Ocala’s Fast Track

Photo by John Jernigan

Dirt is king at the Ocala Speedway, the oldest racetrack in the state and the birthplace of such notable drivers as Ivedent Lloyd and NASCAR’s David Reutimann, and nearly 60 years since it first brought roaring engines and thrilling speed to fans, the dirt racetrack remains a gem in the racing community. The speedway’s owner and three of its biggest stars—and fans—reflect on the track’s appeal and its importance.

On this morning, not a single engine is roaring over its surface. The only thing whipping across the waterlogged, nearly white dirt—courtesy of a downpour the night before—is a brisk winter wind. Mike Peters is standing, hands in pocket, on the lowest bleacher row and looking out over the Ocala Speedway racetrack. He’s the owner and steward of the facility’s 41 acres, including this track—the oldest in the state—and soon enough, this place will be alive with activity when the 2011 season officially starts.

She has a unique shape, as far as racetracks go. Resembling the letter ‘D,’ her turns aren’t symmetrical. They’re also banked 6 to 8 degrees. She is 3/8 of a mile around, which takes a late-model car about 15 seconds to cover, and the bleachers surrounding her half chain-linked, half-plywood fenced border can hold some 4,000 rapt fans.

Just outside the front gates, Mike has a clever sign up to squelch any doubts about what kind of track Ocala Speedway is. “Asphalt,” it states, “an old English word meaning those that can’t race on dirt!”

When Mike first bought the Ocala Speedway in late 2005, the track was, in fact, asphalt. A previous owner had paved it in 1996 during the height of what Mike calls “the NASCAR craze.”

Photo by Bob Wing, rewingphotos.com

“Everybody got caught up in asphalt racing,” he explains, walking back to the speedway’s front office. “NASCAR was on such a rise, and everybody thought they needed to go that way. A lot of the short tracks started to flounder. NASCAR can exist because of corporate dollars. A lot of that isn’t on that level here at the short tracks in local communities.”

So Mike did what any diligent, ambitious, retired Army man-turned-commercial airline pilot-turned-racetrack owner would do. He spent the better part of a year traveling the country looking at what other tracks were doing right and how he could pump new life into the iconic racetrack. He discovered one common denominator among all the successful tracks—dirt.

“That was the missing ingredient,” Mike says. “And since we went back to dirt, the rest has been history.”

Prior to the start of the season in 2008, he put 350 loads of clay on top of the track’s asphalt, and the speedway was officially restored to its roots. The change drew bigger crowds and bigger racing events. Last year, Mike even secured a World of Outlaws race at the speedway.

“That’s the NASCAR of dirt,” he says proudly. “Those guys are the kings of dirt, and we proved to the dirt community that Ocala Speedway was worthy of having a World of Outlaws race.”

Mike also wisely shifted the speedway’s schedule to better accommodate families and the casual fan. He moved the races from Saturday night to Friday night so the speedway would compete with fewer tracks for fan attendance, and instead of running six classes a night, he only ran four. This, coupled with moving the start time from 7pm to 8pm, condensed the whole program, and most nights, the action is over by 10:30pm.

“People’s attention span doesn’t last much longer than that,” Mike says. “Keeping it short and on time makes people want to come back.”

Mike is big on signs, acronyms and other handy tools to enforce the point he’s trying to make. There’s the ‘asphalt definition’ sign out front, and then there’s the infamous dry erase board on the wall out back where the drivers meet before the races. The most polite way to describe it? It’s the “Chicken Manure” board. On it goes the names of drivers who, in lieu of talking to Mike directly about any problems they experienced at the speedway, turn to online racing forums to air their grievances.

Photo by Bob Wing, rewingphotos.com

Maybe it’s due to his Army background, this penchant for bluntness, but no one could ever accuse Mike of mincing words—or not being effective. The board is blank. That is to say, there’s not a single name under the pile of chicken manure he’s drawn in black marker on it.

“That’s right,” he says simply. “No one wants their name up there. They need to tell me about their problem because that’s the only way it’s going to get fixed. Going straight to the Internet and telling people in China what happened at Ocala Speedway is not fixing your problem.”

The truth is Mike’s job is equal parts fan supporter, driver advocate and business entrepreneur—a kind of all-seeing, all-doing circus ringmaster. He takes the roles seriously and handles each deftly.

“I’m an ‘in the trenches’ kind of guy,” he says of himself. “It took me a year or two listening to everyone to show them that they could trust me. Then I put the staff in place that would do the job I wanted them to do.”

Mike speaks at length about the professionalism and dedication of his staff, which swells to 30 on race nights. It’s no small feat to run multiple racing classes in a two-and-a-half-hour time span. The speedway’s gates open at 5pm—ready or not, Mike stresses—so his team has to be prepared to meet every need without incident. Mike admits he’s demanding. In fact, his motto for his employees is “D.I.R.T: Do It Right Tonight.” But in the end, he won’t ask his employees to do anything he wouldn’t (and doesn’t) do himself.

“I clean the bathrooms here every week,” he says, “whether there were 10,000 people here or 500 people here. I’ve had people come in and clean them, but they don’t do it the way I do.”

“Mike has a racer’s heart,” explains top Ocala-based driver Ivedent Lloyd. “You’ve got to be a good businessperson to promote the races, pay the bills, to make money at it. It is a business, and a lot of people lose sight of that. But Mike is also a racer at heart, and you have to be involved. He understands both sides of it.”

Ivedent Lloyd was just 14 years old when he first got behind the wheel at the Ocala Speedway. He had been going to the racetrack since he was five, tagging along to watch his father race. But this was his own first race and understandably, the teen was nervous.

