Texas Texas Motorplex's Billy Meyer interview
Back when there were just a handful of races each NHRA national event season, Billy Meyer battled other Funny Car drivers for each and every round win. He drove in 112 NHRA events and earned 12 victories in 22 final round appearances. Do the math -- ...
Back when there were just a handful of races each NHRA national event season, Billy Meyer battled other Funny Car drivers for each and every round win. He drove in 112 NHRA events and earned 12 victories in 22 final round appearances. Do the math -- he was in the finals 20 percent of the time. Not bad for a guy who was also racing in IHRA events, doing match races as well as running any number of businesses Meyer has started and owned throughout his lifetime. Want the short list of some of his accomplishments? He finished in the top 10 each year that he raced behind the wheel of a Funny Car, including turning in second-place finishes in the final point standings three times; he was the youngest person ever licensed to drive a Funny Car (16 years old); he earned an IHRA Winston world championship (1980); was partner to Hal Needham in the Budweiser Rocket Car -- the car that set the land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats, becoming the first land vehicle to break the sound barrier; he helped create Racers for Christ; he's the author for the Boy Scouts of America badge requirements for Automotive Mechanics; he owned IHRA in 1988; he also owned and published Drag Racing Today. On top of all that, Meyer has dabbled in areas outside the racing industry too. He has started and owned businesses in publishing, corporate jets, real estate and website design, to name a few. Oh yeah, he also owns the Texas Motorplex, the site of this weekend's 21st annual O'Reilly Fall NHRA Nationals. In this Q&A session Meyer talks about what his dad contributed to his life, what his weakness is as a track owner and what he considers to be his best racing statistic.
Q: How did your dad's work as a motivation coach teach you?
MEYER: He based his work on goal setting whether it was in sales, your personal, life or athletics. He had a huge impact on my life. I was raised in an environment where you were never given any mental recognition to the possibility of defeat. Losing was not an option. If you have a bad week, that's just a learning experience. It's the way I've lived my life.
Q: Why did you choose racing as a career?
MEYER: I raced Go-Karts from when I was 9 years old until I was 16. I didn't have a way to get to the race track all the time, so I went with different people until Grover Rogers took me with him. He raced my bigger Go-Kart at national events. He drove the Steakley Chevrolet Funny Car for the Waco and Dallas based Chevy dealership. He was a big brother to me and at one point, he asked if I wanted to buy into the car and all the stuff that came with it. I used money from some stocks that my dad gave me when I was growing up. I was 16 years old and that was my lucky break. I had been going to the races with the team and had been making a pass here or there. Then he crashed in a Go-Kart and hurt his hand and couldn't drive for a year. If that had not happened, I would have never been given the opportunity to drive so soon. I got my license and started match racing every weekend. As soon as I turned 18, I went on tour full time. I left home about six weeks after high school graduation to go racing.
Q: What attracts people to racing? Why are they die-hard fans?
MEYER: Drag racing is unique in that the atmosphere is considerably different than any other sport. It operates off multiple senses -- smell, sounds, vibrations; a lot of different senses come out versus other sports. People like to see crashes and see things on the edge. But one of the reasons why drag racing unique is because the fatality rate is so incredibly low. People like to watch something that looks dangerous with lots of scary moments, but they also want to see people walk away.
Q: What did being a race car driver help you with in your later business ventures?
MEYER: Driving a drag race vehicle, especially a fuel car, I think you learn to understand that preparation is extremely important from both a safety and victory standpoint. Everyday is match play. In football a team can fumble the ball but they have four quarters to make it up. In tennis, even though it has the same ladder system as a drag race, they have several games and sets to earn the win. If you have a bad set, you still have time to make it up and win the match. In drag racing, you have one shot and you can't make a mistake. It forces you to focus extremely hard and I'd say Funny Car, having an extra element of danger, helps illuminate the importance of preparation.
Q: Why have you stayed with the racing industry even after you stopped driving?
MEYER: I enjoy the friendships and relationships that I've made throughout the years. Obviously a good second reason is that the track has become an income producing company. A third reason is that if you look at a lot of people, their true love is what they did first in life, whether it's college football, a school they attended or anything else they bonded with early in their lives. It describes them well. Racing is just a part of me. I love the ability to be at the race track, even if I am not driving a race car. We have what we consider the finest racing surface at the Texas Motorplex. We provide great corporate opportunities and the my business background has helped us become a great partner for sponsors. It's a great blend of who I am.
Q: Who influenced you most while growing up?
MEYER: My dad was the most influential person in my life because of the way we were raised. He simply taught us to never give up on anything.
Q: Why did you choose Funny Car when you were racing?
MEYER: That was a simple choice because that's what Grover Rodgers drove and that was my first opportunity to drive. It's also by far the hardest to drive and it is a much more popular vehicle with spectators. When we were match racing, Funny Car was the most entertaining type of racing.
