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Redeeming the Cyclorama: Why the century-old attraction is anything but a monument to the Confederacy

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Cyclorama

In the fall of 1892, a series of advertisements appeared in the Atlanta Constitution promoting a colossal 360-degree painting depicting the Battle of Atlanta. The Cyclorama had won good reviews at its initial showings in the Midwest and drawn big crowds during its Georgia debut earlier that year. But ticket receipts had dwindled as the novelty faded. Anxious to rekindle interest, the attraction’s backers published a preposterous claim: “Only Confederate victory ever painted.”

In case anyone needed reminding, the men in gray were defeated at the Battle of Atlanta. On the afternoon of July 22, 1864, the Confederate army failed to break the Federal troops’ tightening chokehold, falling back with more than 5,000 casualties. Six weeks later, the Confederates evacuated and left the city to the mercies of General William T. Sherman.

“It’s crazy,” says Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center, where the restored and reinterpreted Cyclorama will open in a new building on February 22, exactly 127 years to the day after it first opened in Atlanta. “This is a painting of a Northern victory, painted in the North for Northern audiences, and then it gets orphaned in the South, and we start presenting it like we won or something.”

“The Cyclorama tells a story like no other artifact in the country about the use and misuse of Civil War memory.”

Conceived in Chicago, created in Milwaukee, and premiered in Minneapolis, the Cyclorama was meant to celebrate the Union’s great triumph in capturing Atlanta and hastening the end of the Civil War. But when the painting moved South after a five-year run up North, new audiences flipped its meaning, bastardizing the spectacle into a curio of Confederate identity and a testament to white Southern pride. For decades, it was a masterpiece of misinterpretation.

Why should a memorial that has, for most of its existence, been used to glorify the forces of secession get a new lease on life at a time when many Confederate monuments are being removed? Because it demonstrates just how easily history can get distorted by a viewer’s preconceived notions. “The Cyclorama tells a story like no other artifact in the country about the use and misuse of Civil War memory,” Hale says.

The story begins not with a Southern accent, but with a band of beer-drinking Germans in Wisconsin.

With its slightly curved surface and subtle optical illusions, the Cyclorama is a low-tech form of virtual reality meant to immerse viewers in one of the decisive battles of the Civil War. History center visitors will enter the new rotunda that houses the painting through an enclosed passageway, ascend on an escalator, and step out onto a circular platform that looks like an old-time gazebo. The stage does not rotate, as it did in the Cyclorama’s Grant Park home.

“We wanted people to encounter the painting the way audiences did in the 1800s,” says Gordon Jones, the history center’s senior military historian and ranking Cyclorama expert.

Cyclorama
The mammoth oil painting is 49 feet tall and 371 feet in circumference.

Photograph by Hales Photo

Viewers will be engulfed by a mammoth oil painting—49 feet tall and 371 feet in circumference—that transports them to the turning point of the battle. The Confederates are on the brink of overrunning the Federal line along the railroad between Atlanta and Decatur (near today’s Inman Park MARTA station). But the Yanks counterattack and repel them, led by Union General John “Black Jack” Logan, frantically charging atop his horse, Slasher.

The Cyclorama is a rare survivor of an entertainment form that was popular in the late 1800s. At least 40 panoramic artworks portraying battles, religious scenes, and disasters like the Great Chicago Fire toured the United States, Jones says. “They were the IMAX theaters of their time.”

Atlanta’s Cyclorama was the second work produced by the American Panorama Company, a Chicago-based venture with a studio in Milwaukee. The best panorama artists were in Europe, so the company brought 14 of them to the States, mostly from Germany. Their supervisor was Friedrich Wilhelm Heine, an artist who had done combat illustrations during the Franco-Prussian War.

“Whenever you see pictures of them with the painting, there’s usually a stein of beer nearby,” says Tom Heine, the artist’s great-grandson, who came to Atlanta with his family to see the Cyclorama as a boy in the 1950s. His ancestor made the trip to Georgia in 1885 to scout out a vantage point for the painting he titled Schlacht bei Atlanta (the Battle of Atlanta). Heine plans to travel from his home in Madison, Wisconsin, for the reopening this month.

The Battle of Atlanta debuted in Minneapolis in 1886 and then moved to Indianapolis, where crowds eventually declined and the enterprise went into receivership. A promoter from Georgia, Paul Atkinson, bought the painting for $2,500 with plans to show it in Atlanta and other Southern cities. He made some changes.

“It was a battle that helped free my ancestors and I’ll make sure that depiction is saved.”

In one tableau, frightened Confederate prisoners are seen being led away by Federal soldiers. “Atkinson was afraid that would be offensive to white Southern audiences,” Jones says, “so he had the uniforms repainted and made the Union soldiers prisoners.” Another detail—a captured Confederate flag—was painted out entirely.

The Cyclorama’s first address in Atlanta was a round, wooden building assembled specifically for the painting at Edgewood and Piedmont avenues, near today’s Georgia State University campus. After attendance tailed off, the painting was sold in 1893 for $1,100 to Ernest Woodruff, the banker who would later put together a syndicate to take over the Coca-Cola Company. He immediately resold the painting to George V. Gress, a lumber merchant who persuaded the city to let him move the attraction and building to Grant Park. The business went bust, and in 1898, Gress donated the painting to the city. The United Confederate Veterans were holding their convention in Atlanta that year—the 1890s equivalent of the Super Bowl—and it seemed like something the old Rebs would enjoy.

