tampabay.com

A roaring good time

For a lot of people, getting looped on Saturday night means savoring the drama going around at the speedway.

By LOGAN NEILL
Published June 3, 2005


INVERNESS - For the past three laps, Tommy Smith has been in an intense side-by-side battle with fellow racer James "Doc" Batson in the 20-lap hobby stock feature race at Citrus County Speedway.

With one lap to go, Smith sees an opportunity to snare the lead from his rival. As both cars head into turn four, he jerks his blue and white machine toward the bottom edge of the track. But when Batson tries to block the move, all heck breaks loose.

The two race cars collide in a cacophony of screeching tires and crunching metal, causing a dense cloud of dust and smoke to billow as other cars swerve to avoid the carnage. Luckily, there's only slight damage to Smith's and Batson's cars, and the drivers are under way again - only this time, it's a race to see who will finish in last place.

As they roar down the front stretch toward the checkered flag, the grandstand erupts in a mix of boos and cheers by fans happy, or unhappy, with the outcome.

Welcome to Citrus County's longest-running soap opera, As the Steering Wheel Turns. For 50 years, the three-eighths-mile asphalt oval has been the scene of many such showdowns as short-track aces from all over Central Florida compete in an adrenaline-driven, high-octane sport that is never short on drama.

From basic build-it-yourself backyard bombers to sleek, purpose-built racing machines, the seven regular divisions racing at Citrus County Speedway offer fans a fast-paced night of action that's part friendly rivalry, part all-out war.

"When you get 25 race cars battling it out on such a tiny track, there's no shortage of excitement," says Larry MacMillan, who serves as track announcer and has followed short-track racing nearly all of his 69 years. "These guys get pretty serious sometimes. For the spectators it's awesome, because you're sitting right on top of it. It's almost like being inside a car yourself."

Although professional stock car racing may enjoy great popularity these days, it's a safe bet that NASCAR probably wouldn't exist if not for regional tracks like the Citrus County Speedway. Many of today's biggest NASCAR stars, including Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Sterling Marlin and Dale Jarrett, earned their racing stripes rubbing fenders at local short tracks.

Citrus Speedway offers just such an experience. Novice drivers can get their start behind the wheel of a thunder stock, which is basically a passenger car outfitted with a protective roll cage inside. In time they can move up to pilot a premier class 500-horsepower late model.

Former late model champion Herb Neumann is one such driver. He has driven just about every class of race car in his 23 years at the Citrus County Speedway. The son of a weekend short-track warrior, the Inverness driver divides his time at the track between prepping his orange No. 98 machine for racing and helping out his teenage son Curtis, who drives in the modified class. Neumann thinks the Citrus Speedway offers race fans and drivers an intimate, up-close experience they're not likely to find at larger racing facilities.

"Racing is more real at this level," said Neumann. "It's not about sponsors and big money. It's like a big family. Some of the people in the bleachers I've known for 20 years or more."

Longtime speedway fan Ricky Baker, a self-professed "gear head," makes it to the speedway several times a season. With his wife, Rebecca, and kids, Joshua, 7, and Tina, 4, it is one of the few affordable family activities they find enjoyable as well. Between admission and a few trips to the concession stand, Baker figures his nightly outlay is about $60.

"It's cheaper than going to the movies," he said. "It's fun even if you're not really into racing. It's a clean place. Everything's well organized, and the people are friendly. We love going."

IF YOU GO

The Citrus County Speedway is next to the Citrus County Fairgrounds on U.S. 41, 2 miles south of Inverness. Grandstand gates open at 4 p.m. every Saturday with heat races starting at 6. Regular general admission is $12 for adults, $8 for seniors and students, $6 for children 42 inches or higher, and $2 for kids shorter than that. Additional admission fees apply to special event races. Pit gate admission is $25. For information and race schedule, call 352 726-9339 or visit www.citruscountyspeedway.com