Q: Your track was the first super-facility for drag racing. How did the construction of the Texas Motorplex come about?
MEYER: I had been involved with racing for a while and I had a theory that we had a much bigger sport than what was being showed. We basically were playing in the sand lots. You wouldn't think much of the Dallas Cowboys if they played in a sand lot. But if you have a big-league park, it becomes more representative of what the sport really is. I had so many sponsors over the years and the biggest problem was tracks without proper amenities. I was the driver of the first Skoal Bandit in 1981. Lou Bantle was the Chairman of the Board of Skoal at the time. I remember he showed up to a race in Englishtown (N.J.) with his wife. They showed up in a Gulfstream jet worth about $20 million to a track that didn't have suites, bathrooms or anything else to make them feel comfortable. That was their first and last drag race.
In 1982 I had a partnership with Hal Needham and Burt Reynolds and we all owned the car that broke the land speed record. So we bring all the big shots out to Pomona and one of the wives rolls out of a chauffeured Rolls Royce wearing a mink coat. We didn't have suites there either and while they were walking to the lanes, tire rubber from a burnout got all over her face, her coat, everything. It was a disaster and the last time they came to a race too. That's when we decided to do what we did. We wanted to build the best race track in America for racers so that's why we built it with the all-concrete surface. We also wanted to build the most comfortable place for spectators. When I built this facility we had more restrooms than Texas Stadium. We have concessions everywhere. We also wanted a place for corporate sponsors. We wanted to be able to give sponsors a place to entertain their customers and advertise their product. The Texas Motorplex was the first place to accomplish all of those goals.
Q: What does the Texas Motorplex do well as a facility?
MEYER: Everything. The spectators have the most amenities of any facility whether it's food, seating, bathrooms or suites. The racers are treated well. We have more asphalt parking and the most consistent track in the world. We never have one lane or asphalt issues. From a corporate standpoint we have a phenomenal record of retention of sponsors. That's because we have the ability to work with any type of program they need. Over the years I've worn many hats in the racing industry and throughout the 20 years I've owned the Texas Motorplex, I've learned what it takes to make a race track work. It all has to do with the people we have working here because they know the goals and they know how to accomplish them. We have a great staff and that's why when people do leave the Motorplex, they have a great record of moving on to phenomenal positions in pro sports or elsewhere.
Q: What other jobs have you had in your lifetime?
MEYER: The only job that I had in my life where I was working for someone else was when I was working my way through high school. I left school each day at noon for my job at a printing company. I worked in the lithography department, setting up pages and burning plates.
Q: You've accomplished several records, wins and honors in your career, including setting the land-speed record in 1979. What are you most proud of in your racing career?
MEYER: I had only one red-light in my racing career. I did not even red light that time, either, which sounds really egotistical. It was the first round in Montreal and I was racing against Kenny Bernstein. I had really shiny front wheels and at that time, there were different beams going across the track, not the inferred lights we have now. It almost looked like a flood light and the sun was out and it hit the wheel at the wrong angle and went back to the sensor. It wasn't the wheel that moved, I was actually late, but I got the red light. We both knew it and you could see it on the video tape. It was comical, but only because the same exact thing happened to Bernstein against me at the next race.
Q: Have you ever thought about not working in the racing industry?
MEYER: Yes, of course. In 1999, we tried to move the Motorplex up Interstate 30 in Grand Prairie, right across from Lone Star Park. We had a sales tax election asking for the $65 million needed to get me to move up the interstate. We lost by 318 votes. Only a few months later, at the NHRA event in 2000, we were rained out and had to run the eliminations without qualifying. It's the only time in history NHRA has run a race without qualifying and that was a very trying weekend. I was pretty down for a while after those two things and I wasn't all that excited about being involved with the sport. But it always comes back to the friends and other aspects about racing that I love and that's why I've stayed in it for so long.
Q: What do you do well as a race track owner?
MEYER: I empower our people to operate to the best of their abilities and give them the tools necessary to do the job. I try to teach them what I have learned. Owning something for 20 years you realize that, like all things in life, wisdom comes from knowledge and knowledge comes from making mistakes more often than not. We try to make sure our people know they can learn from their mistakes, have knowledge and try not to make the same mistake twice. That's how I've learned throughout my career.
Q: What is your weakness as a race track owner?
MEYER: Too much love of the sport, which doesn't necessarily translate into great financial decisions. I put a lot of the profits back into the facility without enough concern for the financial statements.
Racing at the Texas Motorplex starts Thursday. Sportsman qualifying begins at 10 a.m. Thursday while pro qualifying takes place at 4 and 7 p.m. Friday, continuing at noon and 3 p.m. Saturday. Final eliminations start at 11 a.m. on Sunday.
Tickets can be purchased by calling the Texas Motorplex at 800-MOTORPLEX (688-6775).