Monday, April 25, 2005

The Little Town That Could ...

Things are quiet now on that long stretch of remote highway stretching from Fort Stockton south to Sanderson. For the past few days, there has been thunder rolling up and down that road as the 2005 edition of the
Big Bend Open Road Race came rolling into West Texas.

Imagine anywhere from 100-200 very, VERY nice cars from across the country, most driven by people who are not professional racers, but have an enthusiasm for speed and high performance that is nothing short of passion. Then you give them an open stretch of road, cleared of all debris, closed to all other traffic, with driving conditions monitored at all times. With the flash of a green light and the wave of a starter's flag, they're off.

The BBORR is not like the open road rallies you see in old movies, like "The Love Bug." Racers start one-at-a-time, and race against a clock rather than each other. Their goal is to match as close as possible the exact time it would take to travel from Fort Stockton to Sanderson, then back, in their speed group ... from 70 miles-per-hour and up. The only exception to matching an ideal time is the Unlimited Class, who go just as fast they can, and that can be up to 200 miles-per-hour.

It's colorful, it's exciting, it's entertaining ... and it's lucrative. It means hundreds of drivers and navigators, and their families spending the better part of a week in Fort Stockton and Sanderson, filling hotel rooms and restaurants, buying lots of supplies (like gasoline!) and souvenirs, visiting attractions in town and in neighboring communities and giving the local economy a generous annual boost.

And it almost didn't happen ...

I was Editor of the
Fort Stockton Pioneer when an open road race - the first outside the State of Nevada - was first proposed for West Texas. The race was originally proposed for Brewster County, and would run between Alpine and Study Butte. Our sister paper, the Alpine Avalanche kept us apprised of the details on that developing story ... though that development did take an unexpected turn.

What emerged from a series of public meetings was a feud between the northern and southern sections of Brewster County. The north (Alpine) generally loved the idea, while the south (Study Butte) generally hated it. They raised just about every objection one could think of ... and even some new ones ... the roar of car engines would destroy the serenity of their Big Bend lifestyle; somebody would sneak through the barricades and get run over; bingo players wouldn't be able to get to their weekly game as easily or as quickly if the highway were closed; the fumes from all that high-performance traffic would threaten rare and endangered plant species.

It got pretty heated over the weeks, and race organizers finally decided to forget the whole thing and stay in Nevada. "You don't deserve this race," one local supporter told part of the room at one meeting. "I'm glad I don't have to give up my bingo," one opponent crowed after the proposal was withdrawn.

It might have ended there if it hadn't been for a community that ranks, in my opinion, as the greatest concentration of over-achievers in the State of Texas ... Fort Stockton and Pecos County. Where Brewster County saw only a threat to some guy's bingo game, one weekend out of the year. Pecos County and its neighbor, Terrell County, saw an opportunity that would pay dividends all year long.

They went to the old Roger Ward organization that originally staged the event and proposed moving the race eastward to U.S. Highway 285 between their county seats of Fort Stockton and Sanderson. And while they tried to get the race organizers on board, they were already reaching out to the affected communities, asking questions, listening to answers, identifying problems and developing solutions.

And there were some problems, at first. Perhaps the most significant came from the Fort Stockton Ministerial Alliance, which applauded the idea, but asked that organizers give thoughtful, prayerful consideration to moving the race from Sunday, to Saturday. Without hesitation, organizers made the change.

In the meantime, ranchers planned ahead to prepare for the date when their roads connecting with the highway would be closed off for the better part of the day. Oil and gas companies re-arranged their work schedules so that field crews would be able to change shifts, come in or go out before or after the race. Notices to truckers went out months is advance so they could adjust their routes/schedules accordingly.

And it worked.

In the ensuing years, the event - now the Big Bend Open Road Race - has grown in popularity, offering a combination of open straightaways and challenging curves and climbs (in the 'Big Canyon' area) that have made it a favorite with open road race enthusiasts. It's not been without accidents, and there was even a fatality one year, when a driver walked away from a crash, finally yielded to paramedics' insistence that he go to the hospital for a checkup, and later died.

The success of the event even inspired people in Midland County to try one of their own, working in cooperation with Upton County. Unfortunately, the inaugural event was also the final event. Whatever lesson might have been learned from Fort Stockton's success, it apparently did not include taking a good idea and running with it, not just in a sprint but for the long distance.

I would like to acknowledge as many people as I can remember who were the movers-and-shakers in the effort to bring open road racing to West Texas. At the county level, there was Pecos County Judge Fredie Capers and Terrell County Judge Dudley Harrison. At the city level there was Fort Stockton Mayor Joe Shuster and City Manager 'Chuy' Garcia (Sanderson is not an incorporated community, and is governed by the county). The Texas Department of Transportation was a BIG factor in getting the permits for the race, and getting the highway closed, and that included Eddie Munoz from the local office in Fort Stockton, and Glen Larum and other members of the staff at the Odessa district office. The Powers family of Alpine were among the most ardent supporters at the private level.

But if I had to pick one person most responsible for coordinating these efforts, for getting the race established upon a firm foundation from which it could grow and develop in the future, it would be Genora Young, the City of Fort Stockton's Tourism Director at the time.

And it will grow. While the Midland/Rankin race has apparently run out of gas, BBORR organizers have announced a second annual event, October 5th - 8th, racing on U.S. Highway 385 from Fort Stockton to Marathon and back.


Pancho said...

Having had my SCCA [sports car club of america] license in the past, thanks for the story and the history of the event. And I didn't know that the Midland event was no more.

These are good events, but in the back of my mind I always wonder what will happen when a fatality occurs? Have their been any accidents in Ft. Stockton?

Jeff said...

Yes, there have been accidents, though not many ... and one related fatality - the one I mentioned, where the guy walked away from the accident. That was, I think, five years ago.

Eric said...

Jeff, great background on one of the amazing success stories of the Trans-Pecos area. I fixin' to link to it!

Jeff said...

Eric, thank you. No stranger to Fort Stockton, yourself, you could probably tell a story or two about 'the little town that could.'

Anonymous said...

Jeff McDonald, that is a name that I have not heard in sometime. (if it is in fact the same one) Jason Parker here. There are enough stories in my head that I could write a book about the town.