Auctioneers will gavel off the sum of USA International Speedway this morning. Everything must go, including the palm trees, clearing space for a warehouse that will be a monument to disconcerting days for the grassroots short-track racing community.
"We're not the first one to suffer this and we won't be the last," track president Billy Martino said. "It seems like we're the next drive-in theater."
The 47-acre Lakeland facility, built in 1970 and host to various minor-league circuits and NASCAR tests, was upgraded in 1995 and bought by a group headed by Clearwater resident Anthony Amoco in 2007. Now the land has been sold and will be turned into space for warehouses, and the track will join Sunshine Speedway in Pinellas Park plus tracks in Hialeah, Jacksonville and St. Augustine among the recently shuttered.
Reasons vary but are easy to find. In most cases attendance has fallen along with the economy, and the increased presence of NASCAR on television has diminished the interest in local racing. In Lakeland, the land was more valuable than the track itself.
"Everyone can say it's price point issues. They can all say it may be ticket prices. It may be this. It may be that. But it's up to the fans," Martino said. "We can only speculate, but the marketplace is going to make that decision, and if the fans want this type of entertainment, they will support it. If they don't support it, it will go away because … at some point in time, there will be a higher and better use for the land than for a racetrack and they will sell."
USA International hosted Hooters Pro Cup, ASA and ARCA races, all stair steps to NASCAR. Kyle Busch, the current Sprint Cup points leader, made his ARCA debut there in 2002 at age 16.
Towns such as Auburndale, Bradenton, Bronson, East Bay, Inverness, Lake City, Ocala, Orlando, Punta Gorda, Orlando and New Smyrna Beach still have paved or dirt tracks with weekly racing programs that are the foundation of the sport. Don "Critter" Cretty, general manager of Citrus County Speedway, said his track has made a profit two nights this year and will "almost certainly" lose money.
"It's the reality of it all. Maybe if people supported their local short-track racing this wouldn't have happened," Sprint Cup driver David Reutimann of Zephyrhills said. "People are going to have to go far to get their fix."
And when they can get their fix in their living rooms, short-track operators suffer. NASCAR's incursion into Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights with truck, Nationwide and Sprint Cup events negatively impacts the crowds at local tracks. Martino said he was able to avoid certain "catastrophic" Saturday night gates by not scheduling touring events opposite popular Sprint Cup races in Richmond and Bristol. Tracks that host weekly series have no such luxury, and finding the proper price point is daunting. Adult admission at Citrus County Speedway in Inverness is $13 with various deals available for students, children and families. But there are no amenities like pause buttons and the comfort of a living room chair.
"It's hard right now," Martino said. "With technology now you can sit in your house on a plasma screen TV and ride with Dale Earnhardt Jr."
Ironically, NASCAR provides a lifeline for short-track operators with its All-American Weekly Series at sanctioned asphalt and unpaved racks. The program is currently at 60 facilities among hundreds nationally with "judicious and manageable" growth "possible," according to NASCAR managing director of racing operations George Silbermann, who oversees the weekly programs. The NASCAR series sanctions several types of races, including late models, modifieds and stock cars, and has produced the likes of Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer.
For a $1,300 per race sanctioning fee, tracks get national sponsorship revenue, access to marketing materials and a $1-million participant insurance policy most otherwise could not afford.
But though Florida is ripe with tracks and racers, the NASCAR program has no member facilities in-state. The defunct Jacksonville facility and Sunshine Speedway were once sanctioned members.
"We do hope to (sanction a Florida track) again in the future, but as of this moment we do not," Silbermann said. "Right now we're looking for good partners."
USA International did not fit NASCAR's business model because it catered to special events and testing and did not support weekly programs because its 0.750-mile surface was not conducive to affordable weekly racing for drivers.
And so it goes away, piece by piece.
"It's tough right now," Martino said. "No question about it. We're living proof of that."