The CEO of Speed

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The real Eddie Gossage, says the often soft-spoken President and CEO of the massive Texas Motor Speedway, is as exciting as someone who enjoys an open-face peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk with his wife Melinda, standing in their kitchen at midnight after one of his lavish race weekend productions.

But the character he gets to play on a not nearly regular enough basis combines a showman who could (and has) Don King publicly singing his praises with a cunning businessman's sense who could (and maybe should) have Donald Trump searching for a NASCAR investment opportunity.

While Gossage, 52, claims to be the happily quiet and boring guy a majority of the time, his more well-known, fun-loving, alter-ego has turned the 1,500 acre, 200,000 capacity, $250 million TMS, into one of the most understated North Texas financial sports success stories anywhere. Annually making millions for his publicity traded owners, Speedway MotorSports, Inc.

The ever-present, ever-creative, ever-outrageous Gossage has been the over-sized local face of NASCAR, (National Association for Sport Car Auto Racing) since his North Texas track, which sits in far North Fort Worth, opened in 1997.

He's constantly battled local media for attention, regularly zinging local rival sports, plus waging his own successful battle with blood cancer two years ago, all while balancing the twin loyalties of hard-core, blue-collar fans and big-spending, luxury sponsors and spectators.

"The last of the old school promoters?" he repeats, when asked about the title given to him by fans, drivers and sponsors alike.

"I guess that's me. If I knew another way to do it, I probably would. But the only way to do it is Don King style, it's more fun that way and we're in the fun business," Gossage said.

That means no promotional stunt, gimmick or headline before, during or after the race is too outrageous for Gossage's taste or fertile imagination.

"I tend to think in color which is beneficial, but I don't sleep well because I can't ever turn off my brain, I'm always thinking of something.”

Veteran race car journalist Terry Blount said there's very much a method to Gossage's promotional madness.

"Eddie is crazy on purpose, because he gets it, he knows the market. He knows the Dallas Cowboys are always going to be No. 1 here and he has to find a way to battle that. Every crazy product he comes up with draws attention to his speedway and it's still a battle to this day."

A classic bit of Gossage promotional artistry took place this spring when he offered a local radio personality $100,000 to change his name to and tattoo his body with the new name.

He then had TMS Vice-President Mike Zizzo issue a press release on official track stationery detailing the offer and saying it had been accepted. After reaping two days of national and international publicity for his track, he issued another release saying the whole thing was a hoax and he was sorry for any trouble he may have caused.

"But I'm not apologetic about it, just because you made a mistake to believe me," Gossage said, "that's not my fault. Like the boxing promoter Bob Arum once said, 'yesterday I was lying, today I am telling the truth.'"

Kyle Petty, a member of stock car racing's royal family, said Gossage never lost his fan's true love for racing or fell victim to problems which has knocked the once fast-growing sport into a few economically-generated tailspins.

We got so big, so fast, that people adopted the, 'build it and they will come model,' but Eddie never did that. He said, "first we're going to build it, then we're going to tell you we built it, then we're going to tell you what we have here."

Financial figures for the 2010 fiscal year and attendance figures for the recently completed 2011 NASCAR season confirm the financial genius of Gossage's wild ways.

Of the 14 stock car tracks which staged two races at their facilities in 2011, the Texas Motor Speedway had the highest total attendance of 314,000 for events in April and November.

Tracks such as the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway has lost more than half of its NASCAR crowds in the last five years and Homestead Speedway, which hosted the final climatic race of the 2011 season had just 73,000 people, while TMS lost less people percent wise than almost anybody in stock car racing.

In the 14 years it has been open, Gossage and TMS have never drawn less than 150,000 fans for a non-weather delayed NASCAR cup race, something few tracks can match.

“In a difficult economic environment for racing, Eddie put more butts in seats than anybody,” said 2011 NASCAR Cup winner Tony Stewart, who has Gossage's combustible personality and has become a big admirer over the last couple of years.

“I think all drivers kind of rolled their eyes about his promotional stunts over the years, but once I got my own small tracks and saw what he was trying to do, I became a big admirer.”

