Small-town tracks are on the skids, but folks with dreams are not.
Cars line up for the main event, a late-model feature race (pictured right).
It’s race night at Ocala Speedway in Florida, and the odor of exhaust and rubber mix with the smell of boiled peanuts and beer and cotton candy and grilling hamburgers. The stands, capacity 3500, are filling.
The little racetrack has been here for a long time. There are grandparents in the stands who first came as children. Friday night without Ocala Speedway? Hard to imagine, but it almost happened. And it has already happened in so many other towns.
“There was a time when, if you could talk the county commission into letting you carve out a racetrack on your property, you were instantly rich,” says Rich Pratt, 38, a third-generation race-car driver who lives just up the road. “Those days are over.”
Ocala’s owner, Mike Peters, stands at the entrance to the pits, wearing his aviator Ray-Bans. Peters, 39, is a jet pilot who flew Boeing 737s for an airline, but he quit to buy the speedway and run it. He admits he really doesn’t know what he was thinking when he and his fiancée, Angie Clifton, a 41-year-old vice-president of a bank, bought the racetrack at the end of 2005.
But he knows what he was thinking a year later: We made a mistake.
An old axiom in racing suggests that “If there isn’t dirt in your beer, you aren’t having fun.” Ocala Speedway fans are having lots of fun since the track owners, Angie Clifton and Mike Peters (right), went from asphalt to dirt in 2008.
Ocala Speedway opened in 1952. It is just north of the town of some 50,000 that bears its name and about 35 miles south of Gainesville. It’s the oldest stock-car track in Florida—seven years older than Daytona’s superspeedway. There have been drivers, now famous, who used Ocala Speedway as a step up the ladder—NASCAR Sprint Cup driver David Reutimann was a regular until just a few years ago—but it’s the drivers you’ve never heard of, and likely never will, that keep people like Peters and Clifton in business.
Sometimes. In the past decade, Florida has lost tracks in or near Miami, St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Orlando, St. Augustine, Lakeland, and Okeechobee, and no tracks have been built to replace them. Hialeah Speedway had been around for 51 years when it was razed in 2005 to make way for a mall parking lot, and that meant Miami-area residents who wanted to see short-track racing were faced with a two-hour drive to the next-closest surviving tracks in Clewiston or Punta Gorda. Hialeah taught NASCAR drivers Bobby and Donnie Allison how to race. Where will future stars learn?
Peters and Clifton began coming to Ocala Speedway as fans. One day Clifton saw an old Chevrolet Monte Carlo by the side of the road. For sale: $450. She bought it as a birthday gift for Peters, and they spent the next two months in his garage, turning it into a race car. “Just the two of us,” she says, “working every night on it.” The next year, he drove it to the championship in the street-stock class.
At the end of the 2005 season, word began circulating that the failing speedway would likely close if new owners couldn’t be found. “So we bought it,” Clifton says. “We thought owning a racetrack would be fun.”
Track owners, Angie Clifton and Mike Peters, went from asphalt to dirt in 2008.
Especially one with history. Ocala Speedway started as a quarter-mile dirt track called Zuber Speedway, named after the community where it is located. In 1952, NASCAR was just gaining traction, and Florida was a hot spot for racing. Zuber Speedway had also been known as Lightning Speedway and Marion County Speedway before becoming Ocala Speedway. The dirt surface was expanded to three-eighths of a mile in 1964, and in 1995, it was paved with asphalt.
Ocala Speedway is a weird, egg-shaped oval that is wide and generous in Turns One and Two and tightens up like a noose in Turns Three and Four, leaving inexperienced drivers headed straight for the wall. Ocala is despised by drivers who have never figured it out, loved by those who have. During the track’s very first race in 1952, a driver flipped his midget car over the fence and landed on a sawed-off pole. He did not live to tell. The last fatality came in 2003, when Leo “Mac” McCullough wheeled his late-model car into Turn Four, bumped another car, darted through the infield, and ran head-on into the Turn One wall, throttle wide open. The impact shook the flag stand, and parts of the car’s suspension were imbedded so deeply into the steel boilerplate wall that they had to be jerked out with a wrecker. McCullough, paralyzed, clung to life for a few months, and then succumbed.
So You Want to Own a Racetrack? - What is Killing Short Tracks?
