Last days at Palm Beach International Raceway: ‘Like you’re losing a family member’

They drive for hours to race at Palm Beach County’s lone racetrack: Amateurs with muscle cars, hobbyists with pricey foreign models, seasoned drivers with off-road hot rods. Now a plan for warehouses threatens the place they love.

Marcus Falden left his digital marketing job south of Miami at 11:30 on a recent Friday morning to get to the Palm Beach International Raceway before it opened at 5 p.m. 

He’s looking forward to 11 — maybe 12, but certainly not 13 — seconds of joy, as he guns his Infiniti Q50S to 119 mph for a quarter-mile straightaway. 

Marcus Falden and his Infiniti Q50S.

As soon as it’s over, he’ll line up to do it again. If the night goes right, he’ll get in three runs before the busy track closes at 11 p.m.

He and his buddy, Miguel Cruz, also from the Kendall area, drove more than 100 miles March 25 to place their cars among the first ones lined up for the drag strip at PBIR, the former Moroso Motorsports Park on Beeline Highway west of Jupiter. 

BMW
Miguel Cruz in his BMW Z4. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

“It’s hard to explain,” Cruz said. “You’re sitting in your car, and the lights start flashing (to signal the start) and your heart starts going 100 mph. It happens so fast.”

But it won’t be happening much longer.

On April 7, the Palm Beach County Zoning Commission will weigh a proposal to clear the track’s 175 acres to allow Atlanta-based Portman Industrial to build a 2.1-million-square foot warehouse complex. The seven-member Palm Beach County Commission will consider the commission’s recommendation on April 28.

By then, the track that opened in 1964 will be closed. Bidding starts at $500 for drivers to take the last lap on the track’s 2.2-mile, 10-turn course and its quarter-mile drag strip. A “Last Lap at PBIR” all-day event, with a car show and $10 general admission, is scheduled for April 23.

The sale is part of a larger move by the track’s owner, IRG Sports & Entertainment, to sell its four tracks. Deals are also in place to sell tracks in Memphis, Tenn.; Cordova, Ill.; and Mechanicsville, Md., according to media reports. IRG is headed by Lou Partenza, a former Florida Panthers hockey executive who has been IRG chief executive and president since 2017.

VIDEO: Marcus Falden, left, and Miguel Cruz on the dragstrip March 25.

Where to go when it’s gone?

Palm Beach International Raceway
Mark St. George of Palm Beach Gardens and his BMW M850i. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

PGA National resident Mark St. George shows up every Friday to race his BMW M850i, a car that retails in the six figures. He’s worried about where he’ll go after April 23.

It’s 120 miles from PBIR south to Homestead-Miami Speedway, 80 miles west to Sebring International Raceway and 146 miles exactly both to Orlando Speed World Dragway and Bradenton Motorsports Park.

Many PBIR dragsters disdain Homestead, which converts its famed track’s pit into a drag strip that’s just half the length of PBIR’s quarter-mile, too short for anything but street cars. Sebring doesn’t have drag racing at all. 

That leaves Orlando and Bradenton as the only spots south of the Panhandle in Florida that give drag-racers an opportunity to test their engines in the controlled environment of a track rather than the hazards of the open road.

And that’s critical in an era when drag-racers have been known to take over city streets, like Krome Avenue in Miami, and turn them into drag strips.

Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw made his concerns known in a September statement to The Palm Beach Post, saying “It is prudent that this facility stay a raceway, so these thrill-seekers have someplace to go besides our public streets.”

But that’s unlikely.

VIDEO: Parade of racers move toward the starting line March 25.
Palm Beach International Raceway is surrounded by wetland preserves at Beeline Highway west of Seminole Pratt Whitney Road.

Warehouse developer has exclusive contract

Portman signed a contract to buy the 174.3-acres owned by IRG on Aug. 6 for an undisclosed amount. Such deals typically don’t close until zoning changes sought by the buyer are approved.

The Palm Beach Post reported on the deal in late August, detailing a second potential buyer, Formula Race Promotions of New Hampshire, which promised to upgrade and retain the track. “Our vision is to build beautiful facilities on site and make it an iconic destination,” Chief Executive Alan Guibord told The Post.