The city has owned the painting ever since, which is probably why it survived. Atlanta’s is one of only three panoramic paintings left in North America, along with a scene of Christ’s crucifixion in Quebec and one of Pickett’s Charge at the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

“The Cyclorama survived because Atlanta adopted it as an icon,” Jones says. “It became tied in with the city’s self-image as rising from the ashes. It became a point of pride: We were burned in war, yet we endured and prospered.”


Atlantans have been wringing their hands over what to do with the Cyclorama for more than a century. Interest in the painting—and money to maintain it—has come and gone.

The painting languished for two decades in its original wooden shelter before the city commissioned a “fireproof” gallery in 1921. There was another burst of attentiveness during the 1930s when Atlanta used Works Progress Administration funds to restore the artwork and extend the you-are-there effect by adding real dirt and model soldiers to the diorama around its base. (They also restored the altered Confederate POW scene.)

One of the guiding lights on the WPA job was Wilbur Kurtz, a local historian who also served as technical adviser on the filming of Gone With the Wind. When the movie premiered here in 1939, Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable visited the Cyclorama, and Gable reportedly quipped that the only thing wrong with the painting was that he wasn’t in it. Mayor William B. Hartsfield remedied the oversight, and one of the diorama soldiers was retrofitted with that famous pencil-thin mustache and knowing smirk. (The figure is being restored and will remain part of the show at the history center.)

The Cyclorama remained relatively popular through the 1950s and the Civil War centennial, but it was falling into disrepair. Some suggested moving it downtown or to the site of the new Confederate memorial at Stone Mountain.

The Cyclorama’s fate reached a head in the 1970s, ironically, during the administration of Atlanta’s first African-American mayor. Maynard Jackson bristled at the idea that the painting would molder away under his watch. He rather liked its original intent as a celebration of Union victory. “It was a battle that helped free my ancestors,” he said, “and I’ll make sure that depiction is saved.”

Under Jackson, the city and other donors spent $11 million to restore the painting and upgrade the building. After it reopened in 1982, the Cyclorama drew its largest crowds ever—more than 300,000 visitors one year—but once again, the momentum didn’t last. By 2005, annual attendance had dropped to between 50,000 and 60,000.

That year, facing the prospect of committing millions to again rescue the painting, the city asked the history center to consider taking responsibility for it. The center agreed to run the attraction’s gift shop for a few months to assess the situation.

“It was crickets down there,” remembers Hale, an attorney who was then chairman of the history center board. “We looked at [the project] and quickly backed away. But we started thinking about what we might do with it.”

Cyclorama
The sky extends above visitors’ line of vision to maintain the three-dimensional illusion.

Photograph by Hales Photo

Six years later, in 2011, Mayor Kasim Reed asked Hale to head a commission of civic leaders to study the future of the Cyclorama. The group suggested three alternatives: patch the painting and keep it in Grant Park, move it to a new building in Centennial Olympic Park, or (the preferred option) relocate it to a museum-quality structure on the history center’s Buckhead campus.

Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker were having breakfast one Sunday morning when they read an AJC story about the commission’s recommendations. Lloyd, a successful real estate entrepreneur, and his wife had been looking for a legacy gift they could leave the city. He remembered the Cyclorama fondly from childhood visits with his mother, a high school history teacher in Greensboro, Georgia. “I grew up in a time and place where we marched to the cemetery every Confederate Memorial Day and put flags on the Confederate graves,” he says. “It took me a while to come to the conclusion that the right side had won the war, and that’s why we have a country.”

Lloyd met Hale for lunch the next day and offered a $10 million pledge to move the painting to the history center. That was enough for Hale to go to the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, the O. Wayne Rollins Foundation, and other donors to raise an additional $25 million.

To compensate Grant Park for losing the Cyclorama, Zoo Atlanta was allowed to incorporate the old facility into its own $45 million expansion plan. And the city signed a 75-year lease for the history center to manage, display, and care for the painting in a new facility named for the Whitakers. Hale expects the Cyclorama to draw good crowds for a time, and then interest will wane, as it always has. “Its days as a tourist attraction are over,” he says. “It’s a historical artifact now, and that’s how we’re going to treat it.”


Cyclorama
A crane lowers the painting into its new complex, which also includes a gallery for a famous railroad relic that had long been displayed in Grant Park: the Texas, the engine Confederates used to run down a raiding party of Union soldiers and spies in northwest Georgia during the “Great Locomotive Chase” of 1862.

Photograph by Hales Photo

Moving the Cyclorama from Grant Park for the first time in almost a hundred years and restoring it in a new home required a logistical operation that General Sherman would have appreciated. “We’ve had 200 people working on this,” says Jackson McQuigg, the history center’s vice president of properties. “We hand-picked every contractor, from the architects and artists to the truckers and crane operators.”

