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The last mile

Sunshine Speedway gives drivers and fans a final chance to say goodbye tonight before it closes forever.

DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published November 20, 2004

PINELLAS PARK - So this is how it ends, not with a bang but with Bonnie Hill at the wheel of a forklift.

As a cap to tonight's show at Sunshine Speedway, Hill will fire up one of the machines that flips school buses back onto their wheels during Figure 8 races and use it to take chunks out of the asphalt track.

It is billed as the Finish Line Fantasy. In reality, it will mark the end of an era as Sunshine Speedway closes after 45 years of Saturday night racing.

That's 45 years of rubbin' metal and screechin' tires, of burnin' rubber and sizzlin' oil. Forty-five years of the Tampa Bay area's speed demons testing their mechanical skills and courage on a small track that is about as far as you can get from NASCAR's bright lights but as close as you can get to auto racing's heart.

"It started with us. It's going to end with us," said Hill, whose father, Leo Musgrave, built the track.

The state paid $20-million for the 125-acre property on Ulmerton Road that eventually will be used for a highway connecting Interstate 275 with the Bayside Bridge.

Sunshine Dragstrip and Sunshine Motocross, also on the property, plan to stay open at least two more years while the state figures out how to fund the project. The speedway could have worked out a similar lease, but Hill and husband Frank, who have run it since 1987, are waving their checkered flag.

Frank said average attendance for the March-November season has fallen from a high of 3,000 in the mid 1990s to 1,800. He said competition from college football, baseball and hockey has hurt. Most damaging, though, was NASCAR's move to more Saturday night races, which Frank said keeps fans glued to the tube.

Frank said during the past five years the track hovered around break-even. Bonnie said they hoped after the sale and unburdening of the property tax bill the track's finances would improve operating as a tenant. But the summer rains and hurricanes washed away nine cards and held down attendance for others. Frank said the operation "may end up with a couple of dollars in the bank, but only because we don't have to pay taxes no more."

Ultimately, though, the impetus to get out is simple.

"We've been tied up all our weekends for 18 years," Frank said. "We're really looking forward to doing what we want to do. We're burnt out. We're looking for a break."

"If we could have, on June 30 at the closing, we would have walked away from it," Bonnie said. "But we always told our drivers we would finish out a season for them if we could because they built the cars. We couldn't walk away from it because of our commitment to them."

The track, which the St. Petersburg Times reported in 1960 cost $250,000 to build on Musgrave's dairy farm, opened Jan. 23 that year. Musgrave died in 1983. Four years later, his widow, Sibyl, who retained ownership until the state's purchase and is now 86, asked Frank to take over.

A tough assignment. Frank was a Clearwater firefighter and retired in 2002 as a district chief. Bonnie left a post office job in 1988 to join Frank at the track. Neither had a business background.

Bonnie said one of the first priorities was to crack down on fighting in the car prep area by banning alcohol. The punishment: a $500 fine and banishment from that week's races.

The School Bus Figure 8 was introduced in 1990. Frank said it was so popular it brought 3,000 extra "thrill seekers" to the track when run. Additional bleachers increased seating from 4,500 to 6,000, and Clearwater's Denny Neighbor Sr. said Frank and Bonnie kept an open office door.

"There is not another racetrack that has the officials or staff as receptive and helpful to the drivers as they are here," said Neighbor, 62, who raced for 31 years. "No matter what your complaint is, they listen."

"I'm proud of what we accomplished in the time we had it," Bonnie said. "I feel like I can sleep at night knowing that I've done the best job I could. I'm proud of our reputation. I have no regrets about anything we've done."

Be there

In a flash, Charlie Meyer said, seven of his race cars, in various stages of readiness, were destroyed. Meyer said an electrical surge caused by Hurricane Jeanne sparked the fire in the building he leased for his water pump repair business and garage.

He has raced once since, but the Pinellas Park resident said he will have an '84 Ford Thunderbird ready to run in tonight's Figure 8.

"I feel I want to be here for my own satisfaction in my own built car for the last night," said Meyer, 60, a former street stock and Figure 8 champion. "It's something I want to do. It's a nice place to be. It's just a nice track. I always enjoyed running here."

Neighbor said resurfacing has narrowed the racing groove from the optimum three lanes to one, which has made passing difficult and dulled some of the competition. But Tampa's LaVerne Patrick, who has handled the track's flags for, as best he could figure, 15 to 20 years, said the quarter-mile layout with 8-degree banking creates entertaining racing.

"The Figure 8 track is small, so it's not like the big tracks where the cars are spread out and don't ever cross," said Patrick, 67, who has flagged World of Outlaws and NASCAR-sanctioned races. "They put on a better show than any of those racetracks. The cars go faster on the big tracks, but the smaller tracks are where you see your action."

That is just what Ryan Sutera, 22, wanted. The Clearwater resident said he spent about four months and $500 preparing an '83 Oldsmobile Delta 88 for Saturday's demolition derby. He said he entered his first competition because the track is closing. With alternatives such as East Bay, DeSoto, Bronson, Citrus, Auburndale and Ocala so far away, he said he might not get another chance.

"I'd try to do it again, but then I'd have to travel," Sutera said. "Renting a trailer and buying gas to go two hours away, to me, it's not worth it. It's (B.S.) it's closing, and for a highway. Like we don't have enough of those."

Meyer said he will race two more years, at least part of the time at at Charlotte County Speedway in Punta Gorda. The track, devastated by Hurricane Charley, is scheduled to reopen Dec. 11, and that is where this story switches from an ending to a beginning.

A helping hand

Owner LeRoy Davidson said had it not been for Frank and Bonnie's generosity, he would have closed Charlotte County Speedway. With what he said was $1.2-million in damage and just $200,000 in insurance, he would have had no choice.

Instead, Davidson, 57, and a band of volunteers will on Sunday begin taking apart and transferring south much of Sunshine Speedway's infrastructure. Aluminum bleachers, lights, ticket booths, the awning covering the front gate, the announcer and VIP booths, the sound system.

"Pretty much anything that's movable," Davidson said.

The best part?

"They're almost giving it to me," he said. "I don't have words to say how much I appreciate what they're doing for me."

"LeRoy's a nice guy," Frank said, "and we hated to see him lose it because we could have just as easily lost it if the (weather) predictions were correct. It'll be neat to think that when we go to Charlotte to watch a race that the stuff is from here. He's going to be busy and do a lot of work."

For Frank and Bonnie the work almost is over. Frank said he will make a brief statement of thanks during intermission but plans to let the event speak for itself.

"Very sad," said Largo's Annette Habbe, who has watched races with husband Bud for the past five years. "They want to promote family functions and they're taking it all away."

"I wish it wouldn't close," said Tampa's Bryan Rogers, 23, who races street stocks and open-wheel modifieds. "I'll probably be the last one out of here. No one is going to want to leave."

Except Bonnie and Frank. Bonnie said one reason she will tear up the track is to prove to those who hope another promoter will run the facility that the show is over for good.

"I'm not sorry to see it go," she said. "It's time. The crowds are getting smaller. We fought the rain, NASCAR's Saturday night races. You open the gates at 5 o'clock and you never know what's going to happen. I'm ready to be over all that stuff.

"I want to sit down and relax."

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