Round And Around: Sunday at New Smyrna Speedway

Sunday we joined the 42nd Annual World Series of Short Track Racing at New Smyrna Speedway as they were on the third of nine race events. With so many teams wanting to compete during the series, every night one division sits out to allow another one or two more a chance to race. On the way to the track, we ended up driving on the local highway named for the late Clyde Hart, the track owner who came up with the concept of this winter series preceding the Daytona 500. Racers and fans were already coming to Florida, and both tracks were in Volusia County, but Hart needed to be sure his track would draw interest. With the promises that two racers would show up, Hart was guaranteed of that. The late Richie Evans was one of the most popular and successful NASCAR-type tour mods in the Northeast, Dick Trickle just as winning and with a huge following racing late models in the Midwest. Both loved to race all the time, were able to adapt quickly to any new track, and had huge followings. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The passing of Evans was a huge loss, but by then the tradition had been built. His friends, and Trickle?s and all their friends continue to show up every year, mushrooming out through the entire extended race family. Hart had tales for all occasions, and we chatted many times before his passing. We still see the tiny community of folks who stay here and help out with all the odd jobs that need to be done every day. The next generation of racers has come and gone, and the next. Every year there is something new added to the familiar, the faces getting younger all the time. Now managed by son Robert Hart, the place has been updated, remodeled, and resurfaced. An electronic message board greets those driving past the intersection, a second computerized scoreboard was installed, pit space was expanded into the acreage off turn three and four, high aluminum bleachers replace the rickety cramped seating, modern lights brighten up the whole arena, and the repaving made the place faster than ever.

Sunday?s visit from the winged sprint cars gave the touring and SK mods a night off along with the crate engine late models. Qualifying takes place at 4:30 to cut time off the lengthy program, as well as reducing most heat races. This really helped speed things along, which proved more valuable later when lengthy red-flag periods were needed. The super late model field saw 28 of the 30 cars qualify, Florida?s Jeff Choquette trouncing them all in time. The visiting Pro Challenge cars came with nine entries, topped by J. L. Snowden. The other fields were lined up by series points, which are tallied for championships in each division at the end of the nine nights. We were very surprised to find Wisconsin?s Dick Melius here, his race marketing involving ARCA and ASA Late Model Series teams this trip. After a visit with him we took a break for more layers, as the temperatures were plummeting. Before things began that evening, Jack Roush was seen leaving the place, or at least someone swore it was true. During Speed Weeks in Florida, you never know who will show up. There are usually a few NASCAR visitors, some announced, some not.

Racing begins at 7:30 at the track in Samsula, the local grade school still in charge of printing the program for their fund raiser every year. There were three heat races for the winged sprints, the first won by Dave Steele by half a lap, the second taken by Dude Teate after only four finished the eight laps. The third opened with a jarring crash by Rod Anderson into the outer wall, and it took quite some time to safely extricate him from the wrecked mount. He was reported to be alert as the ambulance received him for transport. Since all entries would be in the feature anyway, it was decided not to run this final heat. With five fields and over 100 cars, the program was fast-forwarded to feature time.

The late model contest began with a 25-lap race, slowed only once by a minor spin. Led all the way by Florida?s Derrick Kelley we noted the sole female competitor, Jessica Murphy, had a top five finish. Coming from much farther back in the field, A. J. Curreli made his way to a top ten finish as well as a couple others who managed to progress in the fast field. Kelley warmed the crowd with, ? I want to thank all these fans for coming out in this cold weather,? and gave thanks to all those who helped get him to this point. Even though he doesn?t look very old, Curreli claimed, ?I?m just trying to hold these young guys off.? We know there are young teens racing here, which is probably what Curreli had in mind.

The Florida-type modified feature followed, the 25-lap event beginning with veteran Jerry Symons on the pole and James ?Tank? Tucker outside. As the field roared into the first turn, Tucker was in the wall, Symons and eight others were in the tangle, and the cleanup used up half an hour. Of the 22 starters, only 14 remained to take the green flag as the event was reduced to 20 laps, this time making it for four laps before another cluster of cars got together. The contest was then reduced to 15 circuits, to the cheers of the crowd braving the incoming chill. John Gerstner passed Virginia?s A. J. Winstead early and held off all challengers to the end. Stating the obvious, Gerstner stated, ?It was pretty good. This thing?s on a rail tonight.?

The super late model field began with all 30 entries answering the call, Northeastern racer Louie Mechalides on the pole, New Smyrna regular Justin Drawdy outside him. Another regular here, Tim Russell, followed, having already scored a win in the opening nights. A minor caution for a single car regrouped the field on the second lap just as Choquette had captured the lead from the third row. After the green flag returned it was Choquette all the way, surviving a spin from a car he was lapping only eight laps from the end. Just over half the field finished the event, and Choquette claimed his second win in a row. ?The car?s been awesome?, stated the winner, adding his puzzlement over why the other driver would want to spin him. ?Even if I don?t win, I still hope to come back the next five nights.?

The winged sprints took center stage with 20 cars answering the call. The 30 circuits saw one slowdown in the opening laps, with Troy DeClaire only needing ten laps to take charge from the third row. After the announcer told the 22-year old what a big lead he had over the field, DeClaire declared, ?I wish I?d have know about that. I was blowing oil out my side.?

Much of the crowd had departed by this point, leaving precious few to witness the final event. The 9-car Pro Challenge race had one slowdown, then went the rest of the way to complete all 25 laps. Even though quick-timer J. L. Snowden started on the pole, it was Zack Stroupe all the way. Stroupe?s brother had also won this week, as the field competed at the sister track in Orlando as well. ?We?ve been out of the car a year now?, claimed Stroupe, adding, ?It really feels good.? Just after 11:00 we were left to find warmth, the temperature down to 44 degrees. Even in Florida, it?s winter. But tomorrow is another day and another track.

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