By Jack Smith
Dumb to the behind closed doors politics of Florida racing, naive to the treacherous shoals patrolled by a ruthless race track operator, the Bradenton Herald fell for the clever PR, hook, line and sinker.
"Then last week, it became official. Sunshine Speedway, arguably DeSoto's biggest business competition, was to close at the end of the season." That is one of the opening lines in a column written by Douglas A. Kaid, published in Saturday's Bradenton Herald.
Sunshine Speedway is not anywhere near being DeSoto's biggest competition, that distinction goes to dozens of other entertainment businesses, but it gives us an insight to the mindset of the current ownership, which is most certainly where the writer got that brilliant gem. Same place they got this quote describing Sunshine's closing, "like Christmas in July", attributed to one of the Bradenton owners.
Not sadness on losing a priceless treasure created by Leo Musgrave a half-century ago, no not even a momentary reflection on the real impact to Florida race fans and drivers. Just more of what many racers and fans we have spoke with over the last two years call unadulterated greed, a disease that many of those racers and fans see as the reason for a decimated car count compared to that enjoyed by the speedway prior to 2000.
Is this the "Christmas" they couldn't get when attempts in 2002-2003 to drive out Charlotte County Speedway ownership out of business failed?
Just to refresh your memory, the DeSoto owner made serious attempts between 2001 and 2003 to get the Charlotte County Airport Authority to not grant a new lease to LeRoy Davidson, his effort including giving blatantly false information to the Authority in support of his attempts to take over the Speedway. You can read one of those pieces of false information here. He was able to effect a huge increase in the amount of the monthly lease, which has had the effect of making it very difficult for the Charlotte County program to keep pace with the rest of the Florida tracks, especially in these tough economic times. It is a credit to the resiliency of the Charlotte County Speedway fans, racers, ownership and track management that they have been able to rise above the economic burden and currently have as successful a program as any track in Florida.
But even this "Christmas in July" isn't enough to satisfy the financial desires of this ownership.
Now it must embark on a campaign to rid Florida of the independent traveling shows, or at least to force them out of business by squeezing them financially.
"We have all decided that we own the playground and we're going to control what happens".
"The whole face of racing is going to change. It is our way or no way."
You can guess who made those statements. Yes that's right: the owner of DeSoto Speedway. It is that last line that draws the line in the sand and makes one wonder about "means" and "ends", and morals, and business ethics.
Are there issues that need to be addressed between the track owners and the promoters of the various traveling series? Of course there are and many of these have needed to be addressed for some time.
But this owner would do better to fix his own kitchen before telling the world he is in control.
A few months ago former DeSoto Speedway promoter and marketing whiz Margi Nanney joined DeSoto Speedway's team in an effort to use her considerable talents and local Sarasota and Manatee County connections to help bring back some of the veterans who have parked their cars since the current regime took over. As marketing director she envisioned helping improve the morale so necessary to the operation of a successful racing facility.
That dream was short lived however and she resigned last week citing a "difference in philosophy and a difference in principles". Which ironically is the same reason so many racers have parked their cars in the area.
Translated, that probably means that she became disgusted with the aggressive attempts by the ownership to undermine traveling series and lack of regard for the racers who provide the entertainment.
In fact Nanney came aboard specifically to try and win back the hearts and minds of the racers and the community. Nanneys' credentials in Manatee County are impeccable having served as the Marketing Director for Bill Graham Ford for nearly a decade. She is one of the most respected personalities in the Florida stock car racing scene. And now she too is gone.
No doubt many racers from Sunshine will go to DeSoto and give it a try, but many will go to Citrus County Speedway, which by the way has a good car count, and rumors being spread about that tracks demise are completely off the shelf nonsense.
Many will travel the 100 miles to Charlotte County Speedway, which still has three and one-half years left on it's current lease and is overall doing quite well in it's rebuilding program.
Many will opt to sell their racing equipment and go fishing, and many will join the traveling shows that the DeSoto ownership is so fervently opposed to.
But some of the Sunshine racers will go to Auburndale Speedway, some will make the trek across I-4 to race at Orlando Speedworld, and some will join the ranks of East Bay Raceway Park, a dirt track that is cut above most of the asphalt tracks in organization.
Tears will be shed on the day that DeSoto Speedway runs it's last race and rightfully so.
The state is losing Hialeah Speedway at the end of the year, but no one in South Florida jumped up and said it's "Christmas in July" over that one. Is that because there is only one ownership that has the point of view that it all business and impersonal and money is the only important commodity?
The highway that New Smyrna Speedway is located on was just named after its founder, Clyde Hart, by the State of Florida. That grand old speedway on the Clyde Hart Highway is creating a Hall of Fame type theme to honor its former competitors who after all made it what it represents today.
More tracks should follow that lead.
It is not about money. It is about keeping a sport alive for future generations, and if that is done wisely and with care and a look to continuing to improve and find new ways to satisfy the public's desire to be entertained, those ownership's will find that profits will be there.
Every time a track goes to seed, or is put on the auction block of human progress and becomes a highway, a shopping center or housing development the sport of stock car racing dies a bit.
New tracks can be built, contrary to popular belief, perhaps not built on the model of the 1970s or 1980s, but instead multi-use facilities that have several revenue streams.
Rejoicing over the closure of a Florida Speedway is tacky at best, disgusting to real race fans.
It is a shame to lose any race track and even though one day as certainly as the sun will set this evening they will all be gone, only by the current group of owners working together with each other and the independent traveling series to produce a better product for fans and racers can any long-term survival be expected for the sport you love.
It can't be saved by killing off members of the fraternity or stomping on imagined 'competitors' or listening to the sound of greed.
It is not "Christmas in July".
It is a sad day for racing.
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