I hate to see us lose our history.
We have such a long, interesting, and rich history that it hurts when we lose any part of it.
It may be a team closing their doors or a long-time sponsor deciding to go in a “new direction.” Every driver who leaves by choice or otherwise changes our history. Same with car owners, crew members, media members… or fans. It could be something as solid as a track or as ethereal as a racing web site. Once gone, we lose a part of history.
This year we’ve seen Auto Club Speedway close. Hopefully it will be back reconfigured… but we’ll never see it like it was. Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt is not on the schedule. Gone? Forgotten? Some would say not soon enough.
Greenville-Pickens, a one-time Cup track is fighting for its very survival. Nashville Fairgrounds is teetering between a return to Cup and becoming an EVehicle Drag Strip. Rockford Speedway, not a Cup track, but seventy-five years of racing is now just a memory.
The Winston Cup Museum, a place that tried to preserve a particular period of our history was forced to close. Then it reopened only to be forced to close again. This time permanently. Now, they cannot get it closed quick enough before facing even more litigation from ITG Brands.
As sad as those are, it really hurts when we lose the people who helped make the sport. The recent loss of Paul Call, the longtime caretaker of North Wilkesboro Speedway was one. He took care of the Wilkes County track for over sixty years. In the years after Cup left, Paul was the Speedway’s only employee-taking care of the property, offering tours to the occasional visitor. Through those years, he never lost hope that Cup would one day return. We lost Paul a few weeks ago but not before he finally saw his dream come true with Cup’s return for the 2023 All Star race. Godspeed, Paul.
These are the obvious parts of the sport. What about something that on the surface has no apparent connection to the sport? Something you might drive by every day that you never knew was even a part of racing history.
One example is the old Texas Gas Transmission headquarters in my hometown of Owensboro, KY. It was designed by the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who is best known for their design of the United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel. Its architecture was unique for the area and in its time was the most noted modern building in the sleepy river town.
What is Texas Gas?
Texas Gas is a natural gas pipeline company that transports gas from the Louisiana Gulf Coast through Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky to its customers in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. It was created in 1948 from a merger of Memphis Natural and Kentucky Natural Gas and it located its headquarters in the distinct Owensboro building in 1962. It became a local landmark of sorts for the company that had so much impact on this community and beyond.
Nearly one-third of the 1500 Texas Gas employees who once worked there, worked in the Owensboro-Daviess County area. Employees and their families participated in every facet of the community and served in leadership roles in city government, school boards, service clubs, Chamber of Commerce, charitable organizations. They prepared leaders for the future as they were a major force in Junior Achievement program on the local and national level. Employees served their local churches in all denominations. They were truly a significant part of the Owensboro “fabric”.
Personally, Texas Gas played a significant role in my life. They were my first employer out of college, working as the low man on the totem pole in its pipeline survey crew. My future wife was from a “Texas Gas family” and worked there in the summers. Her father, a civil engineer for the pipelines had helped land me that first job. He has been an employee there probably as long as there was a company there. So Texas Gas has always been a big part of our lives and its headquarters was always the ever-present reminder of that place in our lives.
What you may not know is the part this gas transmission company would eventually play in changing the sport of NASCAR.
Texas Gas launched a Hall of Fame racing career…
But what you may not know that from that building came many things that would impact our sport of NASCAR. In the late 1960’s the President of Texas Gas was Frank Rader. Mr. Rader had two daughters. Carol, the older daughter went to high school with a local race car driver. That driver would one day come to Mr. Rader’s office at that building and ask his permission to marry his younger daughter, Stephanie. He reluctantly (understandably so) gave his permission, and she became known to NASCAR as Stevie Waltrip, wife of three-time Cup Champion and NASCAR Hall of Fame driver, Darrell Waltrip.
