Stock Car Racing: Fast Times in Small Towns
By Greg Hamilton
Bruised and scraped, the stock cars screamed into turn one, eight supercharged beaters running nose to tailpipe.
Breaking from the pack, No. 24 veered right, and into No. 41, sending it spinning in a cloud of gray smoke.
The smacked driver quickly regained direction and screamed back into the fray, riding high on the bank and zeroing in on No. 24. The checkered flag was now an afterthought; for these two drivers, it was personal.
They locked bumpers and spun crazily into the turn, coming to a stop as remaining racers blurred by within inches. The crowd roared, track officials in pickups -- amber lights flashing -- headed to the tie-up. A sheriff’s deputy jogged onto the track.
"I love the short-track tempers, but let’s stay safe," the track announcer intoned. "No, let’s get it on!" a woman in the crowd yelled back.
The opening day of the points season at the Citrus County Speedway had arrived, promising Saturday evenings of noise, gas, squealing tires and rowdy good ol’ boys battling it out for modest purses and small-town bragging rights.
Small tracks like these -- 3/8-mile ovals -- dot rural towns and the outskirts of cities around Florida, giving fans the chance to enjoy the sport up close. Some drivers may harbor Daytona dreams, but most just relish the thought of losing a week’s worth of stress by battling their friends and neighbors in machines they’ve largely built themselves in their backyards and garages.
The Citrus County Speedway, along U.S. 41 just south of Inverness, bills itself as the Friendliest Track in the South, and its regular program of races features events for all ages such as Big Wheel races for kids, Mother’s Day specials, even lawn mower races for dads.
But it’s the thrill of the big cars that draws a couple hundred people each Saturday night during the summer racing season to the cozy, weathered wooden bleachers where the worst seat is still less than 100 feet from the track.
"I like the variety of races," said James McSwain of Inverness, not taking his eyes off the sprint cars buzzing by. He comes by several times a season, and tonight he was accompanied by his son and his family, down from West Virginia.
"Those little cars are quick, and I like the legends races (vintage MGs and other roadsters). I really like the tractor races," he said.
On this night, the number of cars is down by around half. The drivers sometimes race at other tracks in the area, such as Bronson Motor Speedway in Archer, the Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, and the Columbia Motorsports Park in Lake City. The Bronson and Ocala tracks are roughly the same size; Columbia is slightly larger at a half-mile oval.
Each has its own character -- in the stands as well as on the asphalt.
The backs of the fans’ T-shirts read like a Chamber of Commerce roster, advertising local tile installers, roofing companies and lawn services.
Kids watch the action while checking their smartphones, grandmothers sitting next to them howl at the drivers zooming past, screaming engines drowning out attempts at conversation.
Admission prices are modest, with discounts available for seniors, military and families and small children.
The chatter in the stands between races -- on this night, there are eight different classes doing battle, including the wild Pro Figure 8s -- reveals a great number of regulars who know enough to bring seat cushions with backrests. The weekly get-together offers a chance to catch up with each other, maybe sip a cold beer, and marvel at the wicked machines flying by close enough you can wave at the drivers -- and have them wave back.
As the track officials and the deputy sort out the warriors on the track -- and friends calm down the wife of one of the drivers who was raging from the bleachers -- one ol’ boy in the top row leans over to his buddy.
"What a way to start the season," he said.
If you go…
Citrus County Speedway
3600 S Florida Ave.
Inverness, Fl. 34450
9950 State Road 24
Archer, FL 32618
Bubba Raceway Park
9050 N.W. Gainesville Road
Ocala, Fl. 34482
Columbia Motorsports Park
1022 SW Howell Road
Lake City, FL 32024