Longtime Brazos County residents might use words such as “disaster” to describe the last country music festival that was held at Texas World Speedway.
During the Second Annual Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic, in 1974, 12 cars caught fire in the speedway’s parking lot, 22 of the estimated 20,000 attendees were taken to the hospital for suspected drug overdoses and there was an announcement over the loudspeaker not to buy any of the hard drugs that were being circulated, according to newspaper accounts.
(this wasÂ taken atÂ the ’73 picnic)
Letters to the editor condemning the event were published for weeks after The Eagle printed pictures of attendees disrobed and smoking what appeared to be marijuana, and the College Station City Council later approved a resolution stating that it “deplores” the picnic and the trouble it caused the community.
The festival, which Nelson once hinted could become an annual event for Brazos County, was never brought back to the area.
For the first time in the three decades since, a new festival is being planned for the location. Like the picnic, the Big State Festival will have on-site camping, will be a two-day event featuring Nelson and other big names in country music, and is expected to bring tens of thousands of fans to the area.
And Big State organizer Charlie Jones has hopes of making it a signature event for his company to be held in Brazos County every year, he told commissioners Friday during a public hearing in which County Judge Randy Sims contemplated whether he should sign a mass gathering permit for the event.
Without the permit, the Oct. 13-14 festival, which organizers now expect to attract 40,000 to 60,000 attendees, would have to have been canceled.
But at the conclusion of the 35-minute meeting – after Big State had received thumbs up from all area officials who were polled, including law enforcement – Sims signed off on the festival. One resident showed up to protest.
Jones – a Consol grad who is now a part owner of Austin-based C3 Presents, which also organizes the Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza festivals – said he has been cooperating successfully with Austin officials on large events since 1999. Close to 1 million people have attended his events and there has been only one arrest on record, he said.
“These types of events that we have a history of creating have a very large economic impact to the city,” Jones said, explaining that the three-day Austin City Limits festival now results in the largest economic boost to the capital city all year.
Big State organizers recently decided to offer the camping and RV component of the festival because area hotels are completely booked, he said.
Another beneficiary of the event, Jones said, will be the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation. The nonprofit partner has been guaranteed at least $100,000, but it’s more likely the foundation will receive closer to $500,000, he said.
Organizers have spent weeks working with Texas Department of Transportation officials on traffic issues and local law enforcement on security, he said.
The lone protester, Peach Creek Cut Off Road resident Constance Spates, reminded commissioners Friday of the Willie Nelson event. During that festival, the Pebble Creek and Nantucket subdivisions near Texas World Speedway didn’t exist. Now, she predicted, those neighborhoods will be inundated with traffic and other nuisances.
“They are going to be impacted by this,” she said. “What are we really getting out of it?”
Spates also objected to radio spots encouraging fans to bring a keg.
County Judge Sims promised to take note of Spates’ criticisms but appeared skeptical. Pending approval from the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission, beer will be sold inside the speedway, but attendees will not be allowed to bring it in.
“You’ve seen tailgating at Texas A&M University,” Sims said. “They all have kegs out there, and it doesn’t seem to cause any problems that I’ve heard of.”
Chris Kiske – a representative of country music radio station KORA-FM, an event sponsor – told commissioners the festival has been the hottest topic of discussion among his listeners in months.
“I think it’s going to be a boon to the local community – put us on the map,” he said.
Precinct 2 Constable Donald Lampo said he attended the Austin City Limits festival on behalf of Brazos County earlier this month to examine the operation. He said he was impressed by the response to a truck that caught fire on the first day of the festival.
Despite Austin’s Zilker Park being near its capacity of 65,000 people for most of the weekend, firefighters were able to get in and respond within 12 minutes, he said.
“That’s remarkable, with all the people that were there,” he said, describing the event as a “very, very professionally run festival.”
It appeared to be much more organized, he said, than the Chillifest and Ziegenbock festivals that he has provided security for in the past. His daughter came along and had a great time, too, he added.
Sims gave a similar endorsement of Big State, saying that his wife is a fan of headliner Tim McGraw and suggested they buy tickets.
“I see no reason not to approve this permit,” he said at the conclusion of the hearing. “I wish you well, and hopefully it is a successful event.”