One of the main worries was how to transport it. The Cyclorama was painted on 14 sections of Belgian linen canvas that were sewn together in 1886 to form a continuous circle with one seam that could separate the work into halves. Some conservators said the canvas was too fragile to be moved. One recommended cutting it into large pieces. The history center decided to roll it up like a carpet. “Our main fear was that the oil paint might flake off,” McQuigg says. Conservators did lab tests on samples from the canvas, ran computer models, and gave their okay.

To secure the painting, a steel fabricator in North Carolina built two 45-foot-long scrolls. The canvas was painstakingly rolled onto them in a process that took a month and a half. Finally, one night in February 2017, the rollers were lifted by crane out of the old building and loaded onto flatbed trucks that transported them 12 miles north to Buckhead.

Once unrolled, the painting was rehung and rejoined, and restoration began. The surface was dingy and had darkened over the years. Workers gingerly removed yellowed varnish with chopsticks holding countless cotton balls dipped in acetone. The painting was also missing pieces. A 54-inch vertical section had been removed in the 1890s when a roof partially collapsed and left water damage. A 23-inch slice was taken out in 1921 when the canvas wouldn’t quite fit into the Grant Park building. Working from old photographs of the painting, artists recreated both sections as well as a seven-foot extension of sky around the top to give the vista more space to breathe.

The artists also restored one of the most noticeable features in the painting, an oversized eagle soaring over the battlefield. The big bird is Old Abe, the mascot of the 8th Wisconsin infantry regiment, and his presence is complete fiction. The regiment wasn’t at the battle, and Abe would have been tethered to a perch if he had been.

“Abe looked bad,” Jones says. “As the sky was touched up over the years, the blue paint was encroaching on him and leaving a jagged edge. We took care of that. We didn’t want an eagle that looked like a pterodactyl.”


Calinda Lee, the history center’s vice president for historical interpretation, first saw the Cyclorama more than 20 years ago as a graduate student at Emory. “There was a lot of eye-rolling in my group,” she recalls. “It struck me as an emotionally charged presentation that was meant to valorize the South and Atlanta’s role in the war. It felt dusty, like a relic from a time gone by.”

The attraction did nothing to address slavery and other causes of the war, the lingering toxins of Reconstruction, or the misbegotten mythology of the Lost Cause.

“It was an icon for only part of the city,” says Jones. “It was pretty much a whites-only story from the beginning.” In fact, Grant Park itself was segregated for decades.

Even the original, pro-Union depiction betrayed strong biases and historical inaccuracies. The painting includes hundreds of subjects, for instance, but not a single woman. A red blotch was long thought to be a female nurse’s apron, Jones says, but closer examination showed that it was a wounded soldier under a blanket.

One black person is visible, but it’s not clear what he’s doing. While there were no black troops at the Battle of Atlanta, African Americans often served as wagon drivers, stretcher bearers, and cooks. Those figures are all white in the painting.

“I’m pretty skeptical that there wouldn’t be more brown faces,” Lee says. “Think about how important black labor was to the South. We also know that thousands of African Americans were following Sherman’s troops by this time. . . . Why were all these people left out?”

Mindful of all this baggage, planners at the history center carefully studied how to convey a more complete story about the war’s legacy. They organized focus groups. They convened a group of educators, historians, and museum professionals from around the country to advise them on how to frame the presentation.

One of the people they consulted was Frank Smith, executive director of the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C. He questioned at first whether a cultural institution should spend millions of dollars burnishing an artifact so identified with the Confederacy. Though he grew up in Newnan and attended Morehouse College, Smith had never laid eyes on the Cyclorama before he traveled to see it newly installed at the history center.

“It’s quite a marvel,” he says. “When you walk into the middle of that scene, it takes all the air out of the room. But then you ask yourself what the painting is really about. What it shows is an army of liberation. If they tell that story—the larger story of what the Civil War was about—they’ll get a whole new audience. But it’s going to be tricky.”


The last part of the Cyclorama to be restored was the three-dimensional figures added to the diorama during the 1930s. The hills and red clay roads of the faux battlefield were refabricated in fiberglass, while the scores of soldier mannequins posed on the landscape were individually repaired and retouched. During Thanksgiving week last year, the octogenarian figures were transferred to a studio in a former grocery warehouse in East Point, where Joseph Lazzari, a young multimedia artist from Alabama, began to replace missing hands and cracked plaster.

It made for an eerie scene. The bearded soldiers, ranging in size from 18 to 42 inches tall according to the laws of perspective, looked like garden gnomes. But these were not happy elves. Some represented corpses. Others oozed red with mortal wounds. Most of them were finished on one side, the side visitors could see, and the other might have a hollow cavity for a chest or a featureless face with no eyes.

“I like to bring my dog to the studio,” Lazzari said, “but she was sniffing at their feet and staring up at them. She was weirded out, so I stopped bringing her.”

Looking over the mock soldiers, it didn’t take long to see that blue coats greatly outnumbered gray coats. Only four of the 128 diorama figures are Confederates. In fact, perhaps three-quarters of the troops in the painting itself are fighting for the Union.

The Cyclorama, it seems, has always shown visitors who won, even if some Atlantans didn’t want to see it clearly.

This article appears in our February 2019 issue.

If you don’t exclusively use wood to smoke your meat, is it still true barbecue?

