We took our annual pilgrimage to Daytona for Speedweeks this past February. How could we not? I have been going to Florida races in February since 1966. In fact, I have not missed a single year since then. Of course, it helps to be from the place! But even recently when we did our Pacific NW experiment for three years, we still managed every year to get back to Florida in February. It so happened that we were standing in the pits at East Bay Raceway down in Gibsonton in 2008 as the All Stars were being pushed out for their feature on the final night when Debbie turned to me and said, ” lets move back.” I said “ok”, and that was that.
So I know something about racing in Florida during the 70’s, and this year there really was a 70’s flavor to things down here. East Bay Raceway went back to its roots, so to speak with a non 410 sprint car series that brought a distinct grass roots feel to the program. Back in the Mid 70s’ that was the feel there and the place sure got back to it this year. The Non Winged sprinters of USAC put on a great show at Ocala, just like the non winged cars of the IMCA used to do at the Tampa Fairgrounds around that time of the year. I saw the sprinters of USAC run the new Hollywood Speedway pavement track in the early 70’s, Gary Bettenhausen won the feature the one night they ran there. Over at New Smyrna the annual Richie Evans memorial race was run, the greatest Modified racer of all time was a regular at that track every year. And over at the “big Track”, the jump in speed for the two car draft, the repaving of the track, the incredible ways the radio use revolutionized itself right before our eyes, all of this was absolutely reminiscent of the shake-up of the Plymouth Superbirds and Dodge Daytona’s of the early 70’s. And Buzzie Reutimann was a regular near the front in his open wheeled modified on the Dirt, now I ask you, is there anything more 70’s than that??
But for true 70’s nostalgia, nothing could top the Volusia County Speedway on Feb 11th,12th and 13th. Because from about 1975 on, if there was a big money Sprint Car show anywhere other than USAC you had to deal with a stocky Blonde racer from Bloomington, Indiana who absolutely decimated the field year in and year out down here in February. And at the World of Outlaws opening series in 2011, we all took a trip back in time to 1978. I don’t know how he does it, no-one does. I doubt he knows. He is beating good young racers who were not even alive in 1978. And yes, there is a weight limit nowadays in the World of Outlaws, but that is recent news. Steve was deep in his 50’s and winning races beating guys not only young enough to be his son but who weighed 100 pounds or more less. Remember, this is a sport where thousands of dollars will be spend to machine 15 lbs off of an aluminum block for Christ’s sake. Where holes are drilled in steering wheels. And there sits the king of the Outlaws in all his mid life glory. Come to think if it, that’s how many race car drivers LOOKED in the 70’s.
And when he got behind the wheel, Steve Kinser showed everyone that the magic of the 70’s was still there. He came out Volusia leading in points with two wins and a second, and soon had another win. His Nemesis Sammy Swindell, who also has been kicking ass down here in February for decades as well has also picked up a win. And as I write this, I hear Jimi Hendrix on the radio blasting out “Purple Haze”. If I turn on the TV and see Nixon scowling the immortal “I am not a crook,” I will truly maintain this time traveling mode ……and freak out!
The bottom line here is that for a very long time me and a whole lot of other folks have been enjoying the yearly ritual of, one way or the other, getting to at least one racetrack in Florida in February. For many its “down in Florida”. For us lucky folks its; “heading over to…….” Or “goin’ up to….”. It could be the two and a half mile world famous Daytona International Speedway, the oh so racy East Bay Raceway just south of Tampa, an asphalt Speedbowl like New Smyrna Speedway, or maybe someplace else. No matter, there will be old friends wherever you go, and always new ones as well. And of course, great racing. Perhaps you, like us have a favorite restaurant, perhaps a familiar bar, and there will always be the unexpected, unplanned nugget of an experience to be treasured. That great Jimmy Buffet song, “Stories we could tell” comes to mind.” There is a line in it that goes; “….and if you ever wonder why you ride the carousel, you do it for the stories you can tell.” How true that is. It feels right to be at a racetrack in Florida in February, and when something feels right it generally is. I’m going to paraphrase a quote from the late great Sprint car chauffeur Gary Patterson; “If I am not at a Florida racetrack in February you’ll know I’m dead.”