SATSUMA – During the past six years, the Putnam Raceway had deteriorated into mess of splintered grandstands, peeling and blistered paint, broken lights, vandalized walls filled with graffiti and …
SATSUMA – During the past six years, the Putnam Raceway had deteriorated into mess of splintered grandstands, peeling and blistered paint, broken lights, vandalized walls filled with graffiti and overgrown weeds.
Instead of being knocked down and rebuilt as an apartment complex, storage facility or another mini-mart, progress continued to ignore the 3/8-mile dirt track. Neglect quickly turned into indifference. Soon, drivers simply ignored the dilapidated property on the drive between Palatka and Crescent City.
But Tracy Cantley refused to forget. He raced there as a teenager and still fondly remembers the dusty nights and ear-piercing sounds of untamed horsepower.
“The place had a lot of sentimental value to me,” he said.
So he bought it.
While other local short tracks are closing around the county, the Putnam Speedway has risen from ruins. The track that was little more than an eyesore months ago, will host its first full night of racing on Friday. The program is appropriately named, “The Resurrection.”
Based on the car counts from a previous open practice session, Cantley expects at least 80 cars.
Keystone Heights’ Clint Gillen will bring one of them.
“I grew up in it, but I’m brand new to racing myself,” the owner of the CarQuest Auto Parts store in Keystone Heights said. “It’s something I’ve dreamed about my whole life. The good thing for me is, I don’t have any bad habits to break. I’m really blessed to be part of it.”
Gillen bought a Late Model racer. He practiced there a week ago and found the tight turns to be challenging. The speedway is shaped like the Martinsville Speedway on the NASCAR circuit – long straightaway with paperclip-like tight turns.
It’s one of the reasons why Cantley also refers to the track as “The Clip.”
Opening night includes five classes – Florida Late Model Challenge Series, E-Mods, Street Stocks, V-8 Thunder Stocks and Real Stocks. The winner of the featured season-opening 75-lap Florida Late Model Challenge Series will earn $2,000.
The last race at Putnam was in late 2015, Cantley said. There have been more than 100 track closures around the county in the past 20 years, but despite being abandoned for nearly six years, Putnam was resurrected.
The track was leased to several promoters, but each one left the property in bigger disarray.
“The last person who had the track didn’t pay the light bill,” Cantley said. “He had to run races during the day because he didn’t have lights.”
Most of the equipment was either missing or so heavily damaged, Cantley essentially had to start from scratch. Buildings were repaired and restrooms were upgraded. Many of Cantley friends helped with the remodeling, trading sweat for the thrill of getting back on the track again.
One of the biggest upgrades, however, is fresh coat of clay.
The track has seating for more than 5,000 fans, along with pit facilities for more than 100 cars and their crews, a full kitchen concession stand, two separate snack bars serving a variety of snacks and beverages, and a merchandise stand.
Cantley, who owns Tracy Cantley and Company Roofing Contractors in Hawthorne, said he wants others to create their own memories.
“I got a lot of friends who’ve helped out,” he said. “When I got the track, they came over and helped me. A lot of free labor and help.
“We want to bring kids back into it. Now it seems there’s a separation between the grandstands and the pits. We’re going to fix that. We’ll bring drivers to the grandstands and drivers will bring their cars so people can see them. We will have autograph nights. We want to create a relationship between the fans and drivers.”
Cantley currently has plans for 35 racing Fridays this year. Putnam will be the only track in Florida with Friday shows, he said.
It will be a perfect complement to Saturday dirt-shows at nearby Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville and All-Tech Speedway in Lake City.
“We’ll race every Friday night unless there’s another track that’s running a two-night event,” Cantley said. Since nobody else in Florida runs on Friday nights, our car counts should be good.”
Some of Cantley’s major promotions include “The River Run” on April 9-10, “The Putnam Slobber Knocker” on May 7, “Church in the Dirt” on May 30, “Show Down on the St. Johns” on July 15-17 and the “Satsuma Shuffle” on Nov. 18-20.
The pits open on Saturday at 3 p.m. Hot laps will start at 6 p.m. and racing is scheduled for an 8 p.m. green flag.
For more information, visit putnamraceway.com.