A week later, IRG publicly filed an Aug. 9 memo stating that its contract with Portman barred it from negotiating with any other buyer. By putting the terms on record, competing bidders could face legal sanctions if they interfere with the sale. Guibord did not return phone and email messages seeking comment. 

Warehouse plan on site of Palm Beach International Raceway on the Beeline Highway west of Seminole Pratt Whitney Road.

Four warehouses, 2.1 million square feet

Portman Industrial is a recent creation of Portman Holdings, which started in Atlanta in 1957 with a focus on hotels. Its website features high-rise glass towers it developed worldwide, including the Atlanta Marriott Marquis and the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco. The company claims more than $1 billion in assets.

County zoning staff has recommended approval of Portman’s proposals. The land already is zoned to allow warehouses. Portman is asking to strip out the zoning conditions that allow the racetrack, remove roadway connections to the adjoining county-owned natural areas and reconfigure the site plan, all fairly innocuous requests in the often bitterly contested zoning arena. 

Last-minute adjustments before racing March 25 at Palm Beach International Raceway. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Still, commissioners have gotten two dozen emails opposing the zoning, many from small-business owners who benefit from the track and from racers worried about the removal of their safe space to race. And a change.org online petition opposing the rezoning has received 7,800 signatures. 

racing fuel
Racing fuel up to 116 octane is for sale ($14.75 per gallon) at Palm Beach International Raceway. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

“Does a warehouse spend money at the grocery stores? Do they fill up local hotels, restaurants, and support LOCAL BUSINESSES??????,” asked James Strole, District 6 governor of the Sports Car Club of America, which races at PBIR. “The Board of County Commissioners and the Tourist Board should take a VERY HARD LOOK at what is IMPORTANT for their community……………… On one hand racing spends money HERE…. On the other hand trucks get loaded up and sent somewhere else outside of Palm Beach and the money from them goes with it as well.”

Anthony Cornelius, who signed his email “a lifelong racer,” focused on the potential for harm if racers take to the streets. 

“By that I mean consider the officers who will have to call a father and mother at 3 am telling them their child has died street racing. … We have a race track that hundreds of people go to every month to fill that need for speed. … Helmets and seat belts are worn, racing clothes worn by many also, to protect them from fire and glass in case of an accident,” he wrote. “Please, I ask you to consider helping the underdog here… the little people who enjoy Friday nights and the weekends at the track…. keeping the families together and saving a family place.”

County Commissioner Maria Marino, whose district includes the track, explained the difficulty of denying the rezoning in a December reply to a small-business owner urging her to oppose it.

environmental bond
Marino

“There is no land use change for the racetrack if warehouses are proposed, just a site plan amendment,” Marino wrote. “The same would also occur if the folks who are interested in buying the racetrack (and are not the current contracted buyers) would have to do if they were to build the 100 warehouse-type garages they want to build that have living quarters above the first floor garages.”

Portman’s layout calls for four warehouse buildings totaling 2.1 million square feet in two phases, including a 919,883-square-foot building in phase one. 

The plan calls for demolishing the racetrack and combining it with several neighboring vacant parcels. Portman would build around a 15-acre parcel it hasn’t contracted to buy.

A Chevy Corvette, parked and ready to race March 25 at Palm Beach International Raceway. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Warehouses in demand, land scarce

While rising housing prices are grabbing recent headlines, the warehouse market is booming as well, particularly in St. Lucie County, which has the cheap land and ready interstate access demanded by storage companies who want to reach South Florida’s huge population. 

The racetrack, on a four-lane, divided highway 15 miles west of Interstate 95 and next to the two largest industrial centers in north county — Pratt & Whitney and the Palm Beach Park of Commerce — is a more likely spot for warehouses than for homes. 

While billboards standing for decades scream space is available at the neighboring Park of Commerce, most of the available land in the 1,200-acre park is gone. 

Last year, Amazon opened a 1 million-square-foot warehouse on 99 acres in the park, joining Walgreens, CSX, General Motors, Niagara Water and others.

In December, Woodmont Industrial Partners of Fairfield, N.J., paid $40.4 million for 116 acres in eight parcels in the park, with plans to build a 300,000-square-foot warehouse by July 2023, therealdeal.com reported.

With about 4 million square feet built and 2 million square feet spoken for, the park is pretty much sold out, said Neil Merin, whose company NAI/Merin Hunter Codman Commercial Real Estate Services brokers deals in the park.

