A Race Track: Is It Worth The Price?
by Jack Smith
The six-year controversy over who owns the Charlotte County Speedway finally moved from backrooms and courtrooms to the street last Saturday.
The scene at the track entrances was a bizarre one as fans and drivers coming to see the Saturday night show were greeted by members of both sides in the ongoing power struggle over control of the track.
One group, led by Naples attorney Chris Felden, was at the track entrances to inform fans and drivers the track was closed.
The other group headed by Leroy Davidson was across the narrow pit and grandstand entrance roads trying to convince the fans and drivers that the show would go on.
Eventually perhaps 300 fans paid $5 to see 25 cars put on a Saturday night stock car show.
It all started on Sunday June 16 when Davidson took possession of the speedway, and immediately began to make repairs to the track surface. On Monday KARNAC.com was reporting that Davidson had taken over the track and that Charlotte County Sports and Recreation LLC, Felden's organization was accusing Davidson of illegalities.
Davidson meanwhile insisted his purchase of the track from Glen Vanhorn gave him the right to take the speedway back from Felden, asserting they did not have a valid lease and were in arrears on payments due Charlotte County Speedway Inc.
Wild rumors began to circulate that Davidson would be arrested for tearing up the track with his heavy equipment. Felden's General Manager Ronnie Bacelo insisted Felden would have Davidson locked up on Thursday when he got back from his vacation in Europe.
Of course none of that happened.
On Wednesday FASCAR announced the Triple Crown scheduled for the 22nd would be postponed, and Bacelo sent out press releases to local, state and national media, as well as fans and racers informing them the speedway was closed until further notice.
Davidson meanwhile finished the repairs to the track surface and continued to promote the Saturday show.
All of this confusion over who was really running the speedway left the drivers, and of course the fans, in a quandary. "Who are we supposed to support?" stated one Charlotte fan.
According to Davidson, Felden or his staff made numerous attempts to stop the speedway from operating on Saturday. "They called and had the portable toilets removed, had the dumpster taken away, and called the papers and the radio stations", Davidson said.
During the week we made several calls to Peter Drinkwater, a partner in Charlotte County Sports and Recreation LLC. The calls were returned by Ronnie Bacelo instead, who was operating on orders from his bosses. Bacelo told us "We have been told to stay away".
By midweek many of the staff that had been working at the track during the week and on Saturday were faced with the dilemma of who to support. Several of the staff depend on the paychecks from Charlotte County Speedway, and were in the middle. If they went to work as usual they risked being fired when Felden took the track back from Davidson.
Meanwhile volunteers who were willing to support the track regardless of who owned or operated came into help Davidson prepare for Saturday.
Davidson struggled to get insurance coverage and by late Friday had a commitment from an insurer, picking up the binder on Saturday. Meanwhile the word had been spread that he did not have insurance and the racers would not be covered.
Chris Felden must have felt like he had entered the twilight zone, after nearly a year of court dates, mediation hearings, Airport Board meetings and all sorts of negotiations with both Glen Vanhorn and Leroy Davidson, he returned home from a long vacation to find all his work in shambles.
Felden, who with his wife Victoria, not only has a very successful law practice in Naples, Florida, but is also an entrepreneur involved in many businesses. Felden entered the fray in 2001 with the goal to end the six-year battle between Vanhorn and Leroy Davidson, get the speedway brought back to respectability and make the physical improvements so badly needed for the track to be successful.
As he told me Saturday night, "It would take $100,000 in investment in make this track successful". But as he pointed out nobody in their right mind would put out that kind of money with the continuing lawsuits between Vanhorn and Davidson.
I got to the track at 5:00 PM on Saturday and with the threat of rain looming large didn't really know what to expect in terms of turnout, especially in light of all of the turmoil during the week. What I encountered was strange indeed.
The pit entrance and the grandstand entrances were staked out with people and vehicles, and for a brief moment I thought perhaps security was beefed up over some terrorist threat. Then I saw Peter Drinkwater and several others I recognized standing vigil over the entrance.
When I arrived at the office and was told what was going on something on the order of disbelief set in. That we would have two squads of troops battling over the speedway at race time was too much for even this reporter. Having covered the Florida racing scene full time for six years and being privy to the back rooms of race tracks fans and even most of the race car drivers have no idea about, I thought I had seen it all.
There were 24 cars in the pits, one came later to make 25, and eventually perhaps 300 fans paid to watch them. It reminded me of Bronson's speedway before Mike Cope took over.
