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From days of thunder to days of wondering

Published July 27, 2003

It was an American phenomenon, a sport that evolved from the beaches of Daytona and the dusty back roads of the South, and in 1960 it captured the imagination of a Pinellas County dairy farmer named Leo Musgrave.

Musgrave came up with the idea of converting part of his 250-acre farm into a quarter-mile track that would attract a new breed of racing enthusiast: the stock car driver. Musgrave didn't necessarily expect the fad to last - when he opened his track he figured on a run of five or six years - yet he thought it was worth a try.

Forty-three seasons later (and 20 years after Musgrave's death) they're still racing out at Sunshine Speedway, but it's not clear for how long. For one thing, the state might buy the land beneath the track for a connector linking the Bayside Bridge with Interstate 275. For another, attendance is down. Stock cars are no longer the only game in town for Saturday-night thrills.

Bonnie Hill, Leo Musgrave's daughter, grew up hating the noise of the rumbling cars. She would get so bored selling programs that by the end of the night she'd fall asleep in the back of her father's car.

"If you would have ever said one day I'd be helping to run the track I would have said you were crazy," she says in her pit row office, which she shares with life-size cardboard cutouts of Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon.

Hill and her husband, Frank, took over promoting races in 1987 after the track went through several tumultuous years following her father's death. Hill's mother owns the track and the 130-acre parcel it's part of. The barn where Leo Musgrave kept dairy cows still stands near Roosevelt Boulevard but now is used for horses.

"The area works for you but it also works against you," Hill says. "It's very centrally located so it's easy to get to, and that has contributed in the past to the good crowds, but we're the last large piece of undeveloped commercial property in Pinellas County so our taxes are sky high" - about $190,000 a year.

The speedway's location also would be ideal for an I-275 interchange. The federal government has authorized $10-million toward purchase of the track, though a Department of Transportation spokeswoman says the project is in the design stage and no offer has been made for the land. Yet so widespread is the belief that the speedway's days are numbered that some people think it's . "We run into people weekly who say, "I thought you guys closed,' " Frank Hill says. "We're still here and no one's even made an offer. We've been dealing with this since 1983 when Bonnie's dad passed away. That was about the time they talked about putting that road through here. Twenty years later and we're still dealing with it."

Something else that must be dealt with is the flat economy.

"I don't think I ever, until this year, had so many people call and ask what it costs to get in," Bonnie Hill says. (The answer: $10 for adults, $4 for children, free for kids younger than 6, slightly higher for special events.) "People are being more careful with their money. Since the beginning of the season it's been more noticeable."

Then, too, there is a lot of competition for the entertainment dollar that wasn't around in 1960.

"If someone has to decide if they'll go to a stock car race on a Saturday night or a Bucs game on a Sunday, a lot of times we lose unless it's an event," she says. "That's it - the Bucs games are events still and they get so much public attention. ... I guess if we were hyped up in the media as much as the Bucs are, there might be a lot more excitement about stock car racing. Stick and ball gets more coverage than we get."

As for the future of short tracks, Bonnie Hill is not too optimistic.

"I don't foresee it ever coming to the point where every track will be gone. There still will be tracks out there. Whether they stay around for years like ours is maybe something you won't see. You'll see them for maybe three or four years and then they'll sell the land because they can't afford to race on the property."

To Ron Nelson, though, local tracks have to last; they're the backbone of the sport. Nelson drives the push truck at Sunshine Speedway, clearing wrecked cars during the races.

"Every driver they've got now - in Winston Cup, Grand National, the (Craftsman) trucks, even in the Indy cars - had to start somewhere, and they started out in go-carts or motorcycles, sprints, modifieds and they just keep building up. You start at the bottom - you can't start at the top."

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