“I had watched my dad and the other guys race there all those years, so it was nerve-racking,” he recalls. “But it was also very exciting.”

Three decades later with countless Ocala Speedway races (and wins) under his belt, the owner of Marion Machine & Tool still looks forward to every opportunity to race in front of his hometown crowd.

“If Ocala is racing late-models on a Friday night and I’m home, I’m there,” says Ivedent, who won the speedway’s annual Powell Memorial in 2009 and placed second in it last year. “There are people watching me race now that saw me the first time I got in a car. It’s a close-knit community.”

Also flying around the speedway’s track during Ivedent’s early racing days was a Zephyrhills native by the name of David Reutimann. Today, this NASCAR driver is undoubtedly the biggest name ever to come out of Ocala Speedway, but back then, he and Ivedent were just two young guns passionate about cars and speed and winning. They forged a close friendship that has lasted to this day, despite a healthy dose of friendly competition between the two.

“There were only a few tracks here in Florida that were dirt, so naturally you’re going to run into the same people—literally sometimes,” Ivedent says. “That’s how we became buddies. When you’re battling for the lead, you either become really big enemies or really big friends.”

“I was pretty aggressive back in those days and ruffled a lot of feathers,” the mild-mannered NASCAR driver replies while taking a break during test runs at Disney World. “But I ended up making some good friends that I respect a lot, like Ivedent.”

David’s father, Buzzie, is a racing giant in his own right, and he can still recall making the long but worthwhile drive from Zephyrhills to Ocala with his own father, who raced at the speedway in the 1950s.

“It seemed like it took forever to get there because back then, they didn’t have the interstate,” he remembers with a chuckle. “We had to go up 301 the whole way. It was an old dirt track with cross-ties for fence around it.”

In the 1980s, Buzzie started bringing David to the speedway, where he quickly began winning races. Nearly every weekend for years, the two would travel to Ocala for Friday night racing and then to East Bay Raceway in Gibsonton on Saturday night.

“I had some pretty good races at Ocala,” David recalls. “The track was unique. The other places I was racing at, they were all pretty symmetrical, where at Ocala, turning one and two was quite a bit different than turning three and four.”

David says that if his schedule allowed it, he would be back racing at the speedway as much as possible.

“If you live in the area and you’ve never gone to Ocala Speedway, you’re missing a great opportunity to have a really good time,” he adds. “It’s one of the coolest racetracks I’ve been to.”

At 69, the elder Reutimann still hits the speedway dirt every chance he gets. He hasn’t rid his bones yet of his competitive streak.

“What do they say? The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat?” Buzzie offers and then laughs. “I think there’s more agony of defeat in this business than thrill of victory, but it never gets old. You learn something new every week that you race. What else am I going to do? Keeps me out of the bars and off the streets.”

In fact, dirt tracks have been the hallowed training ground of some of racing’s biggest drivers. Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and many other NASCAR superstars came up on dirt, and Buzzie believes David’s own experience on the mutable surface has been invaluable in his asphalt career.

“You get a more seat-of-the-pants feeling racing on dirt,” he explains. “Pavement drivers don’t ever want the car to jump out from under them or run sideways. During a Cup race when David’s car is loose or the back-end hangs out, it doesn’t bother him. His dirt experience has helped him tremendously. You can make a dirt-track driver a pavement driver, but it’s really hard to make a pavement driver a dirt driver.”

From a fan’s perspective, dirt racing can also offer more excitement because the lead positions change more frequently. With a few well-handled corners and straight-aways, a car lagging in fourth can move up to the front. Track conditions change over the course of the race, and drivers use their gas and brake more to alter their fates. For this reason among others, some people are strictly dirt racing fans. Count Mike Peters and Ivedent Lloyd among them. Neither men watch NASCAR.

“Unless Reutimann’s racing,” Ivedent concedes. “There’s nobody I’d rather see win on Sunday afternoon.”

A sheriff’s car pulls up to the speedway’s front office, which, inside, is covered with framed photos of grinning racers peering out from their driver-side window or leaning against their car’s front bumper. Two volunteer officers walk through the door and greet Mike like an old friend. They’re passing by as part of their route, but really they’ve stopped to discuss the upcoming season with Mike. Both men are longtime racing fans.

Some people are dirt-only folks, explains Anthony Barberis, the more talkative of the two, although he himself isn’t picky. He just loves racing, period.

“But,” Anthony quickly adds, jabbing his thumb toward the photos on the wall, “there’s nothing like these guys on dirt. Picture 20-some of those guys out on that small track. It’s quick and tight—two-, sometimes three-wide. And for a fan? Well, it’s just not racing until you get a little dirt in your beer.”

He’s referring to the not-uncommon occurrence of a clump of dirt flying into the bleachers and landing in a fan’s drink. Mike, nodding his head, agrees with this assessment.

“I told someone once, ‘Come out here on a Friday night to watch a real race and take your nap on Sunday when NASCAR is on,’” he adds.

The men erupt into laughter, fully recognizing that now they’re one-upping each other in singing dirt racing’s praises. But there’s some truth to Mike’s comment. With a bucking 410-horsepower engine under a late model’s hood, the adrenalin-soaked rush of flooring that machine around a sharp turn, the elusiveness of holding onto the lead when the ground changes so fickly under the tires, dirt racing seems to achieve a kind of rawness not quite replicated in other types of racing. It is, arguably, car racing in its purest, most honest form. And while the Ocala Speedway is proudly small-time, its track proves formidable for every driver who sets out on it. The action that unfolds on its surface is nothing short of a full-scale drama, and above all, it never gets old for anyone involved.

On this point at least, Mike, Buzzie, David, Ivedent and a whole lot of fans would certainly agree.

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