FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) – Eddie Gossage figured his days working for Bruton Smith were about to end.

The billionaire track owner was a few feet away, his hair on fire from the huge pyrotechnics display Gossage had staged to introduce night racing at Charlotte.

“His head’s black, his jacket was burned. I’ve got my arm around him, ‘Bruton, I’m sorry,’ ” Gossage recalled. “He looked at me and said, ‘Didn’t you take that “One Hot Night” thing a little too far,’ and just laughed. … I would have fired me.”

Smith still chuckles about the stray sparks 17 years later, though he claims the story has been embellished.

“It didn’t hurt,” Smith insisted. “I didn’t think that much about it.”

Embellished or not, that was Smith’s introduction to Gossage, whom the owner later picked to develop and run Texas Motor Speedway, the state’s largest sports facility since it opened in 1997.

“When you do something that big, you need that enthusiasm from the man in charge,” Smith said. “He kept that enthusiasm going.”

And the stunts coming.

Escalating Danica Patrick’s light shove of Dan Wheldon on pit row at a previous race into a weeklong “Rumble at the Speedway” buildup. Billboards that raised the ire of the Earnhardt family.

Gossage once offered NASCAR drivers $15,000 for throwing a helmet in a fit of anger during competition (he got no takers), and tried to lure open-wheel drivers Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr. out of retirement to race with sponsorship offers. There was an all-female pit crew for a NASCAR truck race; prerace motorcycle jumps by Robbie Knievel; a 42-foot fire-breathing, car-eating robot, and much more.

“He’s brought a newfound promotion-ability to the sport,” Smith said.

“He is probably the last of the old-time promoters we’ve got left,” said former Lowe’s Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler, known as the “P.T. Barnum” of NASCAR promotions when he retired last summer after 33 years.

Wheeler had been in Charlotte only 14 years and had already had 18 PR guys in 1989 when he hired Gossage, who grew up in Tennessee admiring the likes of boxer Muhammad Ali and daredevil Evel Knievel – and the people who promoted them.

“You had to come up with a lot of imaginative things to do this, and certainly had to not be shy about going out and doing it,” Wheeler said. “He certainly proved it early on and is still doing so. … Unfortunately, there are not many Eddie Gossages left.”

When Gossage got to Texas, he was initially promoting a construction site in a rural area north of Fort Worth with the promise of races to come.

The area already had the Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys, plus the Dallas Mavericks, Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars. In the early years, Gossage sent hundreds of letters to the media extolling successes of the track, including race crowds of 200,000 people.

“At first, people didn’t quite know what to think of me,” Gossage said. “That was part of the plan, trying to stand out.”

TMS officials long lauded the fact that eight Texas Stadiums could fit on the 1-mile, high-banked track’s infield. The Cowboys are moving into a new $1.1 billion stadium this year, but Gossage has already figured out how many of those would fit – 4.

There was a 13-car wreck in the first turn on the first lap of the first NASCAR Cup race in Texas. Qualifying was postponed the next year when water was seeping through the track on a sunny day.

Drivers complained loudly about the problems and the design of the track. Before changes were made, T-shirts appeared that read “Shut Up and Drive,” though Smith said Gossage wasn’t solely responsible.

“He’s had some good ones. That’s one of the things he got blamed for,” Smith said.

Two summers ago, when Patrick confronted Wheldon after a race in Milwaukee, a week before Texas, Gossage couldn’t sleep after seeing the video.

“It was like brain freeze, like when you’ve eaten ice cream too quickly,” he said. “My head hurt. I just knew the possibilities. I was so excited.”

By the next day, Texas was promoting the second round between “The Phoenix Firebird” and “The Battlin’ Brit.” One banner displayed the tale of the tape; another had pictures of Gossage and boxing promoter Don King.

“He definitely stirs the pot, and he can heighten the controversy of things,” Patrick said. “But you know, you’ve got to have fun with it.”

Gossage still laughs out loud thinking about that week.

“There really wasn’t anything to it. She just tugged on his sleeve,” he said. “It’s not like she decked him. From that, we made it a heavyweight title fight.”

But Gossage felt guilty after creating a billboard last year that referred to the strained relationship between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his stepmother. The ad had a picture of the driver and read: “Reason #88: Step-Mom.”

No. 88 was a reference to Earnhardt’s car number with his new team, Hendrick Motorsports, after he left Dale Earnhardt Inc., his late father’s company run by his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt.

Gossage changed the signs after getting a call from the driver’s sister and business manager.

“I often wind up feeling guilty after doing these things, but I can’t help myself from doing them,” said Gossage, a longtime friend of the Earnhardt family. “It was your prototypical, self-fulfilling prophesy. It rolled on its own momentum, and it was just kind of an amazing thing.”

Another billboard featured a wide-eyed, grinning Tony Stewart with “Reason #20: Road Rage!” Stewart thought it was hilarious.

“I’ve never told him no,” Stewart said. “The fun part is he’s creative like that and thinks outside the box. He likes to get out of that safety zone and make things bigger and better every year.”

Gossage finds ways to get TMS noticed even with it’s not race week.

When there was once talk that Oklahoma and Texas might move their football rivalry from the Cotton Bowl, Gossage had a football field painted on the track’s infield and talked with the schools about the possibility of playing there.

Gossage decided against bidding for a Mike Tyson heavyweight title fight against Lennox Lewis in 2002, but only after drawing out the possibility it might happen.

“I’m never going to let people ignore us,” Gossage said.

It looks like sparks are likely to keep flying.

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