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Barbecue propane vs woodJohn Shelton Reed, an eminent sociologist from the University of North Carolina, has an unusual retirement hobby. He has made it his cause to honor traditional pit barbecue and discredit other cooking systems that rely in varying degrees on gas heat. He’s serious about this, but he usually makes his point humorously. One of his recent True ’Cue newsletters included a doctored photo of women carrying picket signs, one of which said: “Does Your Mother Know You’re a Gasser?” When he cowrote a book on Carolina barbecue with his wife, Dale Volberg Reed, he titled it Holy Smoke but joked that he really wanted to call it The Sacred and the Propane.

Reed was alarmed when he discovered that many Carolina barbecue places no longer cook over wood-fired pits but instead have adopted the convenience and consistency of gas. Three years ago, he and a like-minded barbecue lover, Dan Levine, founded the Campaign for Real Barbecue, a sort of preservation society modeled after a British organization that seeks to protect old-fashioned pubs, the Campaign for Real Ale. Reed circulated a set of rules for authentic barbecue places, and after much back and forth (because this is barbecue after all, and no one easily agrees on much of anything), 42 authors, academics, chefs, and barbecue experts signed on as “patrons.” They included people of standing such as TV grilling star Steven Raichlen and Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn, as well as people of lesser standing like me.

The Campaign has started chapters in both Carolinas, Kentucky, and, as of this year, Georgia. When I became involved in the effort to survey the state’s barbecue places and identify the ones that still cook over nothing but hardwood embers and smoke, I briefly imagined myself as a kind of barbecue cop, handing out citations for malpractice. I had our purpose backwards. “This is about recognizing the places that do it the traditional way,” says the Campaign’s state director, historian Craig Pascoe of Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville. “All-wood barbecue is in danger of becoming a lost art, and we want to celebrate it before it’s too late.”

As we began our research—basically eating our way across Georgia—we soon learned that the hunt for true barbecue is more complicated than wood versus gas. We also learned that there’s more all-wood ’cue out there than we imagined and that some of it is in surprising places.

“The nice thing about cooking barbecue with gas is that you can control the heat,” TV cook Alton Brown once said. “But you’re going to go to hell.”

If he’s right about that, they’re going to need some extra room Down Below. Last time I counted, there were almost 300 barbecue places in the Atlanta area. The great majority of them employ some form of gas.

In the right hands, this isn’t a bad thing. Some of the best barbecue restaurants in Atlanta use gas-fired hybrid smokers that allow cooks to use as much or as little wood as they want for flavor. Sam’s BBQ-1 in Cobb County, Community Q in Decatur, Big Shanty Smokehouse in Kennesaw, and dozens of other places cook with the leading gas-assisted smoker, Southern Pride.

“We decided we needed something foolproof, something where you didn’t have to pay someone to tend a fire for twelve hours,” says Don Cobbs of the Greater Good BBQ, a local operation with four locations. “It still takes some skill to run a Southern Pride. Each smoker is a little different, and you have to learn its sweet spot. I suppose we could have gone for the novelty of an open pit, but this allows us to get a consistent product.”

Others use Southern Pride’s closest competitor, Ole Hickory. City Barbeque, an Ohio-based chain whose first Atlanta-area outlets in Decatur and Johns Creek have been attracting lines of customers, has tried both and prefers Ole Hickories. “What we do is not the same as all wood—there’s no question about that,” says Frank Pizzo, one of the founders. “But we felt like this was as authentic as we could be within the system we needed to have to make it work.”

So, the Campaign struck from our list all the restaurants that use gas hybrids, as good as they might be. That left the sticky question of places that swing both ways. Two of Atlanta’s most popular barbecue enterprises fit that description.

Williamson Bros., based in Marietta, has a brick pit in all three of its restaurants and uses them to smoke its signature pork shoulders. As if to underscore its wood cred, the flagship location burned down because of a pit fire in 1994. But they also use Southern Prides to cook their ribs and other dishes, so they aren’t, strictly speaking, all-wood.

Nor is Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q, the smoked-meat empire on DeKalb Avenue—although it comes close. Jonathan Fox estimates that they own almost $200,000 worth of smokers: fancy, automated, all-wood models from the J&R Manufacturing Co. of Mesquite, Texas (of course!); offset cookers like you’d see on the contest circuit from the Lang company in south Georgia; custom-made whole-hog cookers from Tennessee and North Carolina; and more. All told, Fox Bros. may smoke more all-wood barbecue than any other place in Georgia. But they also use gas hybrid cookers for wings, chicken, and other meats.

“I want to go back to my roots and cook on nothing but wood,” Fox tells me, “but my staff wants me to have Southern Prides to keep up with the volume. It’s a demon I struggle with all the time: craft versus volume.”

And what does the Campaign do with a place like DAS BBQ in northwest Atlanta, one of the best new barbecue spots in town? Stephen Franklin, one of its owners, studied the differences between what he calls silver and black cookers—stainless steel ones fueled by natural gas and dark metal ones that burn nothing but wood. His solution: Use both.

DAS BBQ built two of the black smokers from decommissioned propane containers, 250-gallon tanks for the fireboxes, and 500-gallon tanks for the cooking chambers. They call them Pancho and Lefty, and they smoke most of the restaurant’s meats for hours. But then the product goes into Southern Prides to finish cooking with gas. Franklin believes that it doesn’t sacrifice any flavor because almost all of the smoke absorption occurs in those first hours. (Ribs and chicken are cooked in the Southern Prides from start to finish.)