Also working at the building was Chairman of the Board, Mr. William Elmer. An avid race fan, he once posed the question to Rader and DW what it would cost to “put a car in the Daytona 500?” The search began for a suitable car for big-time racing. Holman-Moody had the old Mario Andretti Daytona 500 winning Fairlane that had been re-skinned to David Pearson’s Cyclone for sale for $12,500. That information was passed back to Mr. Elmer and DW soon found himself on the NASCAR circuit, launching a 29-year Hall of Fame Cup career that we all know.
A race car always needs a sponsor, so for his first four years on the circuit his car carried the name of Texas Gas subsidiary- Terminal Transport. The barge line’s name was on DW’s car for 62 of his first 68 races, including his first Cup pole at Nashville Fairgrounds in 1974, his first Cup win at Nashville in 1975 and his second Cup win at Richmond later that year.
DW’s success caught the attention of several car owners and before the season was over, car owners Mike DiProspero and Bill Gardner would hire DW to replace Donnie Allison in their DiGard Racing ride for 11 of the final 12 races of the year. The new combination got off to a rough start as DNFs and problems outnumbered complete races. But when they did finish, they finished well, scoring five top 10’s including a 7th, 4th and two 3rds.
When DW wheeled the DiGard Racing Chevrolet into the Victory Lane at Richmond in their eighth race together to get their first Cup win and his second Cup win, it was again Terminal Transport that was on the side of the car.
Texas Gas brings a formidable sponsor to the sport, breaking NASCAR’s color barrier…
Vice President Dennis Hendrix also worked in the Texas Gas building. Hendrix was playing golf one day with Rader and suggested he have his son-in-law contact Hendrix’s fraternity brother, Bill Stokley, head of Stokley Van-Camp. They had a product that Stokley believed would market well in racing but was reconsidering after their efforts to put their product, Gatorade, on Johnny Rutherford’s Indy 500 entry.
It seems that things had not gone well at the Brickyard as Stokley and Hendrix were treated so badly by Indy officials over their credentials that Stokley was ready to throw up his hands on the prospects of using racing for product marketing. Maybe he could be convinced otherwise.
As it turns out, after following Hendrix suggestion, DW brought Stokley to the Gardners (brother Jim Gardner was now taking a more active role) and after signing a sponsorship deal valued at $200,000 for the 1976 season, Gatorade replaced Terminal Transport on the DiGard car.
When the season opened DW, DiGard and Gatorade were not only racing for a Cup Championship, but they also broke the “color barrier” in NASCAR. It was not skin color as we normally think of but car color as they carried the Gatorade green on the #88.
Race drivers are a superstitious lot, moreso then than now. Back then green was considered unlucky. Few, if any drivers would carry the color and most of the older drivers didn’t even want to be around it. So strong were those feelings that veteran David Pearson refused to park next to DW’s Gatorade ride. The color hardly proved unlucky for the brash Waltrip though as over the next five seasons the Gatorade ride carried DW to 25 more wins. Together, they finished top 10 in points every year, establishing DiGard as a team to be reckoned with. DiGard would go on to win a total of 43 Cup races and the 1983 Cup Championship with Bobby Allison behind the wheel.
Texas Gas allows a Hall of Fame career to continue…
At the end of 1980, DW found himself at one of his many career crossroads as he had received a call to drive for the legendary car owner, Junior Johnson. Unfortunately, standing in his way was his last contract with the Gardners. It brewed into a nasty battle with DW wanting to leave for greener pastures while the Gardners claimed their “ironclad” contract prevented DW from driving for anyone else but them and were prepared to “law him” to put him on the sidelines if he wasn’t in their car.
Finally, after some tense months that looked like DW would be sitting out the remainder of his contract an agreement was reached…for the right price. For a then astronomical $325,000 the GARDNER’s would release DW from the contract and allow him to drive elsewhere. Future sponsor Coca-Cola kicked in $100,000. Car owner Junior Johnson advanced DW $100,000 on his upcoming salary. It was a phone call to Owensboro that produced the final monies that allowed DW to get out of the DiGard Gatorade green to drive a new shade of green, Johnson’s Mountain Dew #11.