“It’s a shame that the racetrack is going to disappear. It’s got a great history. But it’s obviously worth it to the guy who’s selling it,” Merin said. “For now this is one of the last few places where you can do something of that size.”

Palm Beach International Raceway
Racers wait to drag April 1 at Palm Beach International Raceway. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

IRG sells other tracks; two to racing groups

IRG, which owns the International Hot Rod Association, appears to be getting out of the racetrack business after about 10 years.

It bought the Memphis International Raceway at auction in 2011 after it had closed for a year, the online site Dragzine reported. A deal to sell it last year fell through, but its director of race operations, Jeff Miles, told a local television station on March 28 that his group’s offer to buy the track and retain it had been eclipsed by a bidder who would not maintain racing on the 342-acre site. Miles told WREG-TV the deal could boil down to whether the property could be rezoned to light industrial.

In November 2019, Dragzine reported that IRG’s Cordova track, near the Quad Cities on the Illinois-Iowa border, had been sold to Dan and Shelly Crownhart, members of a longtime racing family intent on upgrading and retaining the track.

Partenza

Two weeks earlier, Dragzine reported that Royce Miller, the longtime owner of the Maryland International Raceway in Mechanicsville would buy the track back, seven years after selling it to IRG. After selling, Miller stayed on with IRG as chief operating officer. He credited Partenza with giving him the first option to buy it back, the industry online news site reported.

Camaro
Peggy Gossett-Seidman and her 1981 Chevrolet Camaro Berlinetta March 25 at Palm Beach International Raceway. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

She covered Moroso decades ago

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Peggy Gossett-Seidman covered races at Moroso Motorsports Park for The Palm Beach Post. She saw “Big Daddy” Don Garlits there. And actor Paul Newman. 

In a 1982 column, she detailed how Dick Moroso, a racing parts manufacturer who lived on Singer Island, envisioned boosting the track he had just bought that averaged 190 competitors and 3,100 spectators every Saturday night.

(Courtesy of Peggy Gossett-Seidman)

He started weekly drag races for beginners, she reported, promising $300,000 for improvements and envisioned the pits on the west side, where they are now. Moroso died in 1998 and his family sold the track in 2008. 

Hearing the track is closing, Gossett-Seidman drove up from her Highland Beach home, husband and son in tow, to race her shiny red 1981 Camaro Berlinetta.

It’s the same model she bought new in the 1980s. But when she went to sell it in 1994 “I could not get rid of it for 500 bucks” so she gave it to a nephew who put on another 40,000 miles before trading it in.

Camaro
Peggy Gossett-Seidman and her 1981 Chevrolet Camaro Berlinetta. (Joel Engelhardt photo)
VIDEO: Peggy Gossett-Seidman takes her red 1981 Camaro Berlinetta down the dragstrip April 1.

It took her six years to track down a replacement, a meticulously maintained version she found in Virginia with just 24,000 miles on it. 

The Berliner is no race car. Its speedometer tops out at 85 mph.

But there was Gossett-Seidman lining up to floor it down the drag straightaway. She had planned to drive PBIR’s race course, but she drove right instead of left after paying her $30 entry fee and, after an auto inspection, ended up in line with the drag-racers. 

After her first run, 17 seconds, she liked it so much she lined up to do it again, waiting more than an hour in the crowd of hot rods shorn of back seats; shapely, expensive foreign machines; and American-made muscle cars you’ve probably seen speeding by on Interstate 95.

Gossett-Seidman, a Highland Beach town commissioner, bemoaned the track’s fate.

“It’s very sad for this community. I wish it would be different. We’re losing some of the luster of old Palm Beach County where you could come out and get a beer and a hot dog and race your car.

PBIR
Michael Tomaselli and his 2015 Subaru WRX. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

“I mean, look at this place. It’s packed. When you’re trying to get in line at a place like this, they stop and let you in line. It doesn’t happen at Publix.”

Michael Tomaselli, a 30-year-old firefighter paramedic, came to the track with his father a week later to drive his 2015 Subaru WRX. He summed up the imminent closure this way: “It feels like you’re losing a family member.”

Jennifer Davis in her 1979 Ford Mustang. (Courtesy Jennifer Davis)

A way of life

Jennifer Davis of Loxahatchee, who oversees the middle and high school science curriculum at the Palm Beach County School District, was exhausted. 

