EAST COUNTY— A framed poster of a shark with the word “Ambition” across the top hangs from the wall above Kevin Williams’ office. It threatens to devour those who don’t buy in to a plan worthy enough for a racetrack once known as “the fastest short track in the South.”
When Williams and Mike Chase, two decade-plus long friends, entrepreneurs and former co-owners of the Punta Gorda Speedway, closed on the Desoto Speedway in East County in late February, they sought to do more than patch up the track, re-do bathrooms and food service, drop ticket prices and install more stands — though they completed all those tasks.
They transformed the place into the freshly named and branded Full Throttle Speedway, a track bold enough — and fast enough — to one day host annual “Speed Weeks” leading up to the Daytona 500, the new owners hope.
The duo bought the three-eighths mile oval racetrack, at 21000 State Road 64 E., Bradenton, from Sarppricone Land Development Inc., for $1.2 million. Racing season opened May 4.
Williams and Chase had been involved with the Punta Gorda Speedway since its infancy; they began leasing the track in June 2010 from the government’s Federal Aviation Administration. That track now is inoperable.
Now they want to build back up a track they’ve envied since childhood.
Williams, 50, is a man with a high school education who’s spent his life building and, then, owning.
Born in Greenfield, Ind., Williams graduated high school and went to work climbing telephone poles in Fort Worth, Texas.
When he wasn’t installing cable, Williams was watching, driving and building cars. He built his first car in 1984 — a blue-and-white Monte Carlo street stock car with No. 24 on its tag.
“People might look at the car and be like, ‘Man, it’s Jeff Gordon,’ but he wasn’t even around then,” Williams said.
He won a Sportsmen Championship in 1996 at age 32.
Williams wanted to own a track, and he learned the business sense required to run one by working on small 1,250cc engine Legend cars and talking with Humpy Wheeler, legendary NASCAR promoter, in the pits at Charlotte Motor Speedway races.
Williams’ son, Josh, was one of 10 riders to be selected for Humpy’s Heroes, a driver development program.
“Humpy taught me the importance of public relations — about the special way you need to treat racers,” Williams said. “He taught me about making a track fan-friendly and clean.”
Josh Williams, 19, is a part of the ARCA Racing Series. The father-and-son team also learned about racetrack operations from traveling around the country to Josh Williams’ races.
Williams needed a track to run; he found it while visiting his parents in Charlotte County.
When he first visited, he wanted to find the fastest short track in Florida and watch races there.
Williams had known about Desoto Speedway and its reputation for speed, but he also heard that the track was running down, as drivers sped elsewhere for races and the community stopped watching.
Still, a search for adrenaline pushed Williams to watch races there.
The 18-degree, banked, hilly turns allow sprint cars to complete 13-second laps, or 30 laps in seven minutes, at 130 to 150 miles per hour.
Before he could take a turn at reviving the place, Williams needed more financing.
He met Chase, the owner of an insurance company, 12 years ago.
Their sons race together.
When their lease expired at Punta Gorda Speedway, the duo saw a new chance.
“This is an opportunity to redeem a facility that was once known for how great it was,” Williams said. “It needed an uplift and a new identity, and we think we can get new race fans in East Manatee and Lakewood Ranch.”
Williams, also the owner of a cable construction company, a car-maintenance company and a pest-control company, worked 14-hour days to revive the track.
The owners’ first move was to cut ticket prices from $15 across the board to $13 for adults, $11 for seniors and free for children under 12.
They redid the bathrooms and overhauled the kitchen with new appliances and air conditioning.
They redid the beer bar and tiled offices.
They repaired turns one, two and three on the track and smoothed them out to make them even faster.
They also removed the pit area in which the drivers park.
Bigger plans call for a “Fan Zone,” where fans can buy a higher-priced ticket and be escorted into the pit to meet drivers and watch as they fix their cars.
Full Throttle Speedway will operate year-round, at least three Saturdays a month, and pull spectators from as far away as Orlando, Williams said.
“This is what we do,” Williams said. “We enjoy the adrenaline of fast racing.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].