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Drag racers can start their engines, for a while

Motocross and dragsters have the green light to continue racing at Sunshine Speedway _ at least for the next two years.

The companies that run the drag strip and motocross track struck a deal with the state Department of Transportation, which bought the speedway property last summer in order to build a connector road between Interstate 275 and the Bayside Bridge.

But construction is not scheduled for several years, so Sunshine Motocross and Tampa Bay Dragway can stay open for now. The main speedway track will close when its lease with the state runs out in December, DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said.

Sunshine Motocross will pay the state $2,000 a month during the two-year lease, Carson said. Dragway rent will vary according to the number of events.

Frank Valente, head of Sunshine Motocross, could not be reached for comment.

Dragway owner Todd Dickinson said the agreement is good for both sides. Keeping the track open gives drag racers a safer outlet than local roads, and the lease provides the state some income on property that would have sat vacant until the highway is built.

"Now I have a minimum of two years or whenever they start construction, which could be five years or more," Dickinson said. "I told DOT we need to give the kids a safe place to race their cars so they don't get killed on the streets."

Dickinson's father died racing at the Sunshine Speedway in 1982, but he still thinks racing on the strip is safer than on city streets.

On Wednesday nights, hot rodders pay $15 to roar down the track. The Bradenton Motorsports Park, which Dickinson also owns, holds similar events on Sundays and Thursdays, but locals want a nearby track, he said.

He's hoping the new contract will help replenish diminishing crowds and attract racers who have been put off by news of the track's sale.

The DOT paid $20-million in July for the 125-acre site at 4550 Ulmerton Road. Most of the money _ $17-million _ came from federal funds.

The purchase brings the long-awaited connector one step closer, but more land must be bought before it can be built.

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