Franklin knew about the Campaign and its fundamentalist rules about wood. “We’re super cool with it and support what they’re doing, but you wouldn’t want to give us a certificate because we’re not that pure.”

The surprising thing we discovered on our quest is that there are more “pure” barbecue places in the Atlanta area than we expected to find. At least 25 that we know of cook entirely over wood, and we will no doubt discover others.

Some use traditional methods. The Old Brick Pit in Chamblee has a horizontal masonry beaut in the middle of the kitchen that’s similar to the granddaddy of Georgia barbecue pits, the L-shaped elder that’s been in use for 65 years at Fresh Air Barbecue in Jackson. “It’s definitely more labor-intensive cooking this way,” says the Old Brick Pit’s owner, Jane Ann Jarvis, “but people tell us they can taste the difference.”

Others use the fireplace-style pits that once were the standard in Atlanta. The last remaining Old Hickory House in Tucker has one. Old South Bar-B-Q in Smyrna, celebrating its 50th anniversary, has a fine example just behind the counter. “We have a hose next to our pit, and we use it,” says manager Pam Ferris. “I’ve been here 35 years, and we haven’t burned down the place yet—although I have had nightmares about it.”

A growing number of newer barbecue places use automated wood-burning systems from J&R that can cost upwards of $30,000 apiece. King Barbecue in Avalon has one. Heirloom Market BBQ in Cobb County has two J&R Smokemaster convection ovens, with thermostats that control the temperature by regulating airflow. Not that they pay too much attention to temperatures, at least when it comes to the meat. “We cook by sight, touch, and feel,” pitmaster Cody Taylor tells me. “And we clean them out every day. That’s very important to keep out off-flavors.” That attentiveness didn’t prevent a pit fire from destroying Heirloom’s smokehouse in April.

Perhaps no barbecue place in Atlanta makes a bigger display of its cookers than Twin Smokers, near the College Football Hall of Fame downtown. Entering the restaurant, you pass floor-to-ceiling shelving holding split logs of oak, hickory, and mesquite—the “wood library,” they call it. Then, your eyes fall on two side-by-side J&R Oyler rotisserie smokers, red and silver boxes that look as handsome as copper kettles in a brewpub. They have names: Elizabeth and Matthew, honoring two of the owner’s children.

“Elizabeth cooks Southern pork with white oak and hickory,” says Brian Bullock, one of the partners in the restaurant’s ownership group, Legacy Ventures. “And Matthew cooks beef with post oak and mesquite.”

By contrast, some of the most righteous barbecue in town comes from the rugged, black-metal smokers used by Bryan Furman at B’s Cracklin’ BBQ in northwest Atlanta. “I’ve cooked with wood my whole life,” Furman says. “My daddy cooked with wood and charcoal, and my granddaddy did. I didn’t consider any other way of doing it. They send me catalogs for Southern Pride and Ole Hickory, and I just toss them in the trash. If you put the meat in a machine and mash a button and go home, there’s no art to that. And to me, barbecue is an art.”

Though we had assumed that most of the all-wood barbecue places in Georgia would be ancestral pits out in the country, the Campaign’s first designation went to a restaurant in the heart of Buckhead. (The fact that it’s operated by the son of one of the people involved in our effort might have had something to do with it.)

Lovies, located on the back side of a building near the intersection of Piedmont and the Buckhead Loop, employs two black-metal smokers made by Stump’s Smokers of Centerville, Georgia. It took the restaurant nearly a year to get permitted. “The red tape was horribly painstaking,” remembers Nate Newman, the managing partner. “I wanted to build a wooden cook shack, but the city inspectors said it had to be brick. That was probably a good thing, because if it was wooden, I might have burned it down half a dozen times by now.”

One of my most recent discoveries of new barbecue places practicing old customs is Holy Smoke BBQ & More in McDonough. They use a smoker custom-made by a retired hobbyist in Florida who fashioned it from an LP butane tank like you’d see outside a house in the country. (Funny how some of the most tradition-minded barbecue people use old butane and propane tanks.)

“There wasn’t a chance we were going to cook with gas,” says Michele O’Brien-White, who owns the place with her husband, Roger. “When we were getting ready to open, they asked if we wanted the gas cooker that was still here from the last place. We didn’t. Now, it’s for sale at the pawn shop next door.” She laughed. “If someone wants a good deal on a Southern Pride, you could probably get it cheap.”
Some might see that as progress.

Jim Auchmutey was a curator for the Atlanta History Center’s current Barbecue Nation exhibition and is author of the forthcoming companion book, Barbecue Nation: An Illustrated History of the Great American Food. He still remembers how pained he felt when he visited Harold’s, the late, beloved Atlanta barbecue place, and noticed that there was no longer a pile of wood in the parking lot.

Best of the Best: Check out our list of the 10 Best Barbecue Restaurants in Atlanta.

This article appears in our September 2018 issue.

