Five million square feet of warehouse space at Baytown, Texas, wasn’t enough for Katoen Natie, the Antwerp, Belgium-headquartered international logistics service provider and port operator.
So the company is preparing to expand its footprint for receiving, storing, and distributing petrochemicals and consumer goods, as well as housing its process engineering and other business units—at the expense of NHRA-affiliated Houston Raceway Park.
The venue and sanctioning body jointly announced Wednesday afternoon that the home of its SpringNationals—a staple for the past 35 years—and host of two annual events from 1997-2000, will close following the April 22-24, 2022, race.
Track operator Seth Angel said his family’s sale of the property was “no surprise to the NHRA” but “bittersweet” nonetheless.
“This is no surprise, no surprise to NHRA,” he told Autoweek. “We’ve been in constant communication with them as to where things sat for us. Back in 2018, we engaged with some folks that were interested in purchasing the property, and it led to a deal that closed in 2019. We were not interested in departing the sport in a manner that was detrimental to the sport. We weren’t going to just jerk the rug out from underneath the NHRA, from our fans, from our racers. We wanted to do it the right way. So part of that was we were going to lease back the property for four years to fulfill all of our obligations with NHRA and with our partners. And that’s what we’ve done. And so that deal comes to a close in April of next year.
“There were some discussions along the way, in that time period, where, we might consider extending it and going into two extra years. But at the end of the day, the property owner is going to develop it into an industrial facility,” Angel said.
“Trust me,” he said, giving up Houston Raceway Park, “is not an easy thing to do. It’s been a dream come true to meet and work with all the incredible drivers, team owners, and NHRA executives who come together each year to entertain the millions of racing fans in our area. From preseason tests to years where we had two national events, to the scores of legends who have raced here, to the championships decided on our grounds, it’s been an incredible high-speed ride. Our family is forever indebted to the sport of NHRA drag racing and will cherish the amazing memories we’ve made when this chapter closes next spring.”
Not only will that mark an end to an era in Texas motorsports history, but it also will mean the disappearance of a fourth prominent drag-racing facility since 2018. Old Bridge Township Raceway Park at Englishtown, N.J., demolished its dragstrip, then Route 66 Raceway and Atlanta Dragway left the Camping World Series, all while COVID-19 restrictions forced cancellation of both the 2020 and 2021 Richmond, Va., and Seattle events and the 2021 Phoenix race.
Houston Raceway Park, renowned for its sea-level location along Trinity Bay that creates a race-perfect, oxygen-rich environment, hosted its inaugural national event in 1988. At that time, the 500-acre venue was co-owned by the Gay family of Dickenson, Texas, and their longtime friends, brothers Greg, Gary, and Glen Angel. The Angel brothers bought out the Gay family’s interest in 2004.
“It’s bittersweet for me, bittersweet for our family. We’ve spent 35 years in the sport as track owners. We’ve probably spent over 50 years in the sport as fans. It’s something we don’t take lightly,” Seth Angel, son of the late Glen Angel, said. “We’ve made a lot of friends. We’ve had a lot of fun. Our family is extremely proud to have showcased the top level of professional drag racing for 35 wonderful years. We’re forever grateful to the City of Baytown, Chambers County, and the State of Texas for all the assistance they’ve provided. There is also an impressive list of corporate sponsors that were all instrumental in making this race possible each season. We feel very honored to have held this event for 35 years. Thank you all.
“And,” he said, “as a family, we’re going to move on to the next stage in our lives.”
“It’s bittersweet for me, bittersweet for our family.”
Angel didn’t reveal specific long-range plans but reminded that he has a racetrack to run for the next nine-plus months.
“I’m 39 years old. I’ve got a lot of gas in the tank, so to speak. So I’m going to land somewhere,” he said. “I would love for it to be in the sport in some capacity, doing something . . . maybe something else. I’m fortunate that our family has a number of different business interests that I can fall back on and jump into. But I really love the sport and would love to do something in the sport in some capacity. We’ll see. I guess I’ll need to dust my resume off and start putting it out there again.”
Houston Raceway Park, rebranded for a short stretch as Royal Purple Raceway, is where four-time Pro Stock champion Erica Enders began her career, one that included the Disney movie Right on Track about her and sister Courtney’s Junior Dragster days.
