Racecar Engines Roar Year Round in Florida

    By John Schwarb

    North Carolina may have NASCAR. Indiana has open-wheel racing. But Florida has it all.

    Don Garlits' homemade dragster was just a hobby for under the oak tree at his house off East 122nd Avenue in Tampa, comfortably away from the family-owned garage.

    One wouldn't dare work on a racecar at an auto-repair facility in Florida in 1954. With those vehicles having a stigma of sorts back then, Garlits said, "customers wouldn't think you'd be working on their cars."

    Plus, Garlits never really thought his hobby would amount to much more than a backyard pursuit.

    He was gloriously wrong.

    The hobbyist became "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, and the shade-tree pursuit is a part of a motor-sports-crazed nation, with niches in various corners.

    NASCAR's home is in North Carolina, where its teams are based and its moonshine-running roots are celebrated. Open-wheel racing is revered in the Midwest, especially Indiana, where the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway has tested the limits of man and machine for 100 years. Drag racing, Garlits' passion, traces its professional roots to Southern California.

    And Florida can claim it all.

    The most-watched race in America, the Daytona 500, will be held later this month at the culmination of Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway – the "World Center of Racing," a self-proclaimed title, but still hard to argue. America's most popular racing series starts its season here and will end it in November at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

    The Izod IndyCar Series will also start its season in Florida next month at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, an event that in eight short years has become one of the more popular city-street races in the country.

    The National Hot Rod Association's Full Throttle Drag Racing Series comes through Gainesville in March for the 43rd annual Gatornationals, one of the oldest and best-attended races on its schedule.

    Last month, the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race was held at the track for the 50th year. VISIT FLORIDA sponsors the Dempsey Mazda racing team.

    And that's just a portion of what the Florida racing scene has to offer. From the 12 Hours of Sebring to Saturday night dirt-track racing, the calendar goes on and on in a state where the engines roar year round.

    The throttle-up is especially appreciated during the winter months, where the only racing-conducive weather in northern climates is for snowmobiles.

    "If you don't think that Florida racing, especially Speedweeks racing, is a big deal, go down to tracks like Ocala, East Bay (outside Tampa). They'll have modified races with 80 to 100 cars in the pit area," said NASCAR driver and Zephyrhills native David Reutimann. "I've seen guys from Canada pull down here because of the weather, because of the racetracks, where they can run three weeks solid of all kinds of dirt racing.

    "You see people base their entire vacations around working their butts off on racecars. Florida's legendary for this time right now. Right now, 'til Daytona's over with, there's no bigger place on the planet as far as your racing career."

    Reutimann would know. The 41-year-old driver comes from a family of oil-stained lifers and can remember traveling from Pasco County to Daytona as a teenager, following his father to the dirt tracks. They didn't attend the Daytona 500, but would take in the twin-125 (mile) qualifying races at the huge 2.5-mile oval as part of their Speedweeks routines.

    "The place was larger than life, and it continues to be even as I've raced the Daytona 500 a couple times," said Reutimann, who now drives for Tommy Baldwin Racing.

    Say "The Great American Race" to any sports fan and they'll know it's the Daytona 500, running for the 54th time this year. Its winners list is the history of American motorsports, from Petty to Andretti to Foyt to Earnhardt.

    For more history, Garlits offers up his own museum. The Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala has welcomed visitors since 1984 to a sprawling complex of buildings featuring classic cars and dragsters, including many of his own record-setting vehicles. In the next few years, Garlits hopes to consolidate the collection under one roof, making a 100,000-square-foot showcase of racing history.

    Having amassed such an amazing collection, Garlits could have opened his museum anywhere – including any of those other motorsports hot spots around the country already listed here. But in the end, he didn't stray too far from his roots, and that oak tree.

    "It's Florida, man," Garlits said. "My rule is to keep Florida great."

    When it comes to motorsports, Florida is already there.

    Florida Racing Hot Spots

    Daytona International Speedway
    1-800-PITSHOP, daytonainternationalspeedway.com
    Opened: 1959
    Major races: Grand Am Rolex 24 (January), NASCAR Daytona 500 (February), NASCAR Coke Zero 400 (July)
    Notable: Daily tours available, from 30 minutes to 90 minutes long; "VIP" tours available on selected dates

    Gainesville Raceway
    352-377-0046, gainesvilleraceway.com
    Opened: 1969
    Major race: NHRA Gatornationals (March)
    Notable: Road course, separate from drag strip, hosts driving schools and corporate functions

    Homestead-Miami Speedway
    (866) 409-RACE, homesteadmiamispeedway.com
    Opened: 1995
    Major races: Grand Am Grand Prix of Miami (April), NASCAR Championship weekend (November)
    Notable: General public can drag-race their street cars on selected Friday nights year round.

    Sebring Raceway
    800-626-RACE, sebringraceway.com
    Opened: 1950
    Major race: Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring (March)
    Notable: The oldest permanent road racing track in North America, it evolved from a World War II air base.