‘Stampede of Speed’ Is Model For NHRA Tracks In Hunt For New Fans

Mickey Thompson, motorsports’ marketing maestro, used to say, “If somebody tells you your idea is crazy, start selling tickets.”

That idea isn’t lost on Texas Motorplex General Manager Andy Carter, whose “Stampede of Speed” week-long, community-celebration prelude to the NHRA’s Oct. 7-10 Texas FallNationals at Ennis, south of Dallas starts with a concept that made him eat his Stetson.

It’s called Night Lights. It’s billed as a “sky lantern experience” inspired by the traditional Thai Lantern Festival. Thousands of people gather, for $50 a head, and launch (yes, biodegradable) paper lanterns into the dusky Texas sky, sending messages of hope, encouragement, and remembrances of loved ones. Its mission centers on renewal, positivity, and inclusion.

And the first time the organizer approached Carter, hoping to rent the Motorplex, Carter laughed at her. The former vice president of operations for Championship Bull Riding couldn’t have imagined anything more incongruous for the facility. Fixing s’mores over little campfires and bonding with strangers while meditating about personal milestones and connecting with others while “letting go of worries” and releasing lanterns into the heavens was all too “kind-of-wow/kum-ba-ya” for him.

“I was like, ‘In California, probably so. Texas, this ain’t going to work.’ The first event here, they capped it—they stopped selling tickets—at 10,000. I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ And then when you see it, when 10,000 of these lanterns go up in the air, it’s cooler than any fireworks show or anything else you’ve ever seen. I mean, it’s just magical,” Carter said. The Night Lights promoters, he said, “are looking at like ‘Well, maybe we can get some drag-racing fans to come to it.’” And then it struck him: “It’s like drag racing: you’ve got to see it to understand it. And once you see it, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is really cool.’”

And that’s the point of the Stampede of Speed at and around Ennis, Texas. Top Fuel-driving Texan Billy Torrence said, “I’ve never taken anybody to a drag race who didn’t want to come again.”

That’s what Andy Carter is aiming for. He’s operating in the same vein that Penske Entertainment did in presiding over the recent Music City Grand Prix at Nashville, embracing the NFL’s Tennessee Titans organization as race host, trading on the city’s rich music scene, and involving community and government leaders (including Mayor John Cooper, who called the event “a catalyst for our economic recovery.”

Although this August’s inaugural Music City Grand Prix itself, by most accounts, was underwhelming from a racing-performance perspective, IndyCar champion Scott Dixon said afterward, “People were excited about it. No matter what was going on, people in the stands were paying attention and going nuts.”

That would be a “Yahtzee!” for Carter and Texas Motorplex owner Billy Meyer, who are rolling the dice with a country-music concert headlined by Dustin Lynch, bull-riding exhibitions, a “Nitro Sideshow,” a Kids Korral with interactive games, a pub crawl and movie night at nearby Waxahachie featuring a special showing of the “Snake and Mongoose” film with legend Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, a DJ-fueled after-party on the starting line following Friday-night qualifying, and a first-ever, no rules, anything-goes Shootout involving three classes (Top Sportsman, Top Dragster, Pro Mod)—with multiple fireworks shows. The public is invited to watch pro NHRA teams during a special Wednesday track session on the same track they’ll race Sunday.

The second day alone of the Oct. 2-10 spectacle promises a “massive day of family-friendly events leading up to taking the stage for a full night of country music” for $25. And Texas Motorplex co-owner Christie Meyer Johnson said, “We wanted to produce an event like nothing Texas has ever seen. I don’t think any venue has ever hosted a major concert, bull riding, car show, beer expo, and BBQ contest for a $25 ticket. That kind of value is unheard of, especially when we throw in kids 12 and under are free with a paying adult. We will have activities for the kids, too. It is the best value for entertainment in the state, hands down.”

NHRA President Glen Cromwell—and just about any drag racer—has said, “We’re in the entertainment business.” But Carter and the Texas Motorplex team aren’t waiting for the NHRA to prove they understand that. They’re going to show them how it’s done.

Then they’re hoping their something-for-everybody, community-embracing event inspires other facilities on the Camping World Drag Racing Series schedule to build a party atmosphere around their own events to bring NHRA drag racing top of mind again throughout the U.S.—considering the sport has a larger geographic reach and more fan-interactive structure than certainly any other motorsport and arguably most other major-league sports.

“Drag racing fans are going to come, but we’ve got to get new fans onboard.”

“Drag-racing fans are going to come, but we’ve got to get new fans onboard, [saying], ‘Man, this really is a cool sport,’” Carter said. “We’re going to build this into a Super Bowl-sized type of event, where there’s things going on in town every day, not just at the track but in our whole area. I came from the rodeo background, and you got a lot of these communities where their rodeo comes to town every year and the whole town just turns out for it. That’s what we want to see here: drive that economic boost to the area with this event.

“We, as the sport of drag racing, have never done that,” he said. “It’s just run like a business and NHRA comes to town, we do our deal, and it’s not involving the businesses and the city leaders and everybody in the community. And that’s what we really hope to accomplish with this first year: showing them what we can do and driving business to them and hopefully get them on board with us doing the same thing.”

Carter had a hand in staging the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo and some of its accompanying festivities, not the least of which is the renowned pancake breakfast in the Wyoming capital city’s downtown. Cooks have their shtick of flipping the pancakes into the air, while diners dash about, trying to catch them on their plates. It’s fun and delicious – and it’s a huge fundraiser for the local Lions Club and Kiwanis. And, Carter said, “That’s something that I’d love to see here. It’s that county-fair feel.”

Carter has a feel for what is successful.

“I didn’t grow up in drag racing. I’m not a hardcore drag-racing fan. I grew up in a ranching family [around] rodeos and stuff like that,” he said, trying with the Stampede of Speed to integrate both kinds of horsepower with a whole lot of other interests. He said, “My son [Casey] races, dirt-track cars and sprint cars. So I’ve looked at things a lot different than some people. And I’ve even had people from other tracks call Billy and tell him, ‘Hey man, this guy’s going to shut your track down. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. So far, the things I’ve done have worked.”

IndyCar racer James Hinchcliffe said after this summer’s Nashville race, “For the first crack at it as an event, this was pretty freaking awesome. This town knew that we were here, and it looked like it loved that we were here.”

And that’s what Andy Carter and Billy Meyer and Christie Meyer Johnson hopes to hear when the dust settles from the Stampede of Speed.

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