The racer's edge

Paul Fielding remembers the moment his antenna rose on this racetrack business.
It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the end of a long holiday weekend. The Dallas city councilman was at home in North Dallas, dredging leaves out of his swimming pool. He had taken his cordless phone outside and, sure enough, around noon it began to ring.

"It was Stimson," recalls Fielding, referring to fellow council member Bob Stimson. "He was inviting me to a press conference at 3:30--in three hours. Which was ridiculous. It was a Sunday afternoon, the end of a four-day weekend, and I just didn't feel like schlepping out there for that deal--without any warning."

"That deal" was a press conference that an Ennis drag strip owner named Billy Meyer was holding to announce plans to build a $60 to $75 million major-league auto speedway at Pinnacle Park in west Oak Cliff. The mayor would be at the press conference to embrace the proposal, Stimson told Fielding, and so would Stimson, whose district this was in.

Fielding didn't know much about this racetrack situation. It had only been in the newspapers a few weeks, it wasn't near his district, and the city staff had yet to give the council any kind of briefing. But he did know this much: there was some kind of competition going on to build a racetrack in Dallas.

On one side was racing heavyweight Bruton Smith from Charlotte, N.C., who owned giant speedways in Charlotte and Atlanta, both of which host big-time races for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). Smith was scouting locations for a racetrack site. On Monday, according to news reports, Smith was going to make a formal announcement that he had picked Dallas-Fort Worth over St. Louis as the future home of his track.

Which is why it was strange to Fielding that Bartlett and Stimson were hosting this last-minute press conference for someone named Billy Meyer, an award-winning funny-car driver from Waco who owned one small drag strip in Ennis--a short, straight track, not a giant oval like Smith's--albeit one of the best in the country for drag racing. Clearly, Meyer's hastily arranged press conference was meant to beat Smith to the punch.

"I couldn't figure out why Bartlett was pushing the guy," Fielding said of Meyer. "It was like comparing Ross Perot to me--it was like picking me for a computer contract when you have Ross Perot standing there, too. The other guy had all the credentials."

Fielding, though, didn't have to think about it too long. He was a sharp guy. He'd been on the city council a while. He'd watched the mayor do some pretty impressively contorted softshoe on other big development issues--most recently the new sports arena.

As Fielding turned his phone off, and Dallas' latest good-ol'-boy deal came into full, expressive color, Fielding fumbled--dropping his phone into the swimming pool and capping a now-irritating end to an otherwise relaxing weekend.

"It came to me pretty quickly," Fielding said. "This was Ray Hunt--chapter 37."

War is hell. But it's easier if you happen to be Ray Hunt--and your battlefield is Dallas city hall.

Hunt has an incredible track record of capitalizing on taxpayer bounty to do his deeds--most notably, his Hyatt Hotel-Reunion complex. He's now poised to cash in on the new arena, also slated for the Reunion area that he controls.

Now a new taxpayer-subsidized bonanza looms on the horizon--Pinnacle Park, the doomed horse track site in Oak Cliff that Waco-based Billy Meyer wants to transform into an auto speedway.

Meyer plans to do it with the ultimate political ally--Ray Hunt's Woodbine Devel-opment Co., which is going to build the track and any surrounding development, possibly including a hotel. Also on the Meyer team is George Schrader, a Dallas business consultant who just happens to be the former Dallas city manager who cut the generous deal that gave public land, air rights, and developmental control of the 50-acre Reunion development for a period of 100 years to Hunt.

As the years pass, it gets more and more difficult to see Hunt's fingerprints on his handiwork. He still prefers to negotiate privately with city officials, strictly behind closed doors, until a deal can be sealed. And he has emissaries who do it for him.

That is, in fact, how the Billy Meyer racetrack was being done until Smith screwed it up. Meyer had gone to Mayor Steve Bartlett and City Manager John Ware last May to begin negotiating his deal. The public knew nothing about it until November, when Smith happened to come to town to consider building a track out at Alliance Airport, for which Ross Perot Jr. had been courting him for several years.

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Laura Miller