GREEN COVE SPRINGS – What could arguably be described as one of Green Cove Springs’ biggest hidden treasures is a strip of racing lanes located deep within Reynolds Industrial Park on State Road 16
Since its opening in September of 2013, the Green Cove Springs dragway has provided a place for racing enthusiasts to quench their thirst for speed. The track was recently in the spotlight after the tragic shooting deaths of Buddy Short and Valorie Short, both of whom frequented the dragway.
Buddy Short helped build and operate the attraction that has been growing in popularity. Now the dragway is in the spotlight once again, but under vastly different circumstances.
“The counties, municipalities, towns and states do a good job of providing places for kids to play the ball sports, but there’s a lot of young people we call gearheads, they love motor sports,” dragway owner Peter Scalzo said. “We provide a venue, with no investment from a municipality, we give them a place to race.”
The dragway itself looks like the set of a “Fast and the Furious” film, but what goes on at the Green Cove Dragway is not staged fiction at all. In fact, it’s causing some real concerns for some Green Cove Springs residents.
Since it opened, the dragway has been going before the Green Cove Springs City Council to get its permits re-approved. On May 17 they did it once again, but this time they were met with opposition.
“I never thought I’d be saying something against the dragway,” said Joe Sobotta, a Green Cove Springs resident. “Volume is an issue with whatever cars are making that kind of volume, I can hear it outside and I can hear it on my porch.”
Sobotta was the only Green Cove Springs resident to come before the packed council chambers and speak out against the noise levels that come from the track. He also claims to have felt attacked by the racing supporters that heavily outnumbered him.
“Either I didn’t give my presentation to where it could be understood or we have a group that feels if you don’t agree with them, then you’re throwing a stone in the spokes,” Sobotta said. “I can assure you there is no consorted group of people who got together in Green Cove Springs who said let’s go down there and complain, and shut down the racetrack, but I’ve been sort of accused of that.”
Sobatta lives less than 1,000 feet from the St. Johns River and the sounds he claims to hear are something that Scalzo admits to.
“The way our track is laid out, the sound goes right into town,” Scalzo said. “It travels over the water, once it hits the water, it really intensifies the sounds.”
When past testing of the dragway noise revealed that it was slightly over the city’s decibel limit, Scalzo was asked to take steps to reduce the noise. This included instituting a curfew on the races and setting up a sound barrier wall. Despite this, the city continued to get noise complaints.
“The raceway is enjoyable for race fans and car enthusiasts, however, the city has begun to get numerous complaints about the noise it creates. It has become a quality of life issue for residents whose peaceful evenings on their porches and patios are being interrupted, some report they hear the noise inside their homes,” said Mayor Pamela Lewis in an official statement. “We are reviewing complaints that we receive and are continuing to monitor the situation.”
The city of Green Cove Springs defines the dragway’s weekend operation as a “special event,” which is the same distinction as the city’s annual River Fest, despite the dragway operating numerous times a year. For that reason, the dragway must get re-approved by the city council every year, something they have had little trouble with in three years.
Despite the reported calls, only Sobotta vocalized his frustration in person, while the dragway had several citizens speak in favor of it.
“Racing is a lot more than a fast car, and the Green Cove racetrack is more than a place where fast cars race,” Amber Underwood, 19, said before the City Council. “For many people like me, it’s a home away from home. Like other sports, racing has many positive impacts.”
Underwood was just one of many that came to the meeting to show their support of the dragway.
Following a period of tense discussion, the city council unanimously voted to approve the special events permit for the dragway, ensuring that it will stay in Green Cove Springs, at least for another year.
This year’s approval will be coupled with continued decibel testing, something that Lewis lobbied for at the meeting. Scalzo is also open to several ideas to further reduce noise, such as sound proofing the announcers booth and changing the direction of the track.
Another obstacle that the dragway could encounter is the potential for waterfront development directly across from them. The Reynolds Industrial Park is prime real estate. Scalzo and the city council recognize that a dragway and residential areas don’t tend mix well.
“If a big developer wants to come in with a mega project next year, we don’t want him to go away, because if he wants to build here, that is going to be an issue,” Scalzo said. “At that point the city council is not going to renew my permit, and that’s okay.”
Until that looming day comes, the dragway is set in stone until May 2017, where races will continue until then.
“Everybody’s going to have an opinion, we all can’t agree on the same things,” Track manager Thomas Wilson said. “The one thing I can promise them is that the noise from an ambulance at three in morning, responding to a street race accident, is way more hideous than these cars make in five seconds. We provide a safe environment to race.”