Leroy Davidson and Willie Tetter were busy scrambling to get a staff together, the phones were ringing off the hook with Cheryl Weaver and Sara Tetter trying to answer the phones and still answer the barrage of questions being thrown at them by myself and others.
Eventually Davidson found an announcer, assembled some scorers, and held a driver's meeting.
A couple of race fans sitting near the top of the bleachers wanted to talk, so we listened. "This is childish and really out of place at a race track," the lady said. Her husband jumped in, " Don't drag the drivers and us fans into this mess, we came here to see racing".
After listening to the sadness of their comments, we rushed off to the driver's meeting, which Davidson held himself. The first one he had held in many years.
He first passed out photocopies of the insurance binder to all the drivers and crews, followed by a pep talk about putting on a good show for the fans. He explained that even though there was only a small car count, the fans who were there deserved to see them see a good night of racing.
Then the discussion turned to the points fund and purses. After a brief discussion of the alternatives, the drivers themselves agreed on how it would be handled. Davidson told them "I'm here to look out for you guys, and we'll race next week". He also told them he would do whatever it takes to get the car count back up.
The new announcer was a hit right off the bat and clearly brought excitement to even the small crowd, and then after no one could find the tape for the National Anthem, Connie Davidson, Leroy's wife, with some help from a friend stepped up and gave it to the fans live.
It may have been 300 people but the applause sounded like it was twice that number.
Before we left to head for the All American Challenge Series race at DeSoto, I spoke with Chris Felden for a half-hour.
We stood alone, with the racecars roaring in the background, going over the whole situation from his point of view.
Chris Felden is a very personable man, and I could see the hurt in his eyes as we talked. He had worked hard to get the lawsuits settled and make Charlotte County Speedway, not just a good racetrack, but also a top-flight entertainment complex.
Felden expressed his feelings about the drivers and fans, and how he had come to know and like so many of them.
But foremost on his mind was how he felt Davidson had illegally taken over control of the speedway. He explained that he could not just sit back and let all of his hard work to salvage the speedway be undone.
Leroy Davidson, a man I have much conversation with over the last several years, is also a very likable personality. He built the speedway without much money, ran some big shows and was a very active promoter until his removal by the Board of Directors in 1996. He always felt he was railroaded out of control, and on this night finally felt like he had got back what he rightfully owned.
I first visited Charlotte County Speedway in 1997 with my sales partner at the time Terry Wall. Having been very familiar with Charlotte, Lee and Collier County we felt we could help the struggling little racetrack with our marketing and promotional expertise, so we made an appointment to meet with Glen Vanhorn, the man who held control of the corporation that owned the track at the time.
On a very hot Wednesday afternoon we trekked down to see Vanhorn, were taken up to the tower and were all set to discuss the promotional angles we could bring to the speedway. We were offered a beer, declined the offer, and tried to give him our plan.
For the next two hours we sat and listened to a monologue from Vanhorn about how he had run Leroy Davidson out of town. No detail of exactly how he accomplished this task was too minute for us to hear. Any attempt to talk about the track's promotion was immediately shifted back to Davidson. The man seemed obsessed with Davidson, and we never did talk about the track.
But he invited us back to see him and once again we drove the hour and a half, hoping this time we would get down to brass tacks. He never talked to us at all that day. Instead we watched as a five-minute board meeting was held to appoint a new General Manager. A whim executed by a very likable man, well past his best business years.
Having made many trips to Charlotte County Speedway, met hundreds of their fans and many drivers, getting to know a lot of the staff that work there, we have come to really admire the 'family' that exists there.
All of this made Saturday a day of mixed emotions.
On the one hand a very, very sad day. Sad to see an awesome potential being wasted, sad to see the fans and drivers being drawn into a business fight, something like watching mom and dad having a family quarrel, with the children helplessly looking on. Sad to see nice people personally, having to expose their tough business sides for all to see.
On the other hand to see the determination of race fans and race to drivers do what they love to do on Saturday night, despite overwhelming odds and impossible conditions, brought a glow to the spirits of all who were there.
Peter Drinkwater, a real race fan, walked by Chris Felden and I while we discussed the future of Charlotte County Speedway, and said to Chris, "I'm going to watch some racing, I never get to see racing".
Hopefully soon all the fans and drivers will get the chance to "just watch some racing" at Charlotte County Speedway.
Hopefully all these good people will find a way to make a peace that benefits the showmen we call racers and lets the fans get back to cheering for their favorites on the track, instead of having to choose sides.
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