Ernie Griggs was meant to ride.
The 75-year-old started drag racing in Tampa in the 1950s when he was 18. He put his racecar away in the garage about four years later when he got married and had two sons. But he got back in the driver’s seat in 1984.
“Everyone has an automobile, and everyone wants to see how fast it will go,” he said.
Some test their speeds on the streets. Others, like Griggs, use a track.
Local drag racing outlet Auto-Plus Raceway could be keeping Gainesville from having the illegal street racing problem other areas of Florida are experiencing.
“With persons interested in racing having the outlet of a legal place to do so … I think they are more apt to contain their racing to the track,” Gainesville Police spokesman Officer Ben Tobias wrote in an email.
Auto-Plus Raceway is one of 130 National Hot Rod Association member tracks in the country, and it’s considered one of the fastest. Although the local track hosts Gatornationals — an annual race that attracts thousands of spectators and racers — each spring, it offers a safe and legal place for drivers to race throughout the year.
Nate Cross, the sales and marketing manager at the track, said its weekly Test & Tune events are meant to get people off the streets and into a safer environment. However, he hasn’t heard about many incidents of illegal street racing in Gainesville.
Tobias agreed. He said the last recorded citation for street racing was issued May 10, but it didn’t include details. Another citation was handed out Feb. 9, but, again, that incident didn’t have any details.
“The racing statute only requires a citation be issued, and a police report is not completed on most traffic citations,” Tobias said.
Under Florida Statute 316.191, the term “drag race” is defined as operating two or more motor vehicles from a point side by side at fast speeds in a competitive manner. Drag racing on a highway, roadway or parking lot is not permitted.
Cross said the underground racing world in Gainesville isn’t like those in Jacksonville, Orlando or Miami.
In Miami, one person was killed and three were hospitalized in September in a three-way crash caused by drag racing, the Miami Herald reported.
Orlando’s underground scene has similar problems. In 2012, a man was arrested after a street racing accident left several people injured, the Orlando Sentinel reported. That crash came after Orange County commissioners unanimously voted to reject drag racing at the Central Florida Racing Complex. Racers had hoped the complex would be a safer alternative to street racing, the newspaper reported.
Tobias attributed the lack of issues in Gainesville to officers actively patrolling their areas in addition to having the track close by.
To race at the track, all one needs is a driver’s license — and a car.
But the kind of car? Well, that depends on the driver. People race dragsters, trucks, ATVs, motorcycles and snowmobiles.
Jack Matthews started racing in the 1980s with a motorcycle. He had been working in the insurance business for years and had buddies who raced. Matthews decided to give it a try.
He switched to cars about seven years ago, and now at age 65 he plans to have his 1978 Chevy Nova ready to race soon.
In the about seven years he has owned his maroon-and-silver car, Matthews has spent about $70,000 tuning it. And the return on his investment? He doesn’t know yet.
After spending one night at the track, he’s already out $60 when he pours five gallons of gas in the tank. Before he closes the lid, he takes a whiff of the gasoline.
“That’s what drag racers love,” Matthews said.
Matthews always goes with his friend Terry Dolan, a 72-year-old South Bend, Ind., native. Indiana is known for its automotive industry.
“In that area, people just gravitate toward racing,” Dolan said.
But Cross said Gainesville is also home to muscle car fanatics.
“A lot of people make a point to come race here throughout their career,” he said.
Unlike most patrons who visit the track, Cross has only been in the racing world for three years. Before working at Auto-Plus Raceway, he worked for the Philadelphia Flyers.
Cross said drag racing fans are similar to hockey fans in that they come to experience the event. They are both avid, passionate groups of people who enjoy the show.
However, Griggs said drag racing is different. He said it’s all about friends, family and camaraderie. Both of his sons are racers, and his grandson Austin will be learning to race soon.
“As soon as I get him in a car, he’ll be here,” Griggs said.
Austin, 18, said he can’t start racing until his grandfather teaches him.
But Griggs isn’t ready to be a passenger yet.
A version of this story ran on page 10 on 11/8/2013 under the headline "Drag racers of all ages find home, legal track in Gainesville"
A top-fuel dragster races during Gatornationals on March 15 at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville. The track hosts the annual national drag racing event each spring as well as weekly Test & Tune events.