So what is killing short tracks? The list is long: uncommitted and inexperienced owners, wobbly land values, crippling liability insurance, the sagging economy, complaints from neighbors, competition from other entertainment venues, problems with the Environmental Protection Agency—until just a few years ago, some dirt-track owners poured used motor oil on the dirt to keep down the dust. At one closed-down track in Florida, developers had to abandon plans to build on the site after the EPA declared that all the oil that soaked into the dirt had made it toxic.
Then there’s rain. You work six days a week getting the track ready—these tracks are usually open just one night a week, about 35 Fridays or Saturdays in all, from March to November—and one shower ruins it all. The fans don’t come, but the bills continue to arrive.
There are problems you don’t see coming. At Ocala Speedway in 2002, a race fan, who admitted he had been drinking, fell through the bleachers. He sued and won $1 million from the track’s insurance company. Just last August, a burglar broke into all seven of the track’s buildings, and then “tore through the track’s concession stands, smashed computers, and stole an empty safe,” police reported. Last November, two men were arrested after they had “drunk themselves into oblivion,” then broke into the track and drove a tow truck and a push truck through fences and gates. Solving the case was easy: One of the drunks left his wallet in the tow truck.
Other challenges are easier to predict. NASCAR will televise nearly two dozen Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races on Friday and Saturday nights. Why pay to go to the track when you can watch racing from your couch for free?
But at Ocala Speedway, the biggest problem that Peters thought maybe he could fix was that the racing just wasn’t very good. The same cars and drivers won every week. The asphalt surface was “one groove,” meaning racing was follow-the-leader. When a driver pulled out to pass, the car lost traction and he fell back in line. Peters painted the surface with traction compound to make it a little stickier, and it sort of worked, but one hard rain and it all washed off.
In the Florida sunshine, a dirt track dries out quickly unless you soak it with water on a near-daily basis.
Midway through their second year as owners something had to be done. Peters had been monitoring car counts and crowds at dozens of tracks and came to one conclusion: He said, “Angie, we need to go to dirt, or we need to shut the doors.” When Peters broached the idea to fans and racers, few people believed he’d do it. “Nobody thought we’d dump dirt on the asphalt track. And those who did believe me were convinced it wouldn’t work.”
So he started researching. Researching dirt. What kind to use, how deep to make it, how much to water it. He found a type of light-colored clay that seemed to hold water well, didn’t create dust when it dried out, and didn’t smell like a sewer when it was wet.
Where did he find it?
“It’s a secret,” he says. “Secret clay.”
He hauled in 350 dump-truck loads at $100 each and spread the dirt around until there were maybe 18 inches of it on top of the asphalt. He learned how to water it and poke holes in it and grade it and pack it down, and at the end of the season, he replaced about 50 loads of it that had stuck to the underside of race cars or washed down into the infield.
So You Want to Own a Racetrack? - The Driver Matters More on Dirt than on Asphalt
Late-model racer Rich Pratt sold his asphalt racing equipment when Ocala Speedway went dirt (pictured right).
“Mike took a big gamble,” says racer Rich Pratt, “and I was as skeptical as anybody.”
And it seems to have worked. For the grand opening of the paved Ocala Speedway in 2006 under Peters and Clifton’s ownership, they drew a crowd of 1700. Two years later, when they reopened as a dirt track, they drew 4137 paying spectators. Numbers indicate the couple grossed perhaps $65,000 that night, not including concessions. Though many racers who had built cars for an asphalt track grumbled—not much of the setup from an asphalt car translates to a dirt car—others welcomed the change. One was Pratt, who began racing at the Ocala Speedway after the paving and subsequently has raced all over the eastern U.S. on paved tracks when he can find time away from the small trucking company he owns.
“I sold all my asphalt [racing] equipment,” he says. Running dirt is cheaper than asphalt—easier on tires, and since the tires spin when you give them too much power, you don’t need an engine with as many horses as you do on asphalt. The driver matters more on dirt than on asphalt.
The late-model class Pratt races in is the top one at Ocala Speedway—purpose-built cars, powered by 600-hp V-8 engines. Other classes range from starter cars such as the “V-8 Thunder” class, mostly old Monte Carlos, to the open-wheel modifieds that use a front clip from a passenger car. About $500 will buy you a Thunder car, and $15,000 will buy a decent late model. The rest are in between.
Speedway co-owner Angie Clifton flips burgers before the races begin. Concessions, she says, are a “huge part” of a track’s income.
So is Ocala Speedway finally making money? “Well,” Clifton says. “Let’s say this: I’m no longer having to write a personal check from my account to cover expenses. And that’s a huge relief.”
