By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
When he bought a large chunk of land in Ennis back in the mid-1980s, Billy Meyer had a vision. He'd build the world's fastest strip of concrete and let the United States government do the rest.
But long after the over-hyped, under-producing Superconducting Super Collider went kaput in nearby Waxahachie, Meyer's Texas Motorplex remains alive, well and faster than ever.
"The land was affordable because it was in the middle of nowhere," Meyer said recently in advance of next weekend's 25th Anniversary O'Reilly Fall Nationals at his track. "I was counting on the Super Collider making it the middle of somewhere. But it never happened. I still would've bought the land and opened the track, but knowing then what I know now, I'm not sure I'd have given us much chance of seeing a 25th birthday."
While the Motorplex—strapped by strict alcohol laws and forced to craftily, carefully operate as a private club in a dry county—got off to a modest start, the Super Collider was supposed to be a hand-delivered boon to the track and a God-sent rebooting of the area's economy. Designed as the world's largest and most expensive physics project, the SSC featured 15 miles of tunnels under Ellis County and a goal of harnessing energy for the future via the high-speed smashing of protons. But in 1993 President Bill Clinton and Congress killed the over-budget project, giving favor instead to the International Space Station.
A testimony to the pitfalls of greed and excess, Ennis, once projected to be bigger than Plano, clearly isn't. And the catacomb of failure still lies 200 feet beneath the surface. Empty. Desolate. Oblivious, Meyer's Motorplex continues to deliver 8,000-horsepower, 320 miles-per-hour excitement at the track on Highway 287, just west of Interstate 35.
"When I first went to the Motorplex there was kind of nothing around it," said drag-racing king John Force, a 14-time national champion and one of the favorites next weekend along with Larry Dixon, Tony Schumacher and Greg Anderson. "Now, well, there's still not that much around it. I guess you could say that over the years the Motorplex has grown into its own attraction. It hasn't really needed any help."
Long before Bruton Smith had a Texas Motor Speedway twinkle in his eye and Eddie Gossage gripped the Dallas-Fort Worth area with his marketing expertise, Meyer and his Motorplex not only survived but thrived. Despite the trendy immigration of NASCAR into North Texas, drag racing still, albeit quietly, carves out a healthy niche.
At the Fall Nationals September 23-26, Meyer expects nightly crowds of up to 15,000 at his drag-racing speedway that annually draws half a million. While NASCAR fans prefer 500-mile circles, drag-race enthusiasts enjoy their excitement in five-second bursts down the quarter-mile straightaway. No offense to smaller tracks such as Yellow Belly drag strip in Grand Prairie, but the Motorplex owns local drag racing by having the best drivers and biggest events at reasonable rates (tickets are as low as $10).
"NASCAR has hurt us in the form of corporate sponsorship, sure," Meyer said. "But as far as an awareness of motor sports, it's been a full-throttle media blitz that's been good for us. But we're the third-largest drag strip in America and by now we know what we're doing. Overall success has never been an issue."
Neither has winning ever been a challenge for Force. Or, for that matter, being an introvert. Today, on this mid-August afternoon at O'Reilly Auto Parts in Irving, he's not only a wildly popular driver and a media darling, he's a magician.
Look, he just turned an auto parts store into a tent revival.
"We're all good, red-blood American people in here, right?" he bellows to a gathering of around 100 fans next to the fan belts and the spark plugs. "Then let's go down to Ennis and have some fun. Let's get that nitro methane pumping through those engines and let that power belch out and when that car jumps off the line—Vrroom!—you'll know there is a God! Is drag racing the greatest sport on earth or what?"
"He's the best we've had," said Meyer, himself an elite driver in the '70s with 12 victories in 112 NHRA events. "And as good as he is on the track, he's an even better ambassador."
Considering he pushes Top Fuel dragsters at over 300 mph, the fact that Force talks faster than he drives is quite the accomplishment. It's also an undeniable fact. He's charismatic. Effervescent. Robin Williams with a gas pedal and a full tank.
"With this economy, I'm proud to have kept a relationship with Castrol as my sponsor for all these years," he said before something shiny temporarily yanks his attention from the interview. "Hey, can we talk off the record? Are all girls in Texas this pretty? OK, sorry, where were we? Was I giving tickets away or what? You know, I can be a good promoter. Like that guy with the grill. Who was that? Mike Tyson?"
In his 34th year in NHRA, he's become the pre-eminent personality of his sport. Over the last 20 years, he's won 16 championships—14 as driver and two as owner.
"I want a 15th championship," he said between autographs. "First of all because I like to win. Secondly because I like to eat. I've got three daughters, ya know, and they ain't cheap."
One of those daughters, Ashley, drives dragsters and sometimes beats the old man. The others, Britney and Courtney, starred with John in the A&E reality show Driving Force. He also earned a cartoon cameo in Fox's King of the Hill.
On this day Force has been to Valley Ranch, where he hit it off with Dallas Cowboys' strength and conditioning coach, Joe Juraszek. Force will return and give a motivational speech next week before the team heads to Houston to play the Texans.
"I've been a Cowboys fan since I first laid eyes on cheerleaders," said Force, 61 going on 21. "I love their weight room out there. Back in the day I'd spend two hours a night in the bar. Now it's two hours a day in the gym. But I love winning and I love driving. You see those flames out the back of the dragster at night and, I tell you, it's better than sex. I guess I better not say that here in the Bible Belt. Too late, huh? I already said it. Oh what the heck, let's have some fun."
Serious for only a second, Force recalls the crash at Texas Motorplex that almost killed him in 2007. Entangled with legendary driver Kenny Bernstein's car at the finish line, he flipped, hit a wall and suffered a collapsed lung, broken ankle, mangled fingers and toes and a dislocated wrist.
His enthusiasm—despite the arrival of NASCAR, the departure of the SSC and his close call with death—endures along with Texas Motorplex.
"This is the place," Force said. "Billy built us the first all-concrete track and here we are 25 years still coming back. I can't stay away."