Originally created 04/01/04

Racing's Texas two-step



FORT WORTH, Tex. - True to his Texas roots, when Francis Ferko decided to take on NASCAR, he did it in a big way.

A shareholder in the company that owns Texas Motor Speedway, Ferko sued the powerful racing organization for a second annual racing date at the eight-year-old speedway. The more NASCAR tried to squash Ferko in court, the harder he fought.

With a trial date looming in summer, NASCAR apparently will give up the fight and give Texas a second date. As the Busch and Nextel Cup series prepare for this weekend's races at what is now their only appearance at the posh 1.5-mile racetrack, the sport seems to know big changes are in the works.

Officially NASCAR isn't talking; Ferko isn't talking; SMI isn't talking.

"I know you don't want to lose a jury trial in Texas," Ricky Rudd told a Fort Worth newspaper. "I know that much."

According to published reports - and confirmed by sources at several speedways - a settlement will involve several changes. Not only would Texas get its second annual date, but so would Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway.

To make it happen, International Speedway Corp. would sell the North Carolina Speedway to SMI and move its single racing date to Texas. The agreement also includes a plan to move one of the two annual dates at the Darlington (S.C.) Raceway to Las Vegas and to close down the dilapidated Watkins Glen International and move that single date to either Phoenix or Kansas City.

Bill France Jr., Jim France and Lesa France Kennedy have a controlling interest in ISC. The Frances also own NASCAR.

Ferko, whose list of attorneys included Johnny Cochran, not only felt NASCAR promised a second date to Texas while it was being built, he was prepared to challenge the association between ISC and NASCAR.

More than a ton of paperwork and nearly $20 million in legal fees have piled up as a result of the lawsuit.

In those pages of discovery and depositions is the reported plan to move a race away from the Watkins Glen road course to either Phoenix or Kansas City. That date eventually will wind up at either in the Seattle or New York areas when ISC expands again.

ISC currently owns 11 speedways on the Nextel Cup Series and interests into two more. SMI owns six tracks. It was becoming increasingly difficult for NASCAR to show impartiality toward ISC, especially since the same family owns both. February's race at North Carolina Speedway drew fewer than 60,000 fans. March's race at Darlington Raceway attracted the same number. Both North Carolina and Darlington are in rural areas, far from the modern amenities that now are expected on the circuit. More important, both are part of the Charlotte, N.C., market - an area that already has two other Nextel Cup races as well as the sport's all-star event.

North Carolina and Darlington are owned by ISC.

At the same time, Texas and Las Vegas have had sellout crowds of more than 150,000 for every Nextel Cup Series race. And both racetracks are in key markets with only one annual race.

Texas and Las Vegas are owned by SMI.

"That's a bunch of people," Richard Petty said. "Our sponsors love it because they have 200,000 people there instead of 60,000 or 70,000."

Television, of course, will play a role in how the new schedule is built. NBC wants big crowds and major markets in the 10-race Chase for the Championship that will create the sport's champion.

Petty said losing races at Darlington and North Carolina means the sport will be taking another step away from its storied past. Darlington has hosted NASCAR races since 1950; North Carolina since 1965. And yet, change is necessary.

"If NASCAR hadn't changed some of these tracks in some different areas, we'd still be running Saturday nights at dirt tracks in front of 5,000 people," he said.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.