The last night of racing at the Sunshine Speedway was Nov. 20, 2004. A crowd of 6,200 — the biggest since 1990 — came out to bid the 44-year-old track farewell. It had been a good run since dairy farmer Leo Musgrave opened the quarter-mile figure 8 track in 1960, but even the track's owners — Musgrave's daughter and son-in-law — said in 2004 the Sunshine Speedway's best years were behind it. And the state wanted to build a road over the site, which is on Ulmerton Road east of Largo, to connect the Bayside Bridge to Interstate 275. The Florida Department of Transportation paid $20 million for the 125-acre speedway site in 2004, and that was that.
The track would be razed and the land used for the road project. Officials talked about a possible mass transit hub there, too, linking high-speed trains to light rail.
Then a few things happened.
The recession happened. Gov. Rick Scott happened. And with 2012 around the corner, the road project nowhere near funded, and no mass transit hub in the offing, state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, approached DOT with an idea: What if we brought the Sunshine Speedway back to life?
"It was a resource that was just sitting there, unused, and I thought we ought to try and see if we could make use of it," Latvala said.
The grandstands and concession stands are gone. The only thing left is the track, which DOT is using to test toll-taking technology. DOT agreed that it could do its testing elsewhere, however, and Thursday state officials met at the speedway site with about 30 people interested in the bidding process.
Whoever wants to revive the speedway will need a lot of money. Hundreds of thousands of dollars will be needed to build a new venue around the track, and DOT wants a minimum of $75,000 per year to rent the property.
The bid documents call for a five-year lease, but DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson acknowledged it could be longer than five years until the state has the money to connect the Bayside Bridge to I-275.
"Realistically, someone is probably going to want longer than that, if they're investing that kind of money," Carson said.
Although the speedway has not hosted a race in seven years, the Sunshine Dragstrip, a quarter-mile asphalt strip on the speedway property, is still active. The drag strip's managers lease it from the state and hope to continue leasing from the next manager of the property.
Glen Launey was one of several drag racers who showed up at Thursday's meeting to see what might happen to his beloved strip. Launey, 61, of Valrico, is a racer and the drag strip's chaplain. He won't be renting the speedway, but he has some "well-capitalized friends" he plans to pass the bid information to. And he noticed one guy there "who was dressed pretty serious, and he was taking lots of notes."
"He had a $40 haircut. The rest of us were just regular folks, in blue jeans," Launey said. "We just want to keep the drag strip going . . . We don't care who leases it."
Joe Kolodziej might be the man Launey is hoping for. It's unclear if he's the guy with the $40 haircut, but Kolodziej, the manager of two towing companies and a salvage yard, and two other investors are interested in bringing the Sunshine Speedway back to life.
Kolodziej's prime concern is the lease length. It will cost $400,000 to $600,000 to rebuild the speedway, Kolodziej said, and he doesn't think he and his investors can make that back in five years. Kolodziej, 50, of Clearwater, would feel better about bidding on the lease if the state agreed to a 10-year deal.
"We're going to crunch some numbers," he said. "I think it can be profitable, and I think it'll make a heck of a lot of people around here happy."
One person who will not be happy about more racing at the speedway is Randy Wittles, a retiree who lives in a mobile home park about 3 miles from the track. Wittles, 57, said the drag strip's noise ruins any hopes he has of enjoying the cool breeze outside his home on Friday and Saturday nights.
"Anyone who lives within a mile of that place has got to be knocked out of their bed by it," said Wittles, who has called Pinellas Park police to complain about the noise, to no avail. The drag strip is allowed to make that racket as part of its business operations, just as the speedway was when it was open.
Most of the area around the speedway property is industrial, with St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport just to the north. Latvala remembers when the area was dotted with small auto shops that specialized in working on race cars. He hopes that, if the speedway is reopened, those shops will return.
Latvala doesn't think a revived speedway will create hundreds of new jobs, but he sees no drawbacks.
"We give companies millions of dollars every year to come into the state and create jobs," he said. "This is a way we can help create jobs without any expenditure, and actually make some money for the state at the same time."
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or firstname.lastname@example.org.