EAST MANATEE -- The newest owner of the Desoto Speedway is hoping that 2014 is the year his favorite hobby turns into a money-maker.
Dennis Meyer of Clearwater purchased the storied, 3/8-mile asphalt racetrack in February to continue pursuing a lifelong love of car racing. At 67, Meyer says his days of getting behind the wheel of a stock car are over, but his desire to get younger drivers on the track is stronger than ever.
When he learned last year that Manatee County's auto racing venue was up for possible purchase, the longtime towing company owner leased the track for a few months. He then ponied up $1.082 million to buy the 63-acre property, according to Manatee County records. His company, Desoto Speedway LLC, purchased the track from Fort Lauderdale-based Full Throttle Speedway on Feb. 18.
Full Throttle purchased the property in early 2013 for $650,000.
Having operated the speedway since first leasing it last November, Meyer says the early going has kept him busy rebuilding the track's fan base and maintaining its grandstand, buildings and other facilities. Weekly maintenance and repairs run up to about $3,000, money he hopes to get back at the gate as the speedway's audience builds through the spring and summer.
Speedway ownership is a big change from Meyer's days of just showing up on race night with a fast car, a helmet and a whole lot of nerve.
"I didn't know it was that much work and was that much money," Meyer said.
The crowds this spring have been smaller than Meyer had hoped, even as the speedway presents a variety of racing nearly every weekend. Events including super late models, modifieds, sprint cars, mini stocks, street stocks, pro fours and even school buses have drawn up to 1,600 people, but the speedway can handle crowds as large as 5,000 in the stands and 8,000 with the pits open.
Meyer recently sold his Clearwater towing business to concentrate full time on running and promoting the raceway. He's getting help from business partner Jimmy Cope, who is also a longtime car racer. Cope acts as the track's general manager, arranging races, drafting drivers and putting purses together.
Located on State Road 64 just across the road from Lake Manatee State Park, the Desoto Speedway is one part of a motor racing complex that has been roaring into weekend nights near the eastern edge of Manatee County for four decades. Next door is Bradenton Motorsports Park, a drag strip that hosts several events a month, from professional funny car races to come-as-you-are street car matchups.
Bradenton attorney Stan Swartz and business partner Gene Tharpe built the drag strip and speedway a few years after buying 90 acres of rural East Manatee land in 1970. The entire venture cost the pair about $600,000, Swartz said.
Swartz, a former stock car racer, said he loved everything about running the racing complex, except mowing the grass that covers the majority of the site. He and Tharpe sold the drag strip and speedway to separate owners in the mid-1980s, right around the time Swartz went to law school.
Operating a racing business is harder work than most people realize, Swartz said.
"You gotta love this stuff," he said.
Meyer hopes to get past the growing pains soon. He and Cope are scheduling an upcoming event to encourage more of the growing base of local Hispanic fans to attend races. They will also be holding a media day, during which journalists will have the chance to get behind the wheel of actual race cars for 10 laps.
Reputation is another aspect to their business plan. Meyer said his track is the fastest 3/8ths-mile track in Florida, allowing racers to make it around in as little as 14.5 seconds. That, plus the track's inner figure-eight racing configuration, make the speedway exciting for fans, he said.
Future plans include acquiring more nearby acreage for a planned go-cart track, motorcycle racing and mud racing.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.