Their first two years together resulted in 24 wins and two Cup Championships. Before that relationship ended in 1986, the Johnson/Waltrip team had won another Cup Championship and a total of 43 Cup races, over one half of DW’s win total and nearly one third of Johnson’s win total. Their success secured Waltrip’s place as NASCAR’s Driver of the Decade (1980’s) and eventually a spot in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Texas Gas helps break down the NASCAR’s gender barrier…
As mentioned earlier, Texas Gas’ President was Frank Radar, whose daughter Stevie would marry DW. What you may not know is Stevie is a woman of great determination who would go on to help break NASCAR’s “gender barrier.” She didn’t do it as a driver like Sara Christian, Ethel Mobley, Louise Smith or Janet Guthrie as we normally think of, but as a crew member. Before Stevie joined her husband’s crew to handle scoring and fuel mileage calculations for his team, a female in the pits was even more rare than a female driver. Pit road was man’s country… that is until Stevie came along. There atop the pit box, calculating fuel mileage for her husband she not only played an integral part in his only Daytona 500 win, but she slowly opened that closed gender barrier door and helped hold it open for other racing spouses to walk through and now occupy the pits. In her quiet, businesslike, and professional manner, Stevie Waltrip forever changed the sport in a way few recognize, but many appreciate.
Texas Gas affected more than the Waltrips…
But Texas Gas wasn’t just Waltrip. They supported various forms of racing, even turning their beautiful, manicured property into a first-class kart track. Speed bumps were graded out, a new silky-smooth pavement was placed down all around, and hundreds of hay bales outlined the course that circled the magnificent four-story structure. Hundreds of karters descended on the new track and the swarms of single cylinder karts racing around the improvised road course was truly a sight to behold. The thunderous drone of battling bumble bees would signal their approach and the sicky-sweet smell of spent racing fuel and oil (with maybe a hint of a little something extra mixed in) excited those senses as well.
They provided a great day of racing anyone who knew anything about Texas Gas would expect. One driver who caught my eye that day was a youngster from Brownsboro IN. Maybe he caught my eye because he was fast and smooth. Or it could have been his snappy leathers that had the name ANDRETTI on the back, just barely visible above the seat top. His uncle Mario was my sister’s favorite driver. We had seen his father Aldo race open wheel as well. My lasting thought from that day was “I wonder what’s going to happen to him?”
A few years later we’d all find out.
Texas Gas… NASCAR History Lost
Texas Gas still exists but it is no longer what it once was. Takeover after takeover, it a now subsidiary of Boardwalk Pipelines. Their barge line, Terminal Transport, whose name visited Cup Victory Lane twice in its brief appearance in NASCAR was sold off to another company who needed it to fit its need. And the once magnificent building that greeted people entering Owensboro from the south on US 431 was no longer needed and vacated for smaller space downtown.
The building and grounds were sold, first to the local board of education and recently to a developer. The Junior Achievement building on the property that prepared generations of leaders, like the magnificent trees surrounding the property, many planted in memory of employees past, now gone. The once manicured lawns have been dozed under and replaced with a car lot, a car wash and a small strip mall. The remainder of the property looks like a construction zone… or a destruction zone depending on your perspective.
The once proud building has endured a slow, agonizing death. First, the windows were knocked out by vandals. The gaping wounds were band-aided up with plywood, but even that couldn’t stop the decline. Now the entire structure is gutted, a bare skeleton.
I once held hope that it would one day return to its former glory, repurposed and a reminder of what it meant to the community and beyond. But after my latest visit, if things continue on its current trajectory, chances are that it will be just a memory before the cars fire up at Daytona this February.
It is heartbreaking indeed.
But till then, it serves as a grim reminder that it’s those memories and their significance we need to remember and hold on to tight, for time and change continues their endless march to rob us of our history.
Our history, no matter how big or small is just too important to lose.
Thunder On… and Stay Safe