Checkered History - Features - Atlanta Magazine

Checkered History

Richard Petty, Sonny Perdue, Bill Elliott, and one obsessive dentist recall fifty years of the Atlanta Motor Speedway

There’s a spot just beyond the Atlanta Motor Speedway where an old church cemetery slumbers in a grassy field, its tombstones a somber counterpoint to the brightly colored sponsor billboards lining the outside of the track. Anyone who has ever attended a race at the speedway and heard the caterwauling chorus of juiced-up Fords and Chevys must wonder: How can anything rest in peace through such a barrage?

The awesome roar of stock car racing came to the southside fifty years ago when the Atlanta International Raceway, as it was known, opened in the Henry County town of Hampton. It was 1960. The sit-in movement was spreading through the South, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy were squaring off for the presidency, and the Braves were still the toast of Milwaukee. Metro Atlanta had recently passed 1 million in population and was looking to make a big-league splash in sports. Stock car racing, with its roots in the moonshine running of North Georgia and North Carolina, was a natural.

The Speedway in 2009

There had been other automobile racetracks in the area. Coca-Cola magnate Asa G. Candler built the first one in 1909 near land that became the Atlanta airport. Starting in 1917, the city’s top racing venue was a mile-long dirt oval at the Lakewood Park fairgrounds. Drivers in the 1950s also competed at the Peach Bowl, a quarter-mile track on Howell Mill Road in what’s now the Westside area. With a seating capacity of 124,000, the Atlanta Motor Speedway of today laps them all. The Labor Day weekend race last year drew a near-capacity crowd, making Hampton, at least for a few hours, the fifth-largest city in the state.

Over the years, the speedway has been a stage for performers as diverse as Dale Earnhardt and Janis Joplin. It has seen triumph and tragedy, prosperity and bankruptcy, skinny-dipping hippies and mud-wrestling mamas. As the track celebrates its golden anniversary, we asked some drivers, fans, sportswriters, and employees to reminisce about the good times and bad times at the big quad-oval where Georgia does NASCAR.

The Early Years

Jack Black, seventy-eight, was a semipro driver whose family ran the Old Hickory House barbecue chain. In the late 1950s, he became one of the partners who built the track. We got the idea from Daytona and Darlington. We’d go over to South Carolina to see how they did it. We built the track where we did because one of the investors owned the property. We didn’t do any market studies or anything. You could say we were underfinanced.

The raceway was supposed to open in the fall of 1959, but bad weather delayed construction while insufficient funding and an ever-shifting management group complicated matters. The track’s own press release made the enterprise sound like a country song: The raceway “has had more ups and downs than a monkey on the string, taken more cuffs and kicks than an unwanted orphan and [been] doomed to more deaths than a chicken-eating hound.” Most of the work on the $1.8 million project was done at breakneck pace within weeks of opening day. On July 31, 1960, 25,000 people turned out for the first race, the Dixie 300.

Furman Bisher, ninety-one, recently retired as a sports columnist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He covered the speedway’s inaugural race. They weren’t ready to run a race. The track wasn’t ready, the grandstand wasn’t ready, there was dirt everywhere. It was like a county fair in the boondocks.

The track's first event, the 1960 Dixie 300   

Black Bill France Sr. [founder of NASCAR] flew in for the race and got tied up in traffic. He got out of his car and started directing cars into the lots. We had bad traffic in the early years. I-75 wasn’t complete, so you had to come down U.S. 41. The police in the next town up the road [Jonesboro] were no help at all. They didn’t like us holding races on Sunday when people ought to be going to church. They cooperated later on, but at first they thought this racetrack was the work of the devil.

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