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Darkness comes over Sunshine

After 45 years of Saturday night racing, the speedway closes its doors, leaving behind only memories.

DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published November 28, 2004

PINELLAS PARK - It was so quiet; tranquil, even. It was 12:30 a.m. Nov.21, a bit more than an hour after Sunshine Speedway's final show.

Mothers pushed babies in strollers around the still-lit, quarter-mile track. Scattered groups of race fans who had screamed with glee as school buses gunned their engines and smashed into each other during the Figure 8 race walked, looked and remembered.

It would have been easy to miss the muffled sound of Rick Litka's hammer pounding a lonely spot on the backstretch wall. The Pinellas Park resident wanted a memento and used the hammer's claw to chip off pieces of cement where the track's name was painted in red.

"It's tough," said Litka, 44, who raced mini stocks and who said his dad, Larry, ran at Sunshine Speedway when it opened in 1960. "This place meant everything. I had a lot of wins here."

That one of his best friends, a fellow driver, Ray Luecke Jr., who died in 1988, could not share the moment, made it that much harder.

"I'm sorry," Litka said, fighting tears. "It's hard."

Emotions were close to the surface for many as Sunshine Speedway ended 45 years of Saturday night racing.

Bonnie Hill expressed relief. The daughter of dairy farmer and track builder Leo Musgrave admitted that after the grind of running the facility for 18 years with husband Frank, "I won't miss it and will be very glad when it's gone."

For LeRoy Davidson there was gratitude. The owner of Charlotte County Speedway in Punta Gorda said the Hills gave him a bargain on much of Sunshine's infrastructure so he could rebuild his track devastated by Hurricane Charley.

There was inevitability. Average attendance had fallen from a high of about 3,000 in the mid '90s to about 1,800, and Frank said the track, financially, had hovered around break-even the past five years.

And there was finality. The state, which paid $20-million for the 125-acre property on Ulmerton Road, eventually will use it for a highway connecting Interstate 275 and the Bayside Bridge.

Ultimately, though, there was sadness.

"It's like your back yard," school bus Figure 8 champion Wayne Calkins said. "It's too emotional to even say what it means. It's definitely sad. We're not going to have much to do on Saturday, and it probably will park a lot of people that won't be racing no more. I probably won't race but maybe some special races here and there."

"It's been here 44 years, and not to have it here will be a big disappointment," driver Darryl Hage said. "I grew up here and now it's gone."

But, boy, did it go out in style.

An estimated standing-room crowd of 6,200 (the biggest since 1990, Bonnie Hill said) squeezed into the stands. Hill said she started turning people away at 7:45 p.m., 45 minutes after racing began.

The crowd gave the Hills a nice ovation at intermission, and there was some pretty good racing. Pinellas Park's John Stewart even passed on the outside to win the Enduro race on a track that, because of resurfacing, is down to a single, inside racing groove.

"It was probably the best night of racing all year," said Largo's Rob Blake, who went to the track most weekends since 1997. "The drivers really banged and spun each other out like in the old days."

"It was a good night," Bonnie Hill said. "We went out with a bang."

An early start

The line was 80-people long when the gates opened at 4 p.m., and Karen Otting was right up front. The Clearwater resident, her children, Kimberly, 3, Eugene, 5, and Nicole, 8; nephew Eugene, 12; mother, Barbara, and sister Diane showed up an hour earlier.

"It's the last night," Otting said. "We wanted to see it. Very sad to see it go. It's a family atmosphere. Just a nice day out."

Largo's Dennis Webb, who said he watched races at the speedway "from the beginning," agreed.

Webb, 51, said he couldn't race his two cars on the final night because they wrecked in Ocala the week before. Instead he bought 15 commemorative T-shirts for family and friends.

Webb pointed to a pole in the parking lot.

"That's where my parents picked me up," he said.

Webb said the land surrounding the track in the mid '60s was wide open. His parents came to get him when they heard the race engines stop.

The final day's program ended with five or so drivers burning rubber on the frontstretch and creating plumes of smoke so thick you could not see the cars spinning their wheels.

The crowd roared as loudly during the school bus Figure 8, which featured a spectacular crash in which a bus, clipped in the rear by another, spun in the air and landed on its side.

"I'm still kind of numb," Frank Hill said. "I'm very pleased with the whole operation. We didn't have any rowdiness. We had to turn people away. Not that I'm happy about that, but that's how good the crowd was.

"It couldn't have been a better send-off."

The final chapter

By 8:30 the next morning, a band of volunteers from Charlotte County Speedway began dismantling the fence around Sunshine's track. The lights, the VIP, ticket and announcers' booths, the scoreboard and aluminum bleachers also would be hauled off.

Five flatbed trailers were parked around the track. Davidson said more were on the way.

Still, the amount of work to do if everything is to be reconstructed in Punta Gorda in time for a Dec.11 race seemed daunting.

Davidson said he considered taking the $200,000 in insurance and closing the track. But after talking to his wife and sister, both part owners, he decided to stick with it.

"A lot of people around the community said, "If you do that, you're going to hurt thousands of people down in southwest Florida that build cars and are spectators and people who look forward to doing that,' " Davidson said.

"It started to bother me. I said, "Walking away is easy for us, but look at what we're doing to other people.' "

Frank Hill said all he wants from the track are some pictures from the office and the videotapes from races going back to the '80s. He said he and Bonnie are moving to his childhood home in San Antonio, where he will turn one room into a quasi Hall of Fame.

Still, he said he is pleased to be out from under the stress of promoting and officiating races, worrying about declining attendance and trying to turn a profit. Final judgment, though, will be made when the 2005 season would have begun.

"In our family at this point in time, I don't believe anyone will shed a tear," Hill said. "But come March I know I'll be, "Gosh, I miss racing.' But we'll go to races elsewhere and watch them, and that will be enjoyable because we don't have to deal with the other stuff."

Bonnie Hill said the only thing she wants are the handprints of nephew Caleb Musgrave that were put into Turn 3 about five years ago when the track was resurfaced and Caleb was 4.

"We had a prayer session right over there where he put his hands in the cement and blessed our track," Hill said. "So I'm cutting out Caleb's handprints and I'm taking those with me."

She sounded happy.

"Yeah, I really am," she said. "It was definitely time."

Time to move on.

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