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                          OF STOCK CAR RACING

By Jack Smith

On March 13 2000, Marty Little wrote an editorial piece appearing on our pages entitled "Is Hialeah Speedway Finished?"

That question will be answered Saturday night with a finality that will undoubtable leave some tears on the track that has been Hialeah Speedway for 51 years.

Saturday afternoon at 3 PM Hialeah Speedway pit gates will open for the last time. The back gate attendants will afix their last set of arm bands for the racers who come, for many different reasons, to race their machines around the flattest track in Florida.

"The track is so flat..." and Marty Little's voice fades to a place few can see.

The veteran Hialeah announcer, writer, program publisher and track promoter has seen it all, written about it all, and by the tone in his voice, you know he has felt it all. Marty Little started his racing involvement at Hialeah in 1975, doing a creation of his called the "South Florida Track Facts" which catalogued feature wins, top fives and top tens and other information for the Late models at Hialeah, Palm Beach speedway and the old Miami Hollywood speedway. In those days he was writing results and stories for a driver at Hialeah and in early 77 a temporary job to fill in for the regular Hialeah writer recently taken ill, became a permanent position and Marty became a fixture at the venerable old speedway.

Marty Little explains a piece of Hialeah lore, "the reason the track was built with no bank was, nobody had any forethought that the tires would get any better. All they thought was, in 1953, when this thing was being laid out was oh these little eight inch tires, my God we can't have a lot of bank, we'll crash all the time".

My first trip to Hialeah was in 2000 and I remember marveling at the flatness. It can actually seem as if the track has a negative 2% bank. It is that flat.

"They put this thing together with these real low bank corners, and over the years there has been some proposals to raise the bank and all that". Obviously, that never happened.

When Saturday night rolls around and the ticket takers are welcoming last minute race fans, expected to pack the speedway, are heading for the concession stands for the final time, track announcer Marty Little will fire up the crowd just as he has done for so many years. He will share the booth as he has for years with his wife Janet, who is the scorer and handicapper.

The speedway is expecting not only a huge crowd for it's farewell night, but some very special guests who have shared in the history of the 1/3 mile track.

Some of those expected to show up are Herb Tillman, who won the opening day first feature in 1954. Bill Hess, father of engine builder Billy Hess. Larry Rogero, Bobby Brack, Bobby Coyle,
Marty Handshaw, Billy Barnwell and Paul Parcell.

One old friend Little remembers with pride and hopes can make it Saturday is Al Powell aka Jack Dunkin. "Just a wonderful, wonderful guy who has been a huge help to me history wise for 30 years", Marty says and tells the story of an amazing man. Al Powell ran in a polio benefit race in early 1954 with what he believed was the flu. Al Powell did not have a flu bug. In fact it was polio. He has been a quadriplegic ever since. Little said he was active in the model A club for many years and has written a couple of books on racing. Al Powell won the first heat race ever run at Hialeah.

Since that first heat race the list of winners is simply amazing: Bobby Allison, Red Farmer, Donnie Allison, Dick Anderson, Mario Gosselin, Jow Winchell, Gary Balough, Mike Eddy, Speedy Reeves, Robert Hamke, Rags Carter and Bill Flingos, Mike Franklin, Jr.

Just a few memories for long time race fans.

Marty Little will be flooded with memories as he calls the last Late Model race Saturday night. The 75 lap race will honor the memory of recently deceased Jeff Dufresne, one of the true pioneers of South Florida racing and former President of the Greater Miami Racing Assn.

He will remember with pride his stint as full time promoter of the Speedway in 1985 and 1986, and he probably get a flash of when he became the permanent track announcer in 1992. He will remember the ten years he published the track programs.

And he will remember how hard Hialeah has been on outsiders.

"For people from other parts of the state it was always "way down there", Little explains.
"It has always been difficult for people from out of town to come in and run against the locals and do well, but one of the guys who did it early on was Billy Gill, Bobby Gill's dad. He won a 200 lapper down here in '69 or '70 and he is one of the few who came in as a true outsider and made it work for him."

"The track is so flat," they say.

Marty Little so obviously enjoys his role as South Florida racing historian, it is easy to just sit back and listen, and soak it up. Just as local residents soak up the hot Florida sun beating down on the shopping centers surround the asphalt. But that sun didn't always beat down on parking lots filled with SUVs.

Marty Little: "One time when it was first built they had a lake in the infield. It was swamp, a real swampy area there, there were a couple of houses on the property, and a portion of it was a strawberry farm. I never learned that until last year, a guy walked a couple of women up to the booth one Saturday and said I'd like you to meet these young girls who lived on this property when it was cleared in 1953".

Quite a few folks will be remembering those sorts of things Saturday night.

Marty Little: "The club designed the track, built the track and it took them the better part of a maybe a year to get it all built and everything. It ran the first few times on Sunday afternoons because they didn't have lights, then somewhere along the lines somewhere in late '54 or early '55 they switched over and put up lights and started running on Saturday nights.

It has been a Saturday night staple ever since.

Bobby "5X5" Day, Florida's most famous racing photographerB started his career here in 1956 and set the standard for stock car racing shooters in the Sunshine State, chronicled Hialeah's events for many years.

Fifty years later the lights will shine down for one final time as modern race trucks make 75 circuits around the former swamp turned race track, soon to be a home improvement center, replacing the old coupes and sedans that still reside strong in the memories of the old timers.

Marty Little: "In late '50s and through the '60s's it ran head to head with a 1/4 mile track in Hollywood every Saturday night, and Palmetto Speedway which was a carbon copy of Hialeah but with banking. Hialeah Speedway has outlived a lot of tracks....the old Hollywood, the new Hollywood, Key West, Florida City Speedway, one in Palm Beach and a couple in Ft Lauderdale, Davie-Broward...it has outlasted all of them."

Why did Hialeah survive this long?

Marty Little: "A part of it and probably a big part of it was the club (GMRA). A lot of people have bad-mouthed the club for years, but the club gave the whole place a real sense of ownership. Like the club or not like the club, and a lot of people certainly did not like it, but it helped it stay together".

Little and others we have spoken to as well was the fact that the owner of the property was not a greedy man when it cam to the track. Little details the relationship, "an agreement was reached in 1953 or 1954 that the rent was 'x' dollars and it was based on a percentage of the front gate, and that percentage never changed all those years. It was affordable."

"While things may have changed over time and things grew up around it, there wasn't a greedy landowner that wanted to sell it, Little said.

Not uncharacteristic of Florida, the local media haven't picked up on the track's closing, just as they rarely concern themselves with the loss of old time Florida treasures. That is a shame, but a story for another day.

Marty Little: "It is a huge Hispanic area and the people could care less about the track, we have tried everything from bilingual announcing to Spanish advertisements. A few Latin drivers have become part of the Hialeah Speedway scene, most notably of late is George Morales, who races trucks these days. "George is a pretty good hit, he's a good sport and he's a hard racer."

The efforts to keep the speedway alive since the mid 1990s is worth a book, perhaps one will be written. One should be.

Marty Little: "Hialeah had a huge tax bill, the taxes, over $90,000 a year is what ended up putting the club out of business. The club could no longer function after 1995. They were in bad shape anyway, they had to deal with the enormous tax debt every week essentially left not enough to operate the track".

At the end of 1999 the track was done. There was no money, and a $30,000 tax debt. Mike Powers, a racer in one of the entry level classes at the speedway saved the speedway. He had help, and lots of it. But it was his leadership that kept it alive.

Marty Little: "It should have gone down then but Mike Powers and Joe Winchell, they got people organized and got volunteer work days going out there. They painted and cleaned up and I want to tell you what, if that hadn't happened it would have been over right then, there's not a question in my mind about that".

They also raised a small fortune to satisfy the landlord and keep the speedway open. And they did it less than six weeks. It is the best leadership we have seen displayed in this state since our involvement began in 1995. Mike Powers is someone Florida racing community should be very proud of.

In 2004 and 2005 Dru Ogden has been promoting the track. He came from out west to Florida to help his father in the commercial development of the property. Not a racer, but a lover of hot cars and such Dru got involved with the track, fell in love with racing, got himself a cyclone car and loved it all. He got with the people from Lowe's, the new business going in on the property, and forged an agreement to keep the speedway open until now. Dru has been good for the place, in that without his enthusiasm the track would have been closed last year.

Pit gates will open an hour earlier than normal and a packed house is expected,as race fans, and race warriors from the past pay their last respects to the grand old speedway.

When Dru and Marty and Janet and the gang get the people in their seats and the prayer is said and the National Anthem is played, and the the cars come out on the track, there will be a aura, a glow, a special time where the past meets the present.

The Late Models will race 75 laps, the Fastrucks will race 75 laps, the Street Stocks, the Mini stocks, the cyclones, and in the end 51 years will end with the grinding, screeching, metal ripping sound of a giant demo derby.

Then in a few days or a few weeks the wrecking balls will finish the physical destruction of Hialeah Speedway.

It will be a sad time for many many South Florida race fans as another icon of the past fades away to memories.

Marty's question of 2000 will be indeed be answered this weekend.

But in the end, they will still be saying for years and years to come, "That track was so flat".

Related Articles:
A Reply To Jane Smith: Let's Try! ...By Mike Powers

Is Hialeah Speedway Finished? Commentary by Marty Little


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