whereas the speedway was originally meant for the big leagues. And we can’t forget the city of College Station—with Texas A&M University continuing to transform the skyline, push residential areas outward (which is one of the reasons that TWS went to the chopping block in the first place) and grow the population, the area itself is a bigger market than it was back then.
But no matter what happens to the track, it’ll always be a part of Jackson. And if its other frequenters have the same affinity toward it as people like Jackson and myself, the same can be said for them.
“You know, you never lose your history, right?” Jackson said. “I mean, you always remember. There are hundreds of pictures to remember it.”
Photo credit: Alanis King/Jalopnik
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