Marion County, Florida, assesses Ocala Speedway and its 21 acres at a taxable value of $782,275. If the Florida real-estate market rebounds, and developers decide the rural, rolling hills where the track is located would make a nice subdivision, Peters and Clifton—like the owners of every short track in the county—will have to decide: Stay, or sell it and walk away?
The downturn in the economy has hit Ocala hard, Clifton says, and her biggest fear for the future is that people won’t be willing to part with the $12 admission fee or able to buy Cokes and hot dogs and T-shirts, or that sponsors won’t be able to buy ads for the 45 little billboards that ring the speedway.
And that racers won’t be able to race. “Since I’m in the banking industry, I’m very much in touch with the local economy,” she says. “In just the last quarter of 2008, there were 219 businesses that closed in Marion County. It’s very depressed here. The economy has really hit us hard. But we all just have to stick together and try to make it through.”
Rich Pratt, though, will be there as long as there’s a track. “Fishermen will fish, hunters will hunt, racers will find a way to race. A lot of us in this super-late-model division may be a little more hard-core than average, and I have good equipment now. But if it comes to it, I know how to race with a lot less. And a lot of these other guys in the pits know how, too.”
So You Want to Own a Racetrack? - Star Power
Ray Evernham often takes fans for a ride in a two-seat sprint car (pictured right).
Big Names Can Keep Small Tracks Alive
Ray Evernham won three NASCAR Cup championships in the ’90s as Jeff Gordon’s crew chief and later led Dodge’s reentry into NASCAR in 2001 as a team owner. And then, surprising most people, he walked away from it all in 2007.
Why? To do what he is doing now: standing in the mud at his own little racetrack—the East Lincoln Speedway, a red-dirt, tree-ringed, three-eighths-mile oval track in Stanley, North Carolina—taking part in a ribbon-cutting with the chamber of commerce.
“I bought this racetrack because I came here searching for a place to race,” he says. “I love dirt racing, and when I came here, I remembered what attracted me to racing in the first place. People are here because they love the sport. They are not going to be on TV or earn millions of dollars; they don’t have Lear jets, and they never will. And some will go without in order to be here.”
Of course, Evernham walked away from NASCAR with a trunk just overflowing with remuneration, a fact that may account for this observation about the financial perils of owning a country track these days: “Nobody wants to lose money, but if we have a bad night at the racetrack, it’s not like I’m not going to eat.”
Evernham and his partner, minority owner Bob Mack, closed on the track late in 2008. Financial details on the purchase of the track and its 19.2 acres of land were not revealed, but the deed filed with Lincoln County says there is a $350,000 note due to the seller, payable by 2023.
Opening night was April 4, and there was a record crowd at the 18-year-old track for six classes of racing, ranging from open-wheel modifieds to little mini-sprints powered by motorcycle engines. The track has about 2500 grandstand seats; tickets are $10.
Evernham joins a number of NASCAR personalities who have bought into local racetracks. Among the first was driver Kenny Schrader, who grew up racing at I-55 Speedway in Pevely, Missouri, near St. Louis. Schrader and his partners in the purchase leased the one-third-mile dirt oval in 1996 and bought it a few years later.
NASCAR driver Dave Blaney’s family has long been involved with Sharon Speedway in Hartford, Ohio, a three-eighths-mile dirt oval that opened in 1929 and in 1954 hosted a 200-lap NASCAR race won by Lee Petty. Blaney and his partners bought the speedway in 2002.
Berlin Raceway, a seven-sixteenths-mile paved oval in Marne, Michigan, was for years the home track of the Benson family, and it’s also where current NASCAR truck series champion Johnny Benson learned to race, following his father, who was a seven-time track champion there. Benson and his partners, who also own a minor-league baseball team in nearby Grand Rapids, bought the track in 2001 from the family of the owner, who founded it in 1950. Late last year, it was sold to a local businessman and racer.
In 2005, Schrader and NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. were partners in Paducah International Raceway in Kentucky, a three-eighths-mile dirt track built in 1972. A year later, two-time NASCAR Cup champ Tony Stewart joined the partnership.
The best-known celebrity track owner is Stewart, who bought the legendary Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, from Earl Baltes, who had opened the track in 1954. Stewart began racing at the 18,000-seat, half-mile dirt oval in 1991. “This is a bittersweet day,” said Baltes, on the day of the sale in November 2004. “But Tony Stewart is a true racer. He knows what Eldora is all about.” —Steven Cole Smith
This article appeared in July 2009 Car and Driver Magazine. Please visit http://www.caranddriver.com for better photos and more!