“It’s very near and dear to my heart. I started my career there in 1992. Before that, I grew up there, watching my dad race. When I drove a Junior Dragster, you had to qualify for a team, and I always ran for HRP (Houston Raceway Park),” Enders said. “I won my first Super Gas national event there. That’s what triggered the Pro Stock ride. Victor (former boss Cagnazzi) called me after that win in 2004. It holds some of my fondest memories.
“The track has done a lot for a lot of people,” she said. “It single-handedly took thousands of street racers off the street and gave them a controlled environment to ‘run what ya brung.’ It has done a lot of good. It’s not just the NHRA national event.”
Three-time Funny Car champion Matt Hagan said Houston Raceway Park is “where I got my first NHRA Funny Car win, so it will always have a special place in my heart.”
Notoriously loyal fans, who came from Louisiana, Oklahoma, and throughout Texas for the SpringNationals, have dozens of fond memories, as well:
• On this quarter-mile, Top Fuel ace Eddie Hill, a Texan from Wichita Falls, made headlines in 1988, recording the NHRA’s first four-second run. Then he quickly topped that milestone by running a 4.93 in the final round of Top Fuel eliminations to win the race.
• Longtime fans remember “The Burndown” at Houston Raceway Park when bitter rivals Warren Johnson and Scott Geoffrion sat in the pre-stage beams for more than a minute trying to unnerve one another.
• Future multi-time world champions Scott Kalitta and Jeg Coughlin Jr. earned their first victories here. So did Antron Brown and Robert Hight. Brown had 16 Pro Stock Motorcycle Wallys when he moved to a Top Fuel dragster in 2008, and he won here in only his fourth nitro race. Today he’s a three-time champion, tied at 52 for third place on the all-time Top Fuel’s victories list with five-timer Joe Amato. And when three-time Funny Car champion Robert Hight switched from John Force crew member to driver, he scored his first of 52 victories here in 2005.
• Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Michael Phillips was the first African-American to win in a pro category here in 1997. And at Houston in 1994, Australian Rachelle Splatt was the first female in NHRA history to clock a 300-mph pass (300.00 mph) in 1994. With that, she became the 16th and final member (only female member) of the Slick 50 300-MPH Club.
• JR Todd took the poignant Top Fuel victory in 2007 and said years later that “Houston will always be special for me.” It was the first race after his close friend Eric Medlen passed away from testing-accident injuries in Florida. Then Todd made some history in 2018, winning also in the Funny Car final.
• And on a quasi-comical note, funny for fans but not for John Force, his nemesis Al Hofmann at Houston accused Force of wearing some illegal traction-control, performance-enhancing device. That prompted Force to take off his firesuit on TV to prove his innocence. Force said, “Buddy, when you see a guy like me with his Budweiser abs, it ain’t a pretty sight, OK? Sitting there in my underwear, ol’ skinny legs . . . my wife cried, said she couldn’t go to church for months. But there was no device on me.” Another time, at the October Houston event, Force and Hofmann thought it might be fun to dress up as each other for Halloween. Force wore Hofmann’s firesuit, but Hofmann protested on national TV about donning Force’s: “I’m not wearing that filthy thing.” Force shot back, “At least mine ain’t haunted.”
This spring, Hight said, “I always love racing in Houston. It’s a great facility. The Angel family has always put on great events.”
And Seth Angel said that will continue through April 2022.
“My plan is over the next 10 months, we’re going to deliver the most incredible events that we’ve ever had at the racetrack. We’ve got a 10-month stretch of events, leading up to the national event in April of next year, where we are going to pay respects to the fans and our racers and put on some spectacular shows. We’re going to go out with a bang. We’re going to go out on top,” Angel said. “It’s going to be big. Trust me, it’s going to be a big party. Everyone’s invited. It’s going to be special.
“It’s certainly not going to be easy,” he said, “but, you know, I think, the sport’s in pretty good hands. Everything comes to an end at some point. Fortunately for us and the racetrack, it’s next April. But the sport is in good hands, and I think it’s got a lot of room to grow and prosper. And we are honored to be a part of the sport for the last 35 years as track owners.
“I’m going to have my hands full this fall, planning our race for next spring,” Angels said. “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but it should be a fun ride.” And like I said earlier, we’re going to go out on top.”
It’s just the “going out” part that puts the “bitter” in “bittersweet.”
What are your memories of Houston Raceway Park? Start the discussion in the comments section below.
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