She made it out to the track on April 1 with her rescue bulldog-mix, Cash, just hours after returning from a three-day field trip to Lakeland with 45 middle- and high-schoolers for a science competition. (Eight, she proudly announced, will be in the finals in Atlanta in May.)

VIDEO: A dragster burns rubber to heat up the tires before racing April 1.
VIDEO: Eric Obel burns rubber before his drag run April 1.

She explained the track’s intermittent roar of unmuffled engines as racers spin their near-treadless tires to heat them up before reaching the starting line, creating friction to avoid spinning out — “Spinning isn’t winning,” she said.

The lines of drivers waiting to race are short because the threat of heavy rain has forced PBIR to cancel Saturday’s events. That means fewer off-road drivers showed up Friday to test their vehicles.

But Davis’ husband, Eric Obel, is there trying to get his orange 1979 Ford Mustang to slow down.

Ford Mustang
Eric Obel removed the hood of his 1979 Ford Mustang to reveal its 351 Windsor V8 engine. (Joel Engelhardt photo)
PBIR
Inside the driver’s side of Eric Obel’s off-road 1979 Ford Mustang. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

He plans to compete April 8-9 at races featuring the Discovery Channel’s Street Outlaws filming an episode, an attraction that is nearly doubling PBIR’s daily gate admission fee to $35.

Eric is entering the bracket competition, in which the prize does not go to the fastest car. It goes to the driver who can score high on reaction time and hit the same finish time race after race. He needs to drive the ⅛-mile track in 7 seconds. Not 6.7 seconds, like his second run Friday night. Meaning, he just has to give up the gas (called “spot dropping”) a little bit earlier.

VIDEO: Eric Obel, in his orange 1979 Ford Mustang, aims for 7.0 in the one-eighth mile on April 1.
Slick racing tires, 305-45-R17, in the Obel-Davis trailer at PBIR. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

His car isn’t legal on Florida roads because its 15-inch wide tires are “slicks,” meaning they have no tread at all. He carts the orange Mustang to events in a travel trailer hitched to his Dodge Ram pickup. Inside, he has tools, a generator, 112-octane racing fuel, a cooler and a microwave.

He’ll have to add a bathroom, he said, if he’s going to get to Bradenton or Orlando for weekend-long competition once PBIR closes. 

“I’m hoping I have 10 years in me,” he said, pointing out that he’s 54.

Trailers start to fill the parking area behind the bleachers on March 25 at Palm Beach International Raceway. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Jennifer, who has written several emails to county commissioners, points to the diversity in the parking lot stretching for a quarter-mile behind the grandstands. “We’ve got homegrown trailers. Trucks. Fancy motorhomes. Anybody can come here and ‘run what you’ve brung,’ have a good time and stay safe.”

“There’s a lot more to Palm Beach County than golf,” she added. (Story continues after slideshow.)

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She’s critical of IRG, saying the track owner has dropped opportunities to pack in crowds, such as reducing the five-day Citrus Nationals to just one day.

“That’s just mismanagement. They don’t advertise. They don’t promote events.”

She signs an email to commissioners “Jennifer Davis, Drag Racer.”

“My hope is that you will vote no and allow this track to remain a historical icon in our county and a safe place for the thousands of racers in South Florida to continue the sport we love,” she wrote on Feb. 22.

“I hope that you will vote no and preserve the safety of our streets so that racers are not tempted to engage in illegal and dangerous street racing. 

“I hope that you will vote no and encourage the current owners to sell the track to a group that will preserve it and allow it to grow and develop.”

VIDEO: A dragster whips by March 25.

NOTE: An initial version of this story incorrectly referred to Eric Obel.

© 2022 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.

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Author: Joel Engelhardt

Joel Engelhardt is an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor based in Palm Beach Gardens. He spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business, including 28 years at The Palm Beach Post. As a reporter, he covered countywide growth, the 2000 election and the birth of Cityplace in West Palm Beach. As an editor, he oversaw probes into the opioid scourge, private prisons, police-involved shootings and more. For seven years, he worked on the paper’s editorial board. Joel left The Post in December 2020. He and his wife, Donna, have lived together in Palm Beach Gardens since 1992.

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