A little more than a year ago, George Auriemma was just another driver on another of the many racing circuits in Florida. Today, he is sitting on top of the world and wearing a grin as fat as any promoter in the racing business.
Twelve months ago, Auriemma was the inaugural points champion of the now-defunct Florida Truck Series. He then bought rights to the series, renaming it the Southern Pro Truck Series, and today he has one of the fastest growing racing circuits in the country.
Much of this is due to the increasing popularity of pickup trucks in the private sector, and to the ever-growing popularity of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series nationally. But much of the credit rests with Auriemma, who has taken all the right steps since taking over the series less than a year ago.
First off, Auriemma had an eye for what sells, knowing the popularity of trucks could be sold to Florida race fans. Second, he retooled the operation completely, standardizing the rules to make it affordable to drivers and to give fans competitive races week after week.
"You should see all the inquisitive looks these trucks get from fans," Auriemma said. "Even other racers flock to the trucks. I think the NASCAR trucks proved how popular the trucks are. They had 17 teams the first year, 56 the second year, and now they have more than 250 trucks running."
Auriemma saw this potential when he ran in the fledgling series a year ago. A former Late Model racer at Desoto Speedway in Bradenton, he knew the series would take off if promoted right. But it would take time and a lot of effort, something the then-owner didn't seem able to provide.
So, Auriemma started his own corporation, and has taken great strides in marketing. He started with eight drivers, but now has as many as 34 trucks officially registered. He also struck a deal with Play Power, a manufacturer of die-cast miniatures, to recreate 10 of the current trucks in the series.
His is believed to be the only series other than NASCAR to have such a contract. Five miniatures (No. 20 Mark Manfredi, No. 22 Fred Wagner, No. 4 Jim Santjer, No. 3 Wayne Metcalf and No. 1 Brian Teeters) are already in production and five more are on the way.
As a treat to Citrus County Speedway fans, whom Auriemma called some of the best in the state, the Southern Pro Truck Series will be handing out more than 400 miniatures during its season finale Saturday night.
In fact, the speedway is such a favorite of Auriemma and his drivers that the Southern Pro Truck Series has made it its home track for the 1998 campaign and will run five races here next year, including the season opener and the season finale.
"Oh yeah, all our drivers really love that track," Auriemma said. "The hospitality from the owners and the promoters, and the fans up there are just great. We've always been made to feel real special up there and the fans love the show we put on."
That show should have increased intensity Saturday night as the series concludes its 1997 season with double points and a purse of $1,000 to the feature winner.
The top three racers are separated by just 26 points, with Pinellas Park's Dan Perez (442) leading Metcalf (418) and Ron McCreary (416). With double points, John Jackson (349) is within striking distance but would need some kind of disaster to strike the other three. Overall, the points are close throughout the top 10, which means much could change in the final standings.
RACE SCHEDULE: Besides the trucks, the once-a-year demolition derby is expected to draw more than a few interested fans. Also, this will be the final week of racing in the Super Stock, Mini Stock, Hobby Stock, Thunder Stock and Figure 8 divisions, with each running an extra five laps (25 for the first three, 20 for Thunder Stocks) and an extra $100 going to the feature winner.
The Citrus County Speedway is located 2 miles south of Inverness on U.S. 41 at the Citrus County Fairgrounds. Admission is $10 for adults, $9 for senior citizens and students to age 17, and $2 for children under 8.