Friday, Jul 07, 2006
 XML
email this
print this
reprint or license this

Fan wishes he hadn't filed suit

By JEFF WILSON
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

His reward comes this weekend, the Dickies 500. But the race Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway has been known as the Francis Ferko 500 before it was even placed on the NASCAR Nextel Cup schedule.

Ferko won this race in a settlement from the lawsuit he filed against NASCAR almost four years ago. He was a Plano resident, married and the father of two when his case first made headlines in February 2002.

Things are different now. Ferko has a new job and lives in Atlanta. He and his wife, Shari, are headed toward divorce. Their son, Anthony, committed suicide nine months after the lawsuit was filed.

"My life has changed quite a bit because of the lawsuit," Ferko said. "There have been some massive effects."

Ferko assured he would be in attendance Sunday, but the man recognized as TMS' No. 1 fan is as different now as the NASCAR schedule that spun out of a lawsuit he now wishes he hadn't filed.

"Knowing what I know now, I definitely would not have pursued it," he said. "The loss of your son is just devastating. I never expected those kinds of unattended consequences to occur."

The suit hit U.S. District Court in Sherman on Feb. 13, 2002. Ferko said stories the case generated created a difficult work environment.

"The person that I reported to, every time there was an article in the newspaper, was running around the place with the article," he said. "That attention is something that corporations don't like."

He was let go, but the food-safety expert wasn't out of work long, landing a job in Atlanta in June 2002. He was joined in August by his wife. In November, his son took his own life.

Ferko said Anthony, 20, was troubled by his home life. He left behind a 6-month-old son, Alex, who became more of a priority for Ferko than the suit against NASCAR. The Ferkos re-established Texas residence in December 2002 in an attempt to gain full custody of Alex. A Denton County court awarded that to Alex's maternal grandparents, though the Ferkos have custody two days a week.

Ferko, 51, returns to the Metroplex once or twice a month. But he said if the lawsuit hadn't been filed, he wouldn't have lost his job and Anthony might be alive.

"I think if my wife and I had been there, he might have had some support," Ferko said. "He had nobody living in Dallas-Fort Worth with him that cared about him."

Some 18 months after Anthony's death, a settlement was reached between the two plaintiffs -- Ferko and Rusty Vaughn, both shareholders in TMS parent company Speedway Motorsports Inc. -- and NASCAR. Neither Ferko nor Vaughn, a Highland Village resident and the president of the TMS chapter of Speedway Children's Charities, received a cash settlement, although Ferko said he was reimbursed for legal expenses.

TMS had its long-awaited second Cup date, but NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France announced a bevy of changes to the NASCAR schedule May 14, 2004.

Though only TMS and North Carolina Speedway -- which SMI purchased to give TMS the extra date -- are the only two racetracks mentioned in the settlement, four facilities' dates were realigned and two others' were affected by the lawsuit.

"I thought it was so transparent about Rockingham," Ferko said. "NASCAR had a mission, and they accomplished their mission, which was to close another Carolina track."

France said the lawsuit facilitated realignment, a NASCAR initiative that began in 2003. During a TMS visit in August, France said TMS could have landed a second race without a lawsuit, through the shifting of SMI dates.

"The sport is better off for it," France said. "It was disappointing to leave a facility that had been there so long, but they weren't performing, either. This isn't one of those cases where you're pouring something out for the heck of it. We sat down and had another plan."

Ferko still believes NASCAR violates federal antitrust laws, one of the bases for his lawsuit, through its relationship with International Speedway Corp. Both are owned by the France family.

Ferko said a copycat lawsuit against NASCAR, filed by Kentucky Speedway, is another example.

"I think there's a lot of unfairness, and I think that it's a very unusual sport where the governing body owns half the tracks," he said. "You've got to kind of scratch your head and wonder about a sport that's built like that."

He's also bothered by a sanctioning body that is so powerful that TMS is afraid to recognize him on race day. He'd like to wave the green flag Sunday.

"If I had a friend who did what I did to get them a race where they'll make millions of dollars, I think they would be a little appreciative of that and say, 'Man, what do you want?' as far as a race weekend," Ferko said. "It boggles my mind that NASCAR is so powerful that they [TMS officials] feel that they can't respond."

TMS president Eddie Gossage said he has never met Ferko and would like a chance to "pick his brain and hear his story." But Gossage doesn't want to flaunt Ferko, partly out of courtesy and partly because he doesn't want to jeopardize a renewed relationship with NASCAR that became strained during litigation.

"We have to maintain our relationship with NASCAR, and it's a tough position to be in," Gossage said. "I wouldn't appreciate it if I were them, and we've got to move on because we have to work together. That would complicate things."

So, Ferko said he wants fans to raise their beer cans when the green flag falls. He believes he stood up for the fans with his lawsuit and got them what they deserved.

Ferko will stand with them. He said he started getting excited for Sunday's race last month. He's looking forward to rooting on Mark Martin, who said it's cool to be Ferko's favorite driver.

Through it all, through the personal struggles, Ferko still believes in his lawsuit.

"I'm a fan first, and that's why I got involved," Ferko said. "I really believed that what I did was right and that Texas deserved its race."

FERKO TIMELINE

Feb. 13, 2002: Plano resident Francis Ferko, a shareholder in Speedway Motorsports, files a lawsuit against NASCAR and International Speedway Corp., accusing them of antitrust violations and asserting that NASCAR breached "implied" and "express" contracts for failing to make good on its "promise" of a second Nextel Cup date for Texas Motor Speedway. Speedway Motorsports is the parent company of TMS.

April 10, 2002: NASCAR and International Speedway Corp. file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the accusations are factually inaccurate and have no merit.

Aug. 28, 2002: U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Faulkner denies the motion to dismiss Ferko's lawsuit, and the case begins the discovery phase.

Oct. 25, 2002: In its court-mandated response to the lawsuit, NASCAR blasts Speedway Motorsports, accusing it of being the force behind the case. The filing is the first publicly contentious spat between plaintiff and defendants.

March 30, 2003: Brian France, then NASCAR's senior vice president, calls the lawsuit "the ultimate nuisance" and says the idea that NASCAR promised a second Cup date to TMS is "silly." He makes his comments only hours before the Samsung/RadioShack 500 at TMS.

June 11, 2003: Highland Village resident Rusty Vaughn joins Ferko as a co-defendant. Vaughn, the president of the TMS chapter of Speedway Children's Charities, has been a Speedway Motorsports shareholder since 1997. Ferko has been a shareholder only since 2001.

Feb. 11, 2004: France, now NASCAR's chairman and CEO, says NASCAR is ready for a court fight in the Ferko suit. While at Daytona International Speedway, France says, "I think my preference is that we go try it in a courtroom."

April 21, 2004: Sources tell the Star-Telegram that a settlement has been reached in the suit and that TMS will host two Cup races, beginning in 2005. Four other speedways would be affected.

May 14, 2004: The lawsuit is settled. Speedway Motorsports agrees to purchase North Carolina Speedway from International Speedway Corp. for $100.4 million and transfer that Cup date to TMS on Nov. 6, 2005.

PHOTO: Francis Ferko, who now lives in Georgia, attended Sunday's Nextel Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. SPECIAL TO THE STAR-TELEGRAM HAROLD HINSON


Jeff Wilson, (817) 390-7953 jwilson@star-telegram.com