“There is no doubt that selling a ticket to a NASCAR event is a lot tougher than it was 6-7 years ago, but Eddie is the best at it,” added driver Matt Kenseth.

The financial figures for the publically traded Speedway Motorsports Corporation, the parent company of TMS and eight other NASCAR tracks, show a profit of $44 million-plus in 2010, after losing $10 million in 2009. While individual track's figures are not broken out, TMS is the largest of the SMC tracks and has the most luxury boxes and prime seating, racking in the most money

Gossage confirmed that his track, located on five-plus miles of former barren farm land near the Alliance Development, is among the most profitable in the nation.

”We outpaced (rival) International Speedway Corp., all by ourselves last year,’ Gossage said. "We're doing good now. Really good."

Gossage grew up poor, the son of a box car loader in Nashville, Tennessee and started working at a small track as a teenager doing every job, then graduated from Middle Tennessee State with a journalism degree.

Gossage worked for Burton Smith, the legendary founder of Speedway Motor Sports in Charlotte, North Carolina, as a Public Relations Director in the early 1990s and then was tabbed to head up the still-to-be constructed Texas Motor Speedway at age 38.

“His forte was PR and I needed somebody to market the product in Texas,” Smith explained on his choice of Gossage to head up TMS at a young age. “He was taking care of the home front for me. I already had architects and accountants and business people, but what I needed was promotion.”

But rather than just a wild showman with ideas and no execution, Gossage was able to showcase his street business smarts, “graduating from the school of Burton Smith,” he said.

Gossage first went to Las Vegas and St. Louis to scout out possible track sites, which they decided not to pursue, before he made his first-ever trip to Texas in 1994, with Smith, to meet Ross Perot, Jr., who owned much of the land they were considering for a site.

The first time they took to the North Texas skies in Perot’s helicopter to see the land, which was near the Alliance Airport Development, they knew they had found the right spot.

Gossage declined to give the final purchase price other than to say it was much less than Smith was prepared to spend. He later bragged his lack of any formal business education or training had gotten the best of Perot.

“I went to Middle Tennessee State, in Murfreesboro, Ross went to Vanderbilt (Nashville) and let’s just say Middle Tennessee came out pretty good on that one.”

The remainder of the 600 acres came from local landowners, trailer parks and anybody else who had acreage, an experience in itself, but by early 1995 Gossage had his 1,500 acres of land for the track and the largest auto race facility built in America over the last 30 years was under construction in North Texas. He also obtained a local land tax exemption for additional savings.  

Another lesson Gossage absorbed from the Promotional School of Burton Smith was just because he was overseeing the largest motorsports track in an area where it had never been tried on this scale, people weren’t going to fill it without a good reason.

Gossage had to care about the blue collar backbone of NASCAR, who were mainly interested in flying their Confederate Flags and bringing their own iced coolers, as much as the white collar luxury suite or condo owners who may have never been to a race of any kind, but wanted to be part of the action.

To both, Gossage has been their biggest fan and supporter over the last 14 years.

“I’ve always thought one of the secrets of our success was we have options for everybody. We have more luxury suite seats (13,000) than any sports venue in the world. We also have a $20 ticket," he said.

“If you were like me growing up you could watch (drivers) Dale. Jr., and Tony Stewart for $20 with free parking and bringing your own cooler, which was a really important amenity.”

So important that in the early years of TMS, Gossage declined to sell beer at the concession stands, costing the track tens of thousands, so fans would be allowed to bring their own coolers. Parking was and still is free and Gossage said he knows plenty of places people can sneak into the track without paying on race days.

For his white collar best friends, Gossage, prodded by Smith, built a double decker row of luxury suites which seat 62 fans each with prime views, luxury food and televised replays for an annual cost of $65,000 to $100,000, depending on location.

There is also the $50 million nine-story Speedway Club sitting in turn 1 with marble floors, chef-prepared food, a full workout facility and a classic pianist on duty at all times. Prices range from $1,500 for non-race day memberships to $30,000 for a lifetime.

