After World War II, the military phased out their auxiliary airfield on Fleming Island, west of Highway 17, about midway between County Road 220 and Black Creek. Clay County was swept up in the joy …
After World War II, the military phased out their auxiliary airfield on Fleming Island, west of Highway 17, about midway between County Road 220 and Black Creek. Clay County was swept up in the joy of boys returning home and the beginnings of a steep climb in population that has not ceased to this day.
Change brings both problems and opportunity. With the end of war and military downsizing the economy of the county was taking a hit meaning fewer jobs and more lay about time for teenaged boys to get up to mischief like drag racing on the public roads.
Drag racing was a problem – unsupervised and dangerous. Law enforcement, parents, and the general citizenry were concerned, irate and frustrated. And besides that, there was Rock and Roll. Three men came up with a plan.
Burch Stump with roots in North Carolina racing country came to Green Cove Springs with Burlington Hosiery Mills. Ben Zellner, a primary mover and shaker in Clay County, owned the Lincoln Mercury dealership and served as Mayor of Green Cove Springs. Ed Taylor taught auto mechanics at Clay High, the only high school, and he knew and had the respect of every kid in the county. It was a magic combination.
Thunderbolt Raceway was born in the 1950s, and for a time in the infancy of the sport was among the top National Hot Rod Association certified tracks in the southeast.
From the beginning, the three organizers stretched limited capital to provide fair and safe competition. Family, friends and car fans of all ages anxious for the project to succeed pitched in. Bleachers, and concession stands were built. The old airfield control tower was converted to house an announcer and record keeping.
Jacksonville master mechanic and experienced racer, Bob Price, was recruited to set up and supervise a rigorous inspection of all vehicles to establish safety and classification.
Fences and mounds of dirt were placed along the quarter mile track to protect spectators and drivers. A tiny ticket booth was strategically placed just inside the entrance off U.S. Highway 17.
Early Thunderbolt Raceway marketing was simple but effective. Mimeographed fliers were stuck on anything in the surrounding counties that didn’t move. Dragster hangouts like Milligan's, Crystal and Penny Burgers in Jacksonville received special attention.
The operation was simple but every week brought improvements. At first, an official started the race by dropping a flag and two others with stopwatches called the winner at the end. All three were replaced by electronic timing equipment with the latest Christmas tree starting lights by the next week’s contests.
The first Saturday night races produced a traffic jam that backed up cars to the north into Duval County and to the south past the Black Creek Bridge.
The first night race caused a huge stir in Clay and several surrounding counties that kept lawman busy until the two huge floodlights leased from the Navy and aimed down the track were turned off near midnight. In the ‘50s, local night skies were really dark with little to no ambient light. Those military monster lights created a dome of light almost two miles wide. Clay County’s Sheriff’s Office fielded calls reporting everything from plane crashes to space invaders.
Fans rubbed shoulders in the pits with the truly great in the sport and watched men like Connie Kalitta, Chris Karamesines, Don Prudhomme and Pete Robinson soar into legendary status. Art Arfons lit the skies over the island twice with demonstrations of his jet engine powered car streaking a quarter mile in about five seconds.
In the late 1960s, the track changed hands and major events, including the Gatornationals, were moved to the Gainesville Raceway in 1970, but there still are locals who remember being part of something special.