Virgin Harvest

On a soggy Autumn morning, Jason Shaw was standing in a sandy field and considering the irony of his new calling as a missionary of Southern olives. “The first olive I ever saw was in a martini,” he joked. He was barely exaggerating. Jason grew up in South Georgia during the 1970s and 1980s, a time and place where olive oil seemed almost alien. “We used to have hog killings, and we’d end up with a big container of lard in the laundry room that my mom cooked with.”

Jason’s family is trying to do something that Thomas Jefferson himself dreamed of but was unable to accomplish: grow olives in the South. Instead of the usual row crops—corn, cotton, peanuts—the field was lined with green-and-silver-leafed olive trees. “This,” he said, “is the first commercial crop of olives east of the Mississippi since the 1800s.”

Jason, a jovial thirty-nine-year-old insurance man with a moon face and boyish bangs, is part of a co-op called Georgia Olive Farms that includes his brother, a cousin, and a family friend. In the past three years, they’ve planted twenty-eight acres of olive trees outside Lakeland, near Valdosta, with the intention of making their own oil and marketing seedlings to other farmers in what they envision as an olive belt across the Deep South. On the final day of their first harvest, in late September, the partners invited journalists and other interested parties to their orchard for a kind of coming-out party for Georgia olives.

And then the rain came. Jason and a TV reporter in green mud boots huddled under a couple of golf umbrellas and tried to tape an interview in the downpour. “We’re not looking to be the biggest olive producers,” he said, wet hair dripping down his forehead. “We just want to get olives started in the Southeast.” A few minutes later, he and his cousin had to push the reporter’s car out of the muck, a chore that probably doesn’t come up very often in the drier lands usually associated with olives.

If the co-op succeeds, it will tap into a booming $1.7 billion domestic market. In the past two decades, Americans have more than doubled their consumption of olive oil, an essential ingredient of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. Like wine and coffee, it has developed a following of connoisseurs who talk about flavor notes and terroir and are willing to pay as much as $50 a bottle for artisanal products. Williams-Sonoma offers a tiny two-ounce bottle, elaborately packaged with shiny black ribbon and flavored with white truffles, for $89.50. Could a Southern oil run with such a crowd? The Shaws had to get the fruit out of the field to find out.

Their trees were planted in closely spaced ranks that looked more like hedgerows than postcard images of ancient specimens in Greece or Italy. They were pruned on the sides and topped at about ten feet to facilitate mechanized picking. Blueberry harvesters as large as RVs motored right over them, allowing the trees to pass through an opening beneath the driver’s platform. Sam Shaw, Jason’s thirty-six-year-old brother, a bank president in nearby Homerville, took the wheel of one of the behemoths. “This is my stress relief,” he said, looking over the field from his lofty perch. “Banking’s been kind of tough lately.”

Beneath him, attachments thrashed the branches like the arms of a car wash, sending olives onto a conveyor belt that dumped them into crates. The fruit was green and burgundy and resembled undersized grapes. A young woman who had come with a group of students from Okefenokee Tech popped one in her mouth. Her face soured. Fresh olives may look sweet, but they taste as bitter as a pulverized aspirin, which is why they have to be pressed into oil or cured with brine to be palatable.

Among the spectators were several blueberry farmers curious about whether olives could become the next big thing. Blueberries, the last big thing, have surpassed peaches among Georgia’s most valuable fruit crops, and some of the growers want to plant olives or at least lease out their harvesters to pick them. Another onlooker had driven up from that other Lakeland, in Florida, looking for something to replace the citrus he’d lost in a freeze.

“You wouldn’t believe the interest we’ve had in this,” said Jason, who naturally became the public face of the enterprise given that his other job is state representative. “I couldn’t go anywhere during the campaign that someone didn’t ask me about olives. And I’d say, ‘I’m glad you asked,’ because it’s more fun to talk about olives than politics.”

>> GALLERY: View photos of the olive farms in operation

The vision for Georgia Olive Farms began in 1996, when Jason took a two-month study trip to Italy as a senior at the University of Georgia. Acquiring a taste for olive oil was the only way he could enjoy a salad. “They don’t do ranch and blue cheese,” he said. “It’s oil and vinegar or nothing.” During a visit to an olive mill in Verona, he started wondering whether the trees that adorned the Italian hillsides would grow in the flat fields back home. What he didn’t know was that they already had.

Olive trees are native to the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin, where they can live for hundreds of years, twisting their branches into dramatic contours. They first appeared in Georgia when the Spanish planted them at their missions along the coast in the 1600s. The English tried to cultivate them after Oglethorpe founded Savannah in 1733, but with little success. Jefferson encountered olives as minister to France and was so delighted that he had 500 seedlings shipped to Charleston in hopes of establishing a crop. “This is the most interesting plant in the world for South Carolina and Georgia,” he wrote in 1788. Twenty-five years later, he lamented what had become of his efforts: “If any of [the trees] still exist, it is merely as a curiosity in their gardens; not a single orchard of them has been planted.”

Olives made little headway in the South for several reasons. Many varieties simply didn’t take to the damp climate. Hurricanes destroyed others, and the Civil War devastated the coastal plantations that had experimented with the crop. The market played a role as well; there wasn’t much call for another cooking oil in a region swimming in pork fat and cottonseeds, the main component of shortenings like Crisco (short for “crystallized cottonseed oil”).

