It’s been said that everything is bigger in Texas. When the NHRA rolls into Ennis, TX this week for the Texas Motorplex’s AAA Texas Fall Nationals, all the eyes of the racing world will be focused on them, particularly after last weekend’s surprising events in North Carolina. The second of the six-race NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship will also, by necessity, host the conclusion of Carolina Nationals finals, and the biggest winners of all will be the fans in attendance.
Gabrielle Stevenson, President /General Manager of NHRA’s first supertrack, is a transplant from the California Bay area, and the pressure of pulling off this event is largely on her capable shoulders. In 2011, at the request of Motorplex’s owner, Billy Meyer, she came on board to lead his staff and help ensure the success of the track.
Texas Motorplex is known for bringing innovation to each national race, to trying something new and Stevenson has grasped what makes these touches special to the fans. The major task on her mind is always ‘what’s going to bring them back.’
“It’s a year-round program,” said Stevenson, a former NHRA media official. “We don’t have one check list; every manager has a weekly checklist that specifically covers an NHRA national event. We want to make sure our other events don’t suffer because of our year-round work on the nationals. But to host something as big as one of NHRA’s biggest races, we want to make sure we have our bases covered from start to finish.
“Planning starts the moment we have fans from the last race walking out of the gate. We want to make sure they get to their cars and get to the highway safe. Most of all we want them to be feeling they had the best experience possible and they want to come back.”
“We have fans that have been sitting in the same two seats for 29 years,” said Stevenson. “They want to keep it that way, so we offer a renewal period for our really loyal fans. So, those fans get renewed and receive their tickets in October and November for next year. Come hell or high water, they are sitting in those seats and we love that about them.
“We want to make sure we have all our bases covered. There are so many things to do when you have thousands of your best friends on site. Making sure the concessions are clean and attractive, having enough rest rooms available that are very clean and giving the flow of people traffic plenty of room to get to where they need to go at their pace. Having the right signage around the property to make sure people can get into and around the facility takes up more time than I’d like to admit, even after all these years, because a parking pass will change or we’ll do something different like moving the lot to a different location. So we listen to the fans and if we hear that was difficult to get to then we need to make a change to make it better for them. We meet and talk about all this local law enforcement, regional law enforcement and we have different groups that have been working with the Motorplex.”
As the GM of such a forward-thinking facility, Stevenson still has to be ready for anything. Looking ahead and seeing potential problems is a skill that helps her keep those problems at bay during the event.
“We break our events down to security, cleanup, competition, ticketing, marketing, finances and then there’s always guest services. Everyone has to deal with guest services,” smiles Stevenson, going over her list of main concerns. “Then we have to worry about all the little things between that. Billy and I make sure our managers train all their staff and everyone else in that department. The only thing across the board is guest services. That’s the only thing that touches every single department because it’s not enough to have a great race anymore. It’s not enough to open your gates. We must be able to accommodate the very special requests and special contingencies. We always want to make sure we always accommodate everybody.”
An example of this is the simplified ticket buying process, including the knowledgeable people manning the phones who can help with tickets, seating questions or drag racing inquiries from brand new or seasoned fans.
“People who come back year after year, they know where everything is, but we have to make sure we always teach people about racing. Most of them didn’t grow up around drag racing. Our ticket staff will spend 10 to 20 minutes on one phone call explaining where people can sit and where they should sit to watch the race. Our staff will go through the whole option with the customer. I think they do a great job with our tickets.”
She keeps a constant eye on appearance and cleanliness and this track is known to have abundant restrooms and concessions that fans enjoy for a daylong adventure into the NHRA over the weekend.
“We have to,” said Stevenson. “We make sure we have a minimum amount of vendors to make sure the fans benefit. Make sure they are going to be high volume distributors because we know that a line means something good is going on, but that line needs to move quickly. Everybody knows people could be out here for 12 hours or longer on a race day, but they still don’t want to stand in line. We want to give them options.”
Track owner, Billy Meyer, had a pretty stellar career as a Funny Car driver with 12 National Event wins and knew when he built the all-concrete supertrack that every year it needs to be even better. This ethos has been a tremendous influence on Stevenson during her tenure as President/GM. Staff is encouraged to come up with new ideas for fans and visitors, and they collectively walk through these ideas to see if they’ll work.
“The biggest thing is trying something new,” Stevenson said. “We’re always trying to add a new piece to the fun and a new piece of the event. We’re getting the Fast and Loud Gas Monkey Garage guys out here. We’re doing a Fanfest on Wednesday before the race in Ennis, which we’ve never done before. We’re having live music and a live radio remote. It’s Championship Drag Racing. We always want to mix it up a little bit and also start to look towards next year with the big date change (moving from the second race to the fourth in the Countdown) and the 30th anniversary. We have a few things brewing that we want to share them with the fans even as early as during this event. It’s just not enough to be the same old thing, but at the same time you don’t want to change it up so much that your loyal following doesn’t like it or recognize it anymore. You want to see what new things you can add to the event.”
And even with the unexpected addition of the Carolina finals being added into the weekend, Stevenson isn’t sweating it. Her team is prepared.
“Obviously, we hate that the fans didn’t get to see all the action in Charlotte, but hopefully they’ll just come on down to Texas Motorplex where they’ll get to see what amounts to two finals,” Stevenson said. “For our fans it’s a pretty nice little bonus to get to see all that extra racing.
“Typically, when they leave here, you’ve got a pretty good idea of who the top contenders are going to be for the championships. It’s always a really exciting weekend because of the playoffs but now with all the extra racing going on, it’s going to be even more of a drag racing fan’s dream weekend.”
The AAA Texas NHRA Fall Nationals starts this Friday with first round of professional qualifying starting 3:15 p.m. CDT. Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle will begin Charlotte eliminations during the second round of qualifying on Friday. For a breakdown of who still needs to qualify from Charlotte, check out this guide: http://www.racingjunk.com/news/2014/09/17/two-for-one-drag-racing-this-weekend-in-texas/