Vanishing Vehicles

For fifty years, the roar of battered, crumpled, home-made stock cars has beckoned gear-heads, racing enthusiasts and curiosity seekers from Homestead to Lantana and everywhere in between. For the weekend racing warriors who pull into the Hialeah Speedway towing their mechanical stallions on flatbed trailers every Saturday afternoon, nothing beats the rush, the adrenaline, of challenging life at speeds exceeding 70 miles per hour.

But come January, the Hialeah Speedway, bastion of South Florida's stock racing scene, will cease to exist. Once the Greater Miami Racing Association concludes its season in December, construction crews will begin razing the third-of-a-mile oval track, along with its wooden bleachers and pit area, to make way for a commercial development on the 28-acre property, located off Okeechobee Road just east of the Palmetto Expressway.

"You could be having the worst day of your life, but once you get behind that wheel, you focus on that one thing: Racing," says Ken Ammerman, a Hollywood carpenter who became a Hialeah speed demon in 1992. "I'll definitely miss it."

On a summer Saturday, the sun begins to set, signaling the start of the evening's events. The speedway's baby-faced manager Andrew Ogden calls drivers together for a pre-race conference. In the pits, crew members conduct final inspections on race cars; checking for fuel line leaks, overheated radiators and any other problem that might cut short their night of racing. Some teams roll sleek, aerodynamic Trans Ams onto the track. Other teams are happy to race in the Cyclone division where drivers steer the mangled husks of late model GM and Ford cars stripped bare of non-essentials such as windshields and passenger seats. At the speedway, all that matters is a V-8 engine, two axles, four tires and a reckless disregard for your life.

Later, about 20 cars fishtail, bang, and careen into each other halfway through the evening's headline event: the 100-lap Cyclone race. A Chevrolet Caprice, a Buick Regal and an Oldsmobile Cutlass jockey for position through a plume of smoke at turn two. "Number 51 is driving like a madman," observes a spectator from the fourth row of the bleachers. The sparse crowd applauds when the 12 crashes into the tire barrier of turn three. After taking the lead on the 53rd lap, Tony Crowder, behind the wheel of the 18, wins the checkered flag.

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.

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