Tracy Cantley knows it will be a challenge. In racing terms, he’s kind of starting at the rear of the field and looking to make his way to the front and the finish line.
And that’s exactly what he intends to do.
The Hawthorne businessman recently purchased the Putnam County Speedway off U.S. 17 in Satsuma. Cantley closed on the 40-acre property on the last day of August.
He said he paid $350,000 for the speedway and is in the process of putting more money into the track.
Cantley said races were last held at the track in 2016. There is plenty of work ahead to bring it back to life, or as Cantley says, to resurrect the old speedway.
“It’s something the Lord has done inside of me, but I can visually see what it can become,” Cantley said. “I can see something that has no life and the adrenaline gets going. The race track is the same way.
“I’ve been driving past it for years, seeing weeds growing up around it. I remember what that place used to be like from when I was a kid and I think it can be that way again.”
Since purchasing the speedway, the wheels have been put in motion to bring his vision to life. The gears have been dusted off, so to speak. Just as a race team must prepare a car for the track, Cantley is busy putting all the parts together.
The initial steps include resurfacing the 3/8-mile clay track with fresh clay. Twenty-five loads have been put down. About 75 more are needed. Bathrooms must be remodeled and the sound system revamped. Catch fences along the speedway need repairing.
But Cantley fully expects to hear engines running at the track sometime soon.
“We’ll probably end up spending $12,000 to $15,000 in clay,” Cantley said. “And then we’ll spend another $10,000 to $15,000 just freshening up everything at the facility.
“It is a nice facility. There is an underground tunnel that goes from the infield to the track underneath Turn 4. Those are things you only see in NASCAR-like accommodations. To me, the track has so much potential.”
The track is known as a paperclip oval. According to a 2015 article in the Jacksonville Business Journal, the track opened in 1970 and was once regarded as the foremost dirt-racing venue in the state.
“It’s a driver’s track,” Cantley said. “It has long front and back stretches and tight corners. Drivers gas and brake throughout the whole race.”
Cantley’s vision includes seeing the track once again draw a full field of cars and attract thousands of fans for Friday or Saturday night racin’.
Once the clay is in place, he hopes the speedway can host practices and maybe even have a race or two before the year is over. But as drivers must avoid obstacles in front of them, Cantley has challenges ahead.
The biggest one is regaining the trust of the community, particularly the business community and other organizations in the county that must support his endeavor.
“The biggest problem is most people who have leased it in the past have run into a month of rainouts or something like that, got behind in payments and left a bad taste in people’s mouths,” Cantley said. “You need business partnerships to be able to pay these drivers good money and bring a higher-end business over here.
“My biggest hurdle is the other people who have managed the track have not held up their end of the bargain.”
Cantley intends to see this project to the finish line. Just as other groups are trying to revitalize Palatka and Putnam County, Cantley sees bringing racing action back to the track spurring that effort.
“If you have 100 to 150 cars at the track for a whole week for a big race, with four of five members on each team, those people are coming to our community,” Cantley said. “Restaurants will have business from it and hotels. Everything will trickle down if we hold good events and we have the venue to do it.”
And the excitement is there in the community.
“There’s definitely a buzz,” Cantley said. “The public is definitely excited and we had 13,000 views in two days on videos of us putting new clay on the track.
“We’ve already talked with businesses about sponsorships and I’ve had two prominent dirt-track drivers contact me about wanting to practice here.”
Rebuilding trust is a red flag Cantley must overcome. He says he’s a businessman – with a restaurant in Hawthorne and a roofing company – and he can get it done. Cantley also has a solution to avoiding rainouts.
“My objective is to put a roof over the whole facility so races never get rained out,” he said. “I’m a roofing contractor, so I can make it happen. At a track this size, a roof with steel framing could be pulled off for a reasonable amount.”
In addition to all types of racing, he also plans to host other events at the speedway grounds, whether it’s car shows or church-re-lated functions.
The 40-year-old Cantley grew up around race cars and going to races at the Putnam County Speedway. He even raced a few times himself. Now, he wants to take a turn at bringing racing excitement to another generation of fans.
“I’ve had some good times there with my friends and family,” he said. “What kids do today is a lot different than what I did growing up. There were no cellphones. We played sports and worked on cars.
“Our whole thing is going to be family fun, country, God and racing.”
The bones of the structure are in place to see the speedway come back to life. The only thing missing is the command for drivers to start their engines.
Wayne Smith is the editor of the Palatka Daily News. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org