Florence Motor Speedway carries on proud short-track tradition in South Carolina 400

South Carolina 400
Florence Motor Speedway (Photo: William Chilton/NASCAR)

This year’s South Carolina 400 at Florence Motor Speedway is expected to be one of the most notable in the event’s history.

More than 50 late model stock teams have filed entries for the 200-lap feature set to take place Nov. 19, with NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr. headlining a talented group of competitors that includes Florence track regulars, young prospects and veterans with decades of experience.

Interest in the race has never been an issue for Florence general manager Steve Zacharias, who grew accustomed to dealing with massive late model stock fields in November back when the event took place at the now-defunct Myrtle Beach Speedway.

Although he considers the closure of Myrtle Beach a huge loss for short track racing, Zacharias could not be happier with how the South Carolina 400 has prospered at Florence over the last two years.

“This is the third time we’ve run this race at Florence, but I consider it the 30th overall,” Zacharias said. “With Myrtle Beach falling, we were fortunate to continue the tradition of the 400 at Florence. Otherwise it would have just gone away.

“I’m excited to still be a part of it, and we’re very excited about everything taking place this year.”

RELATED: Everything to know about the South Carolina 400

For more than 30 years, many of the best short track drivers have flocked to South Carolina in November to participate in what was then known as the Myrtle Beach 400, which formally began in 1993 as the NASCAR All Pro Series season finale.

The half-mile facility tested competitors on both strategy and patience for 400 laps before changes to race-day procedures cut the distance down to 250 laps. As the surface gradually aged over the years, tire conservation became a more pressing issue and forced drivers to race at a reduced pace during the opening laps, which often resulted in pack racing.

No one mastered the grueling nature of the Myrtle Beach 400 like Frank Deiny Jr., who won the prestigious event four times, including a three-year win streak from 2003-05. Other notable names that visited Victory Lane in the Myrtle Beach 400 include Josh Berry, Chad McCumbee, Timothy Peters, Scott Riggs, Christian Eckes and Lee Pulliam.

South Carolina 400
The South Carolina 400 took place at Myrtle Beach Speedway for 26 years. Frank Deiny Jr. holds the most wins in the race with four. (Photo: Adam Glanzman/NASCAR)

When Will Burns took the checkered flag in a curfew-shortened Myrtle Beach 400 in 2019, Zacharias had every reason to believe the year-end tradition would continue despite ongoing challenges that included dealing with a neighborhood that had sprung up behind the track.

That mindset changed in January of 2020, when track owner Bob Lutz informed Zacharias he would be selling Myrtle Beach to make room for more land development, citing financial issues as the reason behind his decision.

For Sam Yarbrough, a six-time Myrtle Beach champion who won the 400 in 2007, he knew the track was on borrowed time despite the efforts of Lutz and Zacharias. But the foresight did not minimize the impact of the facility’s demise.

“Living in the area, seeing all the development and the car counts go down over the years, it was only a matter of time,” Yarbrough said. “I wasn’t shocked, but I was disappointed that we lost a really good race track where you could race and come up with great strategies. We all saw the writing on the wall, so none of us were shocked when it happened.”

RELATED: All race results from Myrtle Beach Speedway

With Myrtle Beach’s final race scheduled for Aug. 15, 2020, Zacharias knew he had to act quick to ensure the track’s employees and its competitors had a place to race before the last checkered flag was displayed.

Salvation came just a month before the finale when Zacharias and long-time Florence owner Charlie Powell came to terms on an agreement that would see Myrtle Beach’s staff take over day-to-day operations at Florence. They would also continue Myrtle Beach’s crown jewel event as the rebranded South Carolina 400.

The timing of the agreement could not have been more perfect for Zacharias.

“Things work out in mysterious ways,” Zacharias said. “Myrtle Beach falls in 2020, and Charlie [Powell] and I sign our deal on July 6. Charlie then unfortunately passes away on Aug. 1, so if I didn’t work something out with him prior to Myrtle Beach closing, two tracks in this area could have gone away at the exact same time.”

Florence Motor Speedway
Steve Zacharias took over as the general manager at Florence Motor Speedway shortly before long-time owner Charlie Powell passed away. (Photo:NASCAR)

As Zacharias prepares to wrap up his second full year at Florence, he believes everyone from Myrtle Beach has seamlessly transitioned into their new environment.

Along with being easier to manage from a logistical standpoint, Zacharias added that Florence produces high-quality racing. The track shares many similarities with Myrtle Beach, particularly the abrasive surface, but Zacharias said the progressive banking at Florence enables drivers to consistently run multiple lanes.

Yarbrough, who never turned a lap at Florence prior to Myrtle Beach’s closure, was one of the first to get acclimated to competing at Florence on a regular basis. After winning the last race at Myrtle Beach, Yarbrough won the first late model stock event at Florence under Zacharias’ management on Sept. 4, 2020.

Like Myrtle Beach, Yarbrough compares races at Florence to a chess match when it comes to tire conservation. He expects that trend to continue as Florence’s surface keeps aging, especially with a race as long as the South Carolina 400.

“The track surface is pretty similar,” Yarbrough said. “It’s not quite as abrasive as Myrtle Beach, but it’s getting pretty close. You have to take the same approach at both tracks by being conscious of tire wear and always thinking about the next three steps. As different as [Florence] is with no back wall and a smaller infield, this track races very similar to Myrtle Beach.”

As the only past winner currently entered in the South Carolina 400, Yarbrough is confident he can hold his own against the stacked field and come away as the first driver to win the prestigious race at both Myrtle Beach and Florence.

Yarbrough wants to see Florence flourish as a focal point for asphalt short-track competitors in South Carolina, adding that bringing in Earnhardt for the state’s most prestigious grassroots event is an ideal way to bring more positive attention to the track.

While many challenges face Florence in both the short and long term, Yarbrough believes Zacharias’ ability to appeal to both fans and competitors will be crucial in making the track thrive in the 2020s and beyond.

“Steve has a good rapport with a lot of racers,” Yarbrough said. “As long as he keeps treating people the way he’s been treating them by doing everything he can to provide an affordable place to race, I really think he’ll have a chance to make something good [at Florence] in the long run.”

South Carolina 400
A stacked field of competitors will descend onto Florence Motor Speedway as it hosts the South Carolina 400 for the third time. (Photo:NASCAR)

Zacharias envisions Yarbrough being one of the favorites to win the South Carolina 400 alongside other regulars like Matt Cox and 2022 Florence champion Kade Brown, though he believes JR Motorsports will set the benchmark with Earnhardt and Carson Kvapil.

Despite this, Zacharias does not see a single driver on the massive entry list that is not capable of contending for the South Carolina 400. He’s confident fans who either attend or tune into the event on FloRacing will be in for one of the best short-track races of the year.

Zacharias is taking all the buildup to the South Carolina 400 as a sign that Florence has a bright future in a constantly evolving industry.

“I’m fighting the good fight right now trying to keep this place going,” Zacharias said. “The support of my drivers and the fans all year long is what keeps us going. My wife loves it, my kids love it and my parents love it, so it’s going to take a lot to get [Florence] out of my hands.

“I’ll keep fighting to make this place work.”

The past few years have tested the resolve of Zacharias and his staff in multiple ways, yet their commitment has remained sturdy as they put the finishing touches on a highly anticipated South Carolina 400 race weekend.