A strong field of SMART Modified Tour competitors prepare for practice in a packed Florence Motor Speedway infield. (Steve Murray/Redmoon Photography photo)

On a Saturday night in Early March, Florence Motor Speedway hosted the mighty SMART Modified Tour in a 99-lap thriller that came down to a couple of late-race restarts.

“Big Money” Matt Hirschman won the trophy after his pit crew got him out first on track. His Pee Dee Motorsports crew, from just down the road in Cheraw, celebrated their home track win. Caleb Heady led the majority of the race and finished second while fan-favorite Burt Myers brought it home third. Big names from the NASCAR Cup Series like Ryan Newman (6th) and Bobby Labonte (9th) contended and finished in the top ten. 

Every local division put on a thrilling show. The Thunder and Lightning division only had five cars starting but culminated in a massive brawl between Joey Webster and winner Howard Leonrad at the scales. The Legends car division saw the leader Sean McEleanrney running away with nearly a straightaway advantage only to get involved with a spinning lap car. Despite getting his spot back he tangled with second-place Josh Lowe after the restart, giving Alex Meggs the victory. Owen Zacharias held on to his Bandolero a couple of times, going completely sideways to win after hard challenges from Killian McMann. AJ Sanders dominated a clean and green Mini-Stock race. The Charger division saw its share of action with a few contenders including pole sitter Donald Clark suffering bad luck. Cody Kelly took the checkered flag in the opening night event for the Charger Late Model Class. 

Overall, Florence Motor Speedway had a smashing success in its opening night race for the regular season. The grounds have undergone great efforts from the Zacharias family to make the fan and competitor experience better each year. Florence went from nearly shuttering its doors in the late 2010s to becoming a must-attend destination for gearheads, hardcore race fans, and casual lookers-on. It is a track that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. loved racing on so much he ran in two Late Model Stock races there in a three-and-a-half month span. He competed and ran up front in the South Carolina 400 and raced the Icebreaker with less fortune but nonetheless, a smile.

The Grand Strand/Greater Myrtle Beach region had its heart broken when, in May 2020, it was announced that racing, concerts, and festivals at Myrtle Beach Speedway would no longer be held. The facility was sold to land developers. By August 2020, the track was closed for good – but Steve Zacharias had put together a deal to purchase the Timmonsville, South Carolina facility and their first race under new ownership was held almost immediately in September. As of this writing, there is no remaining trace of the Speedway grounds but nothing has been built on the site and subsequent real estate development deals have fallen through. Everything happens for a reason.

It was only fitting that opening night hosted Modifieds to begin the regular season. The Zacharias name and Tour-type modified racing have been synonymous for decades in Upstate New York.

Steve’s connections with the open-wheel modified circuit were a big part of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour coming to Myrtle Beach before it closed. The SMART Tour, which is a re-organized version of the NASCAR Southern Modified Tour, embodied the race-day experience that the Zacharias family grew up on. Florence was able to share that vision on a warm March afternoon in sunny South Carolina.

Personally as a fan, media member, National Anthem singer, and for the first time ever this weekend; public address announcer; I’ve seen Florence Motor Speedway blossom. Unlike many other tracks, the staff at Florence has a youthful energy and forward-thinking ideas. There is no “this is how we always did it” type of response. Though some things, like the analog scoreboard, are outdated and in need of upgrades, the restrooms, pressbox, kart track, run-off area, parking lot, and signage have been updated. Officials Zack Owen and John Spence live for their weekend jobs at the facility. 

The drivers above all love racing at the track because through the years and the different caretakers. It has maintained its brutally abrasive racing surface that creates great parity in every class that runs on it. The venue has multiple racing grooves that come and go with cloud cover, sunshine, and nightfall. Ultimately Florence is one of the few tracks in the south with the forgiving berms of grass that uniquely gives drivers a chance to re-enter the track instead of pounding a concrete wall from turn one to turn four. 

The weekly events return in the Pot O’ Gold night of racing on March 18. The Solid Rock Carriers CARS Tour Late Model Stocks make their return to Florence on March 25, and racing is looking great all year long at FMS in 2023.