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THUNDER STRUCK: Dirt track speedway has left lasting impressions

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Posted: Sunday, August 4, 2013 4:30 am

It has stood for speed in Central Texas since 1972, but that is about to come to an abrupt stop. Texas Thunder Speedway hosts its final race Aug. 31, ending a four-decade stretch as the area’s lone quarter-mile dirt track.

Over the years, the plot of land at West Stan Schlueter Loop and Bunny Trail has become a routine meeting spot for auto racing enthusiasts with weekly races every Saturday night from March through September.

Constructed on leased land, however, the rapidly growing area recently overtook the track and a decision was made to sell the lot, leaving numerous fans such as former track champion and current Killeen Mayor Dan Corbin saddened for the city’s loss.

“It has just been a great Saturday night tradition,” said Corbin, who raced at the track from 1986 through 1991. “There are so many people there who race cars and they are sitting with their former competitors, and racing is a team sport.

“There is just something special about your home race track, where you know everybody and it is just so very special.”

As towns grow, however, many quarter-mile tracks are closing down because of opposition to the noise or, in this case, because of opportunities for landowners to turn those into commercial developments.

Originally located in a rural part of the town, neighborhoods and stores now overrun the area, causing the demise of the track that has become home to generations of racing fans.

“It gave people in the community something to do with their families other than the movie theaters and the bars,” former track promoter Pat Wilson said. “A lot of young kids have grown up out there. Most of them are now older and their kids are racing.

“But times change. Out there, it used to be a two-lane highway, and nobody thought about Old Copperas Cove Road much, but then it turned into Stan Schlueter Loop and it has all built up around it. So, it was just a matter of time.”

Texas Thunder Speedway has become a racing institution for fans from all over the area after originally opening as Stars and Stripes Speedway. It did not always produce a clean image with no regulation of alcohol and was occasionally prone to fights, but it was also the area’s premier racing facility.

Bill Barbee Jr. inherited the track following his father Bill Barbee’s death in the early 1980s and instituted additional control, making the venue more family friendly and appealing to the masses.

Since then, the track has developed a passionate following.

“(The community) is losing very good family entertainment,” said Tim Essenburg, a former racer and current track announcer. “There are a lot of people who look forward to coming to the races on Saturday nights and have for many, many, many years.”

The Texas Thunder Speedway hosts four more events before closing its doors, including the Willie Palmer Memorial Race on Aug. 17.

The event holds special meaning for Corbin, who helped create the event in 1991 in the memory of a fallen soldier from the Gulf War.

“Part of our history is just going away,” Corbin said. “Some great drivers have raced out there.”

It was always the great races, though, that appealed to Wilson.

“Sometimes with dirt tracks, if you start in the back, that is where you finish,” he said. “But there, you could start at the back and win the race. That tradition, the configuration of the track, the dirt; I don’t know what it is, but it was very racy and competitive.”

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