The few olive trees that survived in Georgia became a novelty. In an 1889 article in the Brunswick Times, a man named W.R. Shadman claimed to have a three-acre commercial grove on St. Simons Island. Other remnants endured well into the twentieth century. Gerard Krewer, a retired UGA horticulture professor who researched the history of Georgia olives for the Shaws, remembers seeing a tree on Jekyll Island when he lived there during the 1970s. “It was still fruiting; we used to make pickled olives. And then it was bulldozed.”

In the late 1990s, a Brunswick physician launched the first modern effort to reintroduce olives into Georgia. Mark Hanly, who grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe, set out a hundred trees in widely spaced plantings that had to be harvested the old-fashioned way, with a hand-held comb sweeping through the branches. Hanly made table olives but never produced enough fruit to press oil. “I had this romantic image of sipping wine and watching the sunset through these gnarly old trees,” he recalled. “I think the Shaws are growing them the right way, at least for Georgia. I’m going to copy them now.”

Kevin Shaw, Jason and Sam’s forty-one-year-old cousin, was the first to get serious about planting olives. The only full-time farmer of the group, Kevin wears a beard and a ponytail and can usually be found tramping the fields in sandals, looking less like a good old boy than the head gardener of Margaritaville. “I’d grown cotton, corn, peanuts, wheat—same old, same old,” he said. “I wanted to do something different. I was thinking about blueberries, but Sam said, ‘Nah, hold off. That market isn’t so good now.’”

The olive oil market was tempting. All but 2 percent of the oil consumed in America is imported, and what little domestic product there is comes from California. No one in the eastern half of the country was trying to produce olive oil on a commercial scale. It looked like there might be an opening for a new player.

The Shaws visited California to see the latest innovation in olive cultivation: super-high-density orchards, a method pioneered in Spain that maximizes yield and minimizes labor costs through mechanical harvesting. It relies on concentrated plantings—those hedgerows—using a Spanish variety, the Arbequina, that’s rich in oil and more tolerant of cold. Even better, the fruit could be harvested with blueberry pickers, equipment that was readily available in South Georgia and idle after the berry harvest.

Paul Vossen, a California olive expert with the University of California Cooperative Extension, told the Shaws he was skeptical that the trees would thrive in the often-wet Southern weather. “If you get a lot of rain during the spring bloom,” he warned, “you won’t get a crop. That’s why you don’t see olives growing in the East: too much rain.” But after visiting Georgia and seeing the well-drained soil around Lakeland, Vossen became more optimistic about their chances.

In April 2009, Georgia Olive Farms bought more than 12,000 sixteen-inch-high seedlings from California and began planting them along U.S. Highway 221. There were weather problems almost immediately. Flooding rains threatened to wash away the crop. During the following winter, an extended freeze defoliated trees and some had to be replanted. “We were starting to wonder whether there’s something in the Bible that says olives are forbidden,” Jason said.

Their farming practices were hardly organic, relying on regular applications of herbicides to kill weeds, fungicides to ward off plant diseases, and fertilizer to accelerate growth. By late last summer, the trees, not even three years old, were bursting with round, green fruit. “They’re ahead of schedule because we pushed them hard,” Kevin explained. “They’re on the main highway and we wanted them to look good. Normally, you wouldn’t harvest them this young—I mean, these trees haven’t hit puberty. But we needed to have some oil.”

That was the whole point, said Berrien Sutton, the other partner in the co-op, a lawyer from Homerville who is experimenting with organic olive-growing on the side. “You’re just not going to get many people planting olives until we can show them some oil.”

Crushing olives takes specialized equipment that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. No one in the Southeast owned an olive mill, so the partners planned to bring in a mobile unit from California to process their fruit. When the freight proved too expensive for their relatively small crop, they went to plan B: The olives had to hit the road.

The closest mill was more than a thousand miles away at the Texas Olive Ranch in Carrizo Springs, southwest of San Antonio. The owner, Jim Henry, had been a buyer for the Pier 1 retail chain and had spent years in Europe admiring the classical olive groves of the Mediterranean. He had planted a profitable 187 acres in three locations around the state and had bought a $300,000 mill, which the Shaws had seen in action the previous year. Henry agreed to press their fruit.

As soon as the picking was finished in Georgia, the olives were packed in plastic blueberry crates and driven eighteen hours and 1,100 miles to Texas. Timing was critical. Olives are usually milled within a day to preserve optimal flavor, so a refrigerated Ryder truck was used to keep them at 41 degrees. When the fruit arrived, it was immediately washed and destemmed, and then crushed, pits and all. The resulting paste went into a malaxer, a huge mixing blade that turned the green goo like cookie dough for forty-five minutes, breaking down the mixture and releasing the oil. The paste was then pumped through two centrifuges to separate out the golden liquid.

It took most of a day to turn two tons of olives into oil. Henry tried a sample, still cloudy from suspended fruit particles, and found it pleasantly buttery.

Less than a week after leaving Georgia, the essence of twenty-eight acres returned in a single fifty-five-gallon stainless steel drum. The partners gathered a few days later for an informal tasting with Paul Miller, an olive authority from Australia. As he tried the green liquid, they waited nervously for his verdict, the first informed opinion about whether all their efforts had been worthwhile. “Well done, mates,” he announced. “You’ve produced extra-virgin olive oil.”