“When you walk into the Speedway Club, you feel like you've arrived,” Smith said. “We always want our fans to feel like they can move up. Maybe you are in the infield and you want to be in the stands (30 percent controlled by Public Seat Licenses), maybe you're in the stands and you want to be in the suites, maybe in the Speedway Club. That's when you have arrived."

If crowds aren't your thing, blue or white collar, Gossage also offers 76 1-2-3 bedroom condos in turn 2, ranging from $300,000 to $1 million dollars, currently sold out, with outdoor balconies and space to rest from the racing action.

He also has a bank of Class A office space in Turn 2, which is leased for $13-18 dollars a square foot to a wide range of North Texas businesses .

The attention to detail for all segments of his audience has won over the tradition-based NASCAR loyalists which grew going to races, but had never seen anything like Gossage's North Texas palace.

"I’ve been to the traditional places like Daytona and Talladega, but going from the Texas Motor Speedway to Talladega is like going from Del Frisco's to Chick-fil-A," said Tennessee native and TMS ticket holder Mike Barrett of Grapevine.

Along with the creative comforts that the $250 million price tag built at TMS, Gossage gives his audience a show, and an experience, not just a race.

“When you buy a ticket at Texas, you’re not just getting a seat to sit at for four hours while cars whiz by,” Petty said.

“He recognizes that the economy is going to be a burden for many people, but if they can scrape the money together, they're going to come to Texas and see what's going to happen next. That's the Gossage magic. He's always looking to top himself.

Through the years, Gossage has hired Robbie Knievel to jump a line of cars in the infield, had the mechanical car cruising machine, trapeze artists, jet packs, flew in Van Cliburn to play the national anthem, big name concerts, had former President George W. Bush wave the starting flags and had helicopter transport planes swoop over the infield to deliver the pace car, a personal Gossage favorite.

“I had one of my sponsors ask me why I didn’t tell him in advance. I don’t have to share all of my plans with everybody.

“You can sell and promote a race a lot of ways. A lot of people who come to this track are struggling, you might as well smile and laugh while you are at the races and make it memorable."

The promotional budget for the bi-annual NASCAR car races are a staggering $2 million dollars, the highest in racing, but a drop in the bucket for the $22 million dollars each it cost to stage the two stock car races with another $8 million to stage the Indy Car race each summer.

Perhaps no professional sport had been hit harder by the financial times than NASCAR, which is hugely sponsor dependant, counting on fans to drive long distances for a weekend of racing.

With attendance off nearly 15 percent from its high of 230,000 in the late 1990s, Gossage has cut back on all of his race day staff. He dropped one energy provider and picked up GDF Suez Energy at a much lower cost and cut back on some landscaping and other areas few people would notice.

But he has not laid off a single full-time employee at TMS, a vow he made when he worked at Miller Beer and saw a consultant come in and propose a 15 percent layoff, which separated him from some of his closest friends.

While he has avoided some personally hard decisions, Gossage admits he still struggles as the North Texas face of a publicly traded corporation (Stock Symbol TRK), which measures results in quarterly earnings, not the latest promotional stunts.

"Being a promoter is contrary to Wall Street," he said. "We talk in hyperbole, they talk in facts. Before the race, our general counsel reminds me what I can’t say, this and that, and when I say those things, he reminds me again. I tell him Burton says you lawyers are just people who we paid to give us an opinion we don’t have to listen to."

Political correctness is another course Gossage never mastered.

He's quick to remind everyone it’s Christmas not holiday time, thinks the Occupy Movement should go occupy a job and not bash business people with the latest technology tools. And don’t even get Gossage or Smith started on the current presidential administration, a multi-year disaster in their eyes.

Now entering his 15th year at Texas Motor Speedway, North Texas’ CEO of Speed promises to keep entertaining, keep promoting and keep making money in the area’s largest sports venue.

He already has some new ideas.

“I once had a journalist tell me you’ve never really done anything until you've worked with an elephant. We’ve already had a monkey selling programs, but a real elephant, wow. We could have him on pit row, step on a couple of cars, it would be great.”

North Texas’ last great promoter/CEO alter ego is still alive and well in the body of one Eddie Gossage.