Jacksonville Velodrome

by Tim Gilmore, 8/12/2019

1. The Path Gets Lost

I lace my cypress knees in barbed wire and hike the abandoned velodrome.

aerial view, date unknown, courtesy Lakeshore Bicycles

Waters stagnate dank and still on all sides. The woods rustle. Beaver Street labored long to the west to get here. Muscadine grapevines climb the sweetgum trees and pines. A family of vine-clad trees stands facing me. I’ve met them somewhere, can’t think of where.

Someone’s out here, of course. There’s 21 million people on this southernmost peninsula. Someone’s never far.

I catch a glimpse. She backs into the closed road the trees separate from U.S. 90. For a minute she just stands there. I want to reassure her, but it’s best for her to fear me: not everyone is kind. On Cumberland Island once I turned a path and stood so close, face to face, with that graceful gentle doe, I could almost have reached my fingers to caress her face before she was gone. This one leaves much quicker. I love the curiosity with which she looked to me.

Then I know where I’ve seen this family of trees standing over me. I remember. The Eagle Nebula. The trees congregate just as those columns of phosphorescent star cloud 7,000 light years from earth.

Eagle Nebula, Courtesy NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI / AURA)

I pass the sidepath, or what’s left of it, submerged in brambles and broom sedge, without seeing it, but circle back around after wandering along scum-crusted creeks thick with cypress. Paths get lost in the woods all the time.

Then eight-inch concrete moves through the trees, tilts and turns from the rest of the forest, and I step onto it.

2. “Wally’s Folly”

Wally McGregor bought these 13 acres of woods and swamp near Yellow Water and the terminus of Old Plank Road, built the inner ring track, bleachers, lights and a barn. In the fall of 1989, he prepared to announce its opening. It was an exciting time, a culmination of hope and hard work.

McGregor, son of a judge in Volusia County, served in the Korean War and became an attorney. In the 1960s, outside his hometown of DeLand, McGregor Ranch welcomed the West Volusia Saddle Club onto its 300 acres. The family had bought the former dairy farm in 1934. They boarded 15 horses and rented out another 15 for riding.

On July 23, 1964, Central Florida newspapers reported, “Today from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. parents and the general public are invited by Wallace McGregor to his ranch south of DeLand for a viewing of how boys and girls can become good riders on horseback.”

from The Orlando Sentinel, May 15, 1966

Two years later, the mustangs that drew as many as 2,000 spectators to McGregor Ranch were stock cars, not horses. Wally McGregor wanted to turn low pasture land to use and built DeLand Raceway. He told Morry Meriam of The Orlando Sentinel, “I had in mind putting in a horse track until I discovered there was more interest around DeLand in automobile racing.”

By 1972, McGregor, a recovering alcoholic, had moved to Jacksonville to serve as “director of the alcoholic rehabilitation department of the municipal court.” He’d converted part of McGregor Road back in DeLand into Double-A Ranch, a rehab facility beside the racetrack.

In the 1980s, McGregor ran Brandy Branch Florist and used his own money to open halfway houses for alcoholic war veterans and build the velodrome.

Charlie Fetzer, who co-owns Lakeshore Bicycles with his wife Cathy and his brother Mark, says one day McGregor “walked into the store and told us he was going to build a track out there, and by damned, he would do it. He did not have plans, but he was nonstop. He traveled to several velodromes around the country and decided to copy the one in Atlanta.”

Finally, McGregor was ready for business. He’d spent more than a million dollars on the facility and bought ads in the newspaper. Then he received the diagnosis. Leukemia. A month later, the Thursday before Christmas, Wally McGregor died, 59 years old.

3. Cast Your Dreams in Concrete

The concrete track survived the way so many ancient Mayan ruins did: by being covered in the rise of the earth. The leaves fell, and the leaves fell, and the leaves fell. And the vines crawled and the saplings grew and the weeds—the burnweed, the hawksbeard, the spurge—spread over the leaf-fall the forest made into soil.

When you die, you take with you into the earth and the atmosphere more thoughts and goals and impressions and dreams than ever could fill the Internet. As much of the dream as Wally got into concrete and into the memories of others remains.

Abandon Florida and the vegetation will consume the condo towers and skyscrapers almost as quickly and easily as it will the trailer parks.

When McGregor died, his widow sold the property. Its new owner threw big parties in the woods. When the Florida Internal Improvement Trust Fund bought it in 2006, the state demolished the bleachers and the lights and outbuildings.

“When the state purchased the land,” Charlie Fetzer says, “I was sure they wouldn’t find the track. It was buried under a foot of dirt and growth. They came in with big equipment and trucks and knocked everything down. Then I went out one day and the trucks were parked sideways, sitting idle. The crew was out with hand equipment, carefully digging out the track. I was shocked.”

In 2014, Lakeshore Bicycles launched a campaign to revamp the velodrome, build new accommodations, and make it a tourist destination. Charlie enlisted District Councilman Doyle Carter. In 2015, he built a plan for supporting the project through One Spark, the festival that billed itself as “the world’s largest crowdfunding event,” another in the long line of Jacksonville “biggest evers” that quickly fizzled into their own superlatives.

But One Spark did benefit the effort, which Charlie characterizes as “on hold.” People learned about the track and kids rode bikes from Gainesville and all over the state to ride it. Charlie’s business partner moved away and he found himself “stuck in the store for way too many hours to make this happen,” says, “Retail is tough and time-consuming.”

Still, the velodrome could connect to the Jacksonville Baldwin Rail Trail, a 14.5-mile bike path on a formerly abandoned railroad corridor that leads through swamp, pinewoods and upper hardwood forests. Wally McGregor died not knowing Jacksonville would soon join the national Rails-To-Trails park program; people thought him crazy to build the velodrome so far away in the wetlands and pines. Three decades later, it makes more sense.

Jax-Baldwin Rail Trail

“There’s effort left for the velodrome,” Charlie says. He knows contractors willing to help rebuild and finish the track. City funds remain set aside to develop the property, perhaps even add a larger, steeper track.

At 20 degrees, it has less bank than an Olympic velodrome, which typically banks at 30 to 40 degrees, and U.S. cycling coach Aaron Fulton says, “It feels more like a warmup track.” Still it turns gracefully beneath my feet. I can hear only birdsong. And the occasional jake-braking of a semi rig a mile away on the two-lane highway.

Whether the stock cars roared far enough from the horses at McGregor Ranch to keep from spooking them, I don’t know, but the deer step gingerly through the verdure here at the velodrome. Large intelligent eyes watch me wetly through the elderberry trees.

Everywhere woods re-flourish, uncountable unseen dreams lie dormant. “Wally’s Folly” yet waits. Luckily he poured the concrete. Perhaps now it won’t be much longer.