The term comes from the days when less efficient presses crushed olives more than once, and the first, or virgin, pressing yielded the purest results. Extra virgin, the top grade, is reserved for oils that are free of defects, low in acid, and meet the sensory requirements of a trained tasting panel. Worldwide, less than 10 percent of olive oil makes the cut.

Nancy Ash, a California olive consultant who advised the Shaws, performed a more detailed evaluation of their oil in October. She and a colleague poured a sample into blue glasses (the oil’s color can affect perceptions), swirled it around, and inhaled the aroma like wine tasters sniffing a bouquet. Then they tasted the oil, straight up, no bread, slurping it into their mouths to coat as many flavor receptors as possible. Their report pronounced it “sweet, smooth, and soft,” with a fruity olive aroma that reminded them of a bunch of wholesome things: “green grass, tomatoes, artichokes, apples and butter with hints of hay-straw, green bananas, and green vegetables.”

The most important thing was freshness. Unlike vinegar or wine, olive oil does not age well. From the moment of bottling, it oxidizes and declines, and usually passes its prime within a year, two at the most. Some of the oil on grocery shelves isn’t as lovely as the picturesque labels might imply. A recent study by the University of California, Davis, found that 69 percent of the imported extra-virgin oils it tested was rancid or adulterated.

“Most people here haven’t tasted truly fresh olive oil,” said Jon Wolf, chef at the Terrace restaurant in Atlanta’s Ellis Hotel. When he heard about Georgia Olive Farms, he contacted the Shaws and asked to try their product in his dining room. They’ve heard from scores of other chefs too.

Unfortunately, the first harvest didn’t leave much olive oil to go around. The partners plan to supply selected restaurants, offer some at tasting events like one they held at Emory University in December, and sell the rest through their website ($25 for a 250 ml bottle at georgiaolivefarms.com). They’ve already spent $400,000 on the enterprise and plan to invest much more. They hope to double their acreage in coming months and eventually buy a mill to process their fruit and that of other local farmers.

One of the first steps in building the olive buzz took place in October when the Georgia oil made its debut in front of an audience of influential foodies. For the chef who made the introduction, it was personal.

Sean Brock needed some olive oil. He was scheduled to speak at the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium, an annual gathering of chefs, academics, and food writers at the University of Mississippi, and he wanted to devote his session to the quest for locally sourced olives. Brock runs two restaurants in Charleston and has drawn flattering coverage in the New York Times and the New Yorker for his commitment to authentic regional food. “If it ain’t Southern, it ain’t coming in the door,” he pledged when his latest venture, Husk, opened in late 2010. Olive oil mocked his vow. He needed Southern oil to make vinaigrettes if nothing else, but there was none to be had. The olive tree he planted at his home hardly resolved the dilemma.

When he heard about Georgia Olive Farms, Brock was thrilled. “Southern chefs are going to go crazy for this,” he said. “I don’t care if it costs $100 a gallon. I want it.”

He phoned Kevin and struck up a lengthy conversation about olives and their shared interest in heirloom corn. As the symposium approached, Brock suggested that Kevin send some of the maiden olive oil to Ole Miss. Kevin dispatched a gallon and 300 seedlings, and when the audience filed in, there was a baby tree waiting on every seat, making the chef seem like the Johnny Appleseed of olives.

Brock took the podium and gave a quick overview of the South’s olive history and how Jefferson—“T.J.,” he called him—was frustrated in his efforts to bring olive oil to his native region. Southerners were accustomed to other, less healthy cooking oils like lard and shortening. “We can blame it on Crisco,” he said, completing the parable of the road not taken. Then he told the assembly about Georgia Olive Farms and its plans to revive the dream. He ended with a sort of culinary altar call: “Let’s support the Shaw boys and show them we want this stuff.”

With that, ushers fanned out through the audience, carrying silver trays of olive oil in miniature plastic cups. As the trays passed down the rows, Brock noticed how the morning light struck the liquid and illuminated it with a stained-glass glow. He thought there was something almost religious about the scene, as heads bowed to taste in the manner of communion. A few people thought the oil was rather mild, not peppery enough, but any reservations were outweighed by the enthusiasm of a congregation willing to be converted. A long-ago promise was, at last, being redeemed. A murmur of approval swept through the hall. For the Shaws, it was as good as a benediction.

Checkered History: Atlanta Motor Speedway

The Speedway in 2009

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.

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.

The first race was won by one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers, Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, whose nickname came not from speed but from his early prowess as a baseball pitcher. Miss Georgia 1960 greeted him on Victory Lane.

Sandra Tally Coolik I had never been to a race before. I was overwhelmed by the heat and the noise. I remember chatting with Fireball Roberts very briefly. Then I patted his crewcut; I imagine that was staged for the photographers. I don’t think I kissed him. I’d remember that because I’m sure he was hot and sweaty, and that probably wouldn’t have been the most pleasant thing to do.

There was so much lousy weather early on that sportswriters called the track the “Atlanta International Rainway.”

Frances Goss, seventy-two, got a soggy introduction to the track where she later worked for thirty-