USA International Speedway. Orlando Speedworld. Hialeah Speedway. Golden Gate Speedway. St. Augustine Speedway. Palm Beach Fairgrounds Speedway. And soon, 4-17 Southern Speedway. A few decades ago, this list of tracks would have made a must-see short track racing touring circuit. Now they live on solely in “Memories” groups on social media.
I try to not get too worried about track closures. While many tracks have closed in recent years, a decent amount have been built too. Some of the most historic tracks that seemed destined for the chopping block - Nashville Fairgrounds and North Wilkesboro coming most to mind - seem to have new futures. And, while I know this is not a popular opinion, I believe it is better to have handfuls of well-maintained and well-promoted facilities spread across states rather than a hodgepodge of tracks that - to put it mildly - are not in good shape and only add to negative stereotypes while cannibalizing crowds.
That said, this is from a national viewpoint. It’s hard to ignore some regions are hurting worse than others, and no region has been hurt worse than the Florida asphalt racing scene. If 4-17’s closure and demolition proceeds, there will be five regularly active asphalt short tracks in Florida - Five Flags (Pensacola), Auburndale, Citrus County (Inverness), New Smyrna (which had to close early this year because of hurricane damage) and Showtime (Pinellas Park). Freedom Factory - most commonly known as DeSoto - and Bronson appear to be mostly idle save special events.
And it’s going to be hard to correct this trend - There is simply no getting around that Florida today is different from Florida 40 years ago. Population growth is mind-boggling and the price of land is going with it. It’s hard to picture any place in the state that would be particularly fertile (and cheap) ground to build a new asphalt facility at the moment.
As we face an uncertain future, I certainly urge all Florida short track fans to send 417 a fond farewell and turn out for the last race. In honor of its history - this track that started off known as Charlotte County Speedway in 1990 - let’s look back at five of the biggest moments the track has had.
February 11, 1991 - The track’s first major event was a rare occasion - the winged All Star Sprints on asphalt. While the ASCoC group dipped their toe further into asphalt than WoO ever did, the total of “official” races held by the big sprint sanctioning bodies can still be counted in a few hands. Kenny Jacobs won this event, as far as we can find the only win on asphalt for the National Sprint Car Hall of Famer.
February 10, 1992 - WoO actually partnered with ASCoC to come back the next year, running two shows with Dave Blaney winning both. Names like Steve Kinser, Sammy Swindell, and Andy Hillenburg made their only appearances in Charlotte County. This event was particularly notable for immediately following the SunCoast Dome debacle, which more or less left a bad taste in the mouths of all the competitors at the track that weekend who were still waiting to get paid from the previous events.
March 22, 2003 - Wayne Anderson has won at 15 tracks in the state of Florida, but to our records this is the only time he conquered Punta Gorda (at least in a touring series). Anderson dominated the Florida Pro Series season opener, starting 5th, taking the lead on lap 4 and never looking back to the 100-lapper victory.
February 25, 2017 - The final victory in the career of Florida’s greatest sprint car racer, Dave Steele. Steele would tragically die at the start of a sprint race at DeSoto exactly one month later, but this day he would be unchallenged en route to the victory. Once the old Tampa Bay Auto Racing Association group folded, the new series - The Southern Sprintcar Shootout Series - would start fresh in 2016. This marked Steele’s 14th win in 15 starts with the group.
November 27, 2021 - The sixth annual Bill Bigley Memorial race was the most wild one thus far. Steve Dorer and Nick Neri wrecked coming to the white flag and then proceeded to make matters worse off track. While those fireworks were going on, Michael Atwell muscled his way by Rich Bickle for the victory. The biggest win of Atwell’s career, it was also the one that got away for Bickle. While his career would end a week later at the Snowball Derby, Bickle’s Snowball appearance was more ceremonial than competitive while the hard-nosed Bigley ending would serve as the last time he was truly in contention for the win.