This Storm Was No Laughing Matter
By Jack Smith
On Wednesday August 11 some race fans were happily poking fun at a few track promoters; those few who, in advance of the impending Hurricane Charley, cancelled Saturdays' races.
Of course those fans knew that the storm would arrive on Friday late afternoon, perhaps drench the western coastline with even more unwanted rain, and be gone, leaving the beautiful blue skies that follow a big storm and dry race tracks and business as usual on Saturday night.
Those fans were wrong, dead wrong.
On this Friday the 13th , the cute little phrases about "Mother Nature" race writers like to play with became meaningless words, meant for some other world.
This Friday one speedway would be destroyed, while another at the other end of the state would barely fight off the fiendish winds of Hurricane Charley, dozens of racers would lose their shops and homes, a million Floridians would begin to live in darkness, in the midst of a multi-billion dollar disaster movie, the script being written day to day.
Drivers and their crews from Cape Coral to Punta Gorda to Arcadia to Wauchula to Lake Wales to Orlando and New Smyrna Beach and all points in between by the dozens lost their race shops, some losing their homes and valuable possessions, and thankfully as far as we know none lost their life.
This was no storm to poke fun at.
Winds in excess of 140 miles per hour tore across the wide expanse of Charlotte Harbor and the the open cow-grazing flat lands of Punta Gorda and hit the grandstands of Charlotte County Speedway with a fury that twisted with a vengeance those wooded bleachers it could not completely dismember. Charley's furious charge took the scoring tower in it's grasp, exploding it into wood fragments, while whipping the roof from the concrete block main buildings housing the concessions and offices and began chewing on the contents. Charley's winds circled the track faster than any race car ever has, bending and breaking concrete light poles, while stripping the safety fencing off the concrete walls.
By the time Charley left Punta Gorda en route to Arcadia and a visit to Raymond "SuperFrog" Jones' race shop, he had left nothing untouched at the 15 year old race track.
Jones along with wife Diana were among the racers who took time from their first weekend in the aftermath of the destruction to make the trip to Charlotte County to assist in the clean-up phase of what may be the building of a race track. One of the top racers in the Outlaw Modified touring series, Jones' Arcadia based race shop was a total loss, according to a Charlotte track official.
Charley next stop was, among other destinations, the home and race shop of Super Late Model star B.J. Mcleod. McLeod, whose family resides in Wauchula suffered major damage to their home, according to an early report from the McPhail racing family. Jane Smith reported that Ministock Challenge Series racer Tim McPhail and family fled the Pinellas County area to the supposed safety of the McLeod homestead in Wauchula, some 60 miles inland. Charley changed all plans Friday evening, sparing McPhail's home and forcing the McLeods to find other living quarters for now.
And on the storm raged, only slightly weakening in destructive damage to older wooden homes and the thousands of trailer parks and manufactured home neighborhoods, as it made it's date with the track Clyde built, New Smyrna Speedway sitting 10 miles south of Daytona and 70 miles from Mario Gosselin's hometown of Lake Wales. Gosselin was in Nashville for the ARCA/REMAX Waste Management 200 Saturday afternoon at Nashville Superspeedway. The Lake Wales racer fought back from one lap down to grab a fourth place finish, while his neighbors dug out of Charley's mess.
New Smyrna Speedway's damage was primarily to the older structures, signage and lighting. At least 75% of the infield building, 80% of the track's billboards, much of the safety fencing gone. Hurricane Charley, now down to Category 2 status, tore the roof of the main office building off, and then destroyed a mobile home behind the office. "What happened was a little tornado came through there, and just came right down between one and two, down the back straightway made a turn and went straight across the track", according to General Manager Don Nerone.
Nearby and to the north Volusia County Speedway had only very minor damage, but to the east and south Orlando Speedworld also had damage to pit side buildings.
After a week of picking up the pieces the tracks all are ready to fire up some Saturday night action, except for possibly New Smyrna Speedway and of course for Charlotte County Speedway, which will need several months to rebuild. New Smyrna is still working on their lighting as of Tuesday afternoon.
At Charlotte County Speedway on Saturday and Sunday, racers and friends came to begin the massive cleanup effort needed before rebuilding can start. Outlaw Modified promoter Steve Brigham and racer George Sands came from Florida's east coast the the Keys along with their families and other Outlaw racers arrived early Saturday.
They were joined by Kenny Busch and Don Wilson and his front end loaders and other heavy equipment from Wilson Construction. Tom Durfee and other TQ Midget racers also assisted Saturday and Sunday, joining with many Charlotte County racers in the cleanup. On Sunday Gulfcoast Modified promoter Gary Robertson and Open Wheel star Wayne Jefferson came down from the Tampa-St.Petersburg area.
Charlotte County is expected to reopen in three to six months. Which may be how long it takes to get the surrounding area back to some semblance of normal life. The devastation in the Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte area is beyond description, no amount of still photos, video or news commentary can prepare the mind for the scope of the catastrophic damage especially in the days immediately following Charley's rampage. It is safe to say the area will never be the same again, many racers will likely never return, having lost too much, and having only memories left, will seek other places to put down new roots.
As for the track, the future may be brighter than anyone expected. LeRoy Davidson said last week, "we have been knocked down before and we'll just have to get back up, fix the track, and make it better than before".
The weather has been brutal for Florida tracks in 2004, many of which have already been reeling from the effects of a wavering economy on many parts of Florida, and Charley certainly put the exclamation point on it.
One thing is for sure no one was laughing on Saturday, August 14, and it will be a long time coming before anyone laughs about a hurricane in south and central Florida.
John Barker' Ledger Column: Race Tracks Damaged but Not Top Priority
Jane Smith: Charley's Wrath
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