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East Bay Raceway marks its 35th Winternationals

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The clay oval track sits somewhere between Tampa Bay and the middle of nowhere. Steeped in local tradition but light years away from the grandeur of the Daytona International Speedway, the East Bay Raceway is celebrating the 35th annual edition of the Winternationals. This monthlong celebration of short-track racing attracts drivers from as close as Gibsonton and as far as Canada.

"It's a special racetrack," owner Al Varnadore said of the one-third-mile track, one of only a handful of dirt raceways in the country with six straight days of racing.

In the pits, the grumble of engines makes it hard to focus on all the vehicles flying by. Workers feverishly put the final touches on cars while drivers preparing to race in the next heat line up outside Turn 2.

It's equal parts chaos and harmony.

"You've got to be heads-up down here," track worker Russ Calabrese said.

Near the far corner, back by a tall tin shack, Rebecca George calmly leans against a pole. George's hair is perfectly braided into a pair of pigtails, and unlike many other cars that continue to scramble around, hers is ready to race. She competes in a class called the Open Wheel Modified Lites, which look like a cross between a go-cart and Darth Vader's TIE fighter.

The Star Wars reference is lost on George, 14, who will race in this class of cars for the first time against men, some of them three times her age.

"I'm not as nervous as I thought I'd be," she said. "I'm sure I will be when I strap in, but not now."

George might draw her calm demeanor from her father, who snickers at the suggestion that he should worry about his daughter.

"Dude, I drive a wrecker along the interstate for a living," said Tim George, a seven-time track champion. "That's dangerous. She'll be fine."

• • •

The East Bay Raceway, which opened on Feb. 5, 1977, is one of the premier dirt tracks in the country.

On a typical weekend night during the regular season, about 700 fans come to see mostly local drivers compete. But during the Winternationals, attendance figures can climb to 1,500 per night for the 15 sessions that run from Feb. 3-26, the track's owners said. Racers come from all over the country to enjoy the warmer climate and tune up their cars for the upcoming seasons.

"We get a lot of drivers who come down from Canada and the Indiana, Ohio area because there're usually snowed in right now," Varnadore said. "It becomes like a work vacation."

Varnadore, like most people involved with the track, has been around racing his whole life. He grew up watching his father compete on the drag racing circuit and raced "on and off" for a while. As he got older, Varnadore continued to attend East Bay Raceway and one day noticed that it was up for sale.

"I had just sold my portable-toilet business and was looking for something to do," he said. "We put a business plan together, and were the first people to put money on the table. The rest is history."

Varnadore, along with brother Dean and partners Todd Hutto and Fred Lay, finalized the purchase for East Bay Raceway nearly eight years ago.

"Most tracks (in the country) can only handle three or four days in a row of racing," Varnadore said. "We're one of only two tracks in the country that has six straight days of racing."

Somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades at the racetrack, Varnadore often walks the track, inspects the vehicles or sits high on a tractor, helping to get a wrecked car out of a wall.

"I do a little bit of everything," he said. "Sometimes the business end of it gets to be a headache, but we all love what we do. And we love all the people that come out. It's like one big family."

• • •

On the opening weekend of the Winternationals, Dade City's Buzzie Reutimann pulls into the pit and slinks out of his car. Reutimann pops off his helmet, pulls out his earplugs and flashes an easy smile.

Reutimann, 69, got in a race car at 13 and has been there ever since. He's a short-track legend (a 1997 Dirt Sports Hall of Fame inductee) who made one NASCAR Winston Cup start in 1962, finishing 10th behind winner and racing legend Richard Petty. Asked if he has won any races lately, Reutimann smiles and nods.

"But I couldn't tell you when," he said. "I mean, I've won something like 1,200 or so times."

Unlike Tim George, Reutimann gets nervous when his offspring drives. And for good reason: the stakes and the speed are infinitely higher. After years of plugging along on anonymous tracks, Reutimann's son David got his big break in 2007 when he became part of Waltrip Racing for NASCAR's Sprint Cup series.

His father was there every step of the way.

"Sometimes when David gets in a pack of cars going 200 miles per hour, I just think to myself," Reutimann said. "Wow, what have I done?"

• • •

Practice runs at the raceways are called hot laps, but the only thing hot at the moment is the driver of car No. 61, who has just folded up the front of his car in Turn 1. The driver climbs out through the window like Bo or Luke Duke, yanks off his helmet and smashes both fists on the hood of the vehicle.

It was just the second hot lap of the night and from the looks of the car, this driver's last.

"He's done!" shouted a giddy spectator.

Varnadore's tractor pulls the mangled car off the track. The other drivers prime their engines for more hot laps.

The driver of car No. 61 is indeed done for the night, and racing resumes. He's not the first driver to wreck his car and certainly won't be the last. But as has been the case for 35 years, the Winternationals keeps motoring on.

Brandon Wright can be reached at hillnews@sptimes.com.

East Bay Raceway marks its 35th Winternationals 02/17/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 17, 2011 3:31am]
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