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Neil Upchurch left an incredible mark on motorsports in South Texas

by Mike Haag | Posted on Sunday, January 3rd, 2021

When it comes to motorsports in South Texas there is no one that had a greater impact on the sport of stock car racing than Neil Upchurch.

Upchurch, who served as one of the founders, president and administrative director for the former Texas International Driver’s Association Late Model and Pro Sedan Series, passed away on December 22, 2020.  He was 89.  He is survived by Theresa, his wife of 66 years.  He also leaves behind several family members, including nieces, nephews, friends and his beloved dog Trooper.

In the 33 years that I have been covering motorsports, I reported on, wrote stories and worked with many race officials, track owners, drivers and other motorsports enthusiasts, but there is no one that I had more respect for than Neil Upchurch.

Neil had a huge impact on my journalism career throughout the years.  Not only was he just the president of two major stock car racing associations, but he became a real mentor along the way and more importantly he was a loyal friend.

Neil and I have always connected on different levels with one another, mainly because we had a lot in common.  We both were born in Houston, and we both were adopted.  Neil was adopted by his aunt and uncle at age seven weeks at the request of his biological mother. It wasn’t until Neil was 36, after the death of his parents, that he learned of his adoption.  I was adopted at the age of six weeks, and I learned about my biological parents at the age of 30.  He was one of my biggest supporters after my birthmother found me and reunited with me in 1998.

We also shared other commonalities.  We both studied journalism in college and loved sports, especially football and golf.  Upchurch graduated from the University of Houston in 1955 with a degree in TV and Radio Production. He enjoyed a lifelong career in broadcasting, beginning with several television and radio stations in Houston and for 31 years he was a producer, writer and director for the Dept. of the Army at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio.  I graduated in 1990 with a degree in communication arts at the University of the Incarnate Word with a focus in print media and public relations and have also worked in the newspaper and radio broadcasting field.

Over the years, I have literally spent countless hours talking to Neil on the phone.  He’s told me thousands of great stories.  One of the best tales was when Neil was working at a television station in Houston one night and Dan Rather came into the station.  Neil assisted him with one of  Dan’s first-ever broadcasting jobs when Rather was a cub reporter before he became a famous television reporter and CBS network anchorman.

Neil always laughed and said, “I tell everyone that I was the one who was responsible for launching Dan Rather’s career.”

When it came to sports, football was a huge part of Neil’s life.  He loved University of Texas football, and was a season ticket holder of the Alamo Bowl games.  In high school he played football and baseball at schools in Houston and for Allen Academy.  Between his love for football and his expertise in broadcasting that eventually led him to becoming the PA announcer at more than 350 football games for Northeast ISD at Heroes and Comalander Stadiums from 2000-2018. He also served as the PA announcer for Texas State Football Championship games in the Alamodome from 2003-2011.

On a few occasions I was one of the lucky ones that Neil asked to help him as a spotter in the press box while he was announcing at the high school football games.  We always had a lot of fun in the announcer’s booth.  I’ll never forget the night Neil grabbed the microphone, looked at me and said, “I wonder what they would do if I yelled over the PA, gentlemen start your engines as the football players get ready to run through the break-through banner.”

Neil was a man of great intellect and knowledge, especially about sports and auto racing.  He was sharp, very witty and was a master at his craft when it came to written and broadcast journalism.  His deep and booming voice definitely could be heard loud and clear over the microphone or radio airwaves.

When it came to Neil’s sense of humor, he was always smiling, laughing and telling either funny jokes or stories.  When he turned 81 he told me, “I’m not done just because I’m 81.” At 84 he said, “I can still get out the door at 84.”  At 85 he told me, “I’m 85 and still alive.” At 88 he said, “I’m 88 and feeling great.”

Neil was also an avid golfer for over 70 years.  He and I chased the golf ball around his home course at Ft. Sam Houston Golf Course on several occasions.  He had his own golf cart and everyone knew him at Ft. Sam Houston.  Anyone around would have thought he was a general.  Neil also had great golfing stories to tell, and he was proud to say that he shot his lowest round ever, a 73 in 1973 at the Hermann Park Golf Course in Houston.

Ironically, I first met Neil at a golf course and not at a racetrack.  While I was covering the Nabisco Champions of Golf at Oak Hills Country Club in 1997 for the college newspaper at Incarnate Word, our paths first crossed while standing in line for the media buffet lunch.  Neil was there working as a freelance reporter calling in golf reports for a radio station in Bryan and College Station.  I remember Neil introducing himself to me and telling me something a bit humorous about how we could get the line to move a little faster.

After chatting while eating lunch, we grabbed an iced tea, went outside and sat by the pool in some comfortable lawn chairs while chatting about golf and auto racing for nearly two hours.  During our visit he joked and said,” If anyone asks why we are sitting here outside the pool, just tell them we are members here at Oak Hills Country Club.”

Somehow during that poolside visit we started talking about auto racing at San Antonio Speedway and Neil told me everything I wanted to know about motorsports in South Texas.  Ironically, a few months later I started covering motorsports for the San Antonio Express-News and that was where our working relationship and friendship really developed.

In life Neil was best known for his contribution to automobile racing. He was a driver, car owner, official or race director from 1958 until nearly his death. He raced at many tracks in Texas and Mexico as well as Talladega, Alabama. He founded and was President of the Texas Pro Sedans (TPS) and the Texas International Drivers Association (TIDA Late Model Series), both series were often regarded as the most successful and professional organizations that ever competed and raced in Texas.

As a series and race director he led a well organized and tight ship.  The discipline and leadership skills that he learned early in life definitely transferred over to his leadership style while running the TIDA series.  He was a stern businessman who also looked out for the best interest of the series and drivers when dealing with track owners and promoters even if it meant ruffling a few feathers along the way.  But in the end it was his love and passion for racing that made his TIDA racing series so successful.

The Texas Pro Sedans held over 500 oval and road course races from 1976-2017.  Championship points were not calculated during the first four seasons.  Neil won the first two Texas Pro Sedans championship titles in 1980 and 1981 when he was still racing stock cars.

The TIDA Late Model Series held 134 races at oval tracks and road course races throughout Texas,  Oklahoma and Mexico from 1988 to 1997. The series attracted some of the best short-track Late Model racers in the country.

From 1980 to 1993 the Texas Race of Champions at Texas World Speedway in College Station Texas had 15 races.  There were also 15 Texas Grand Prix races at events at TWS during that same time period.  The winner’s list at those races include the likes of Terry Labonte, Freddy Fryar, David Starr, Slick Yoemans, H.B. Bailey, Ed Sczech, Jimmy Finger, John Newlin, Tommy Riggins and Tommy Grimes.

I had the honor and privilege of attending and reporting on nearly all of the TIDA Late Model races along with several Texas Pro Sedans events from 1988 through 2016.  I also covered a handful of the TROC and TGP events at TWS that Neil directed. Some of the best races that I ever reported on were during those TIDA events.  I met and interviewed a lot of great people along the way thanks to Neil.

Looking back at Neil’s life and career I feel that he is second to none.  The South Texas racing community has lost a great man.  He will definitely be missed.

A graveside service with Army honors will be held for Neil on Monday, January 4,  2021 at 10:45 a.m. at the Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery. Attendance is limited to 50. Masks are required.

About the Author

Mike Haag has covered motorsports in San Antonio and South Texas for more than 33 years. In addition to covering motorsports for the San Antonio Express-News for nearly 28 years, Mike also has co-hosted TrackSmack with Dawn Murphy for 16 race seasons. In addition to being a writer, Mike taught high school English and Journalism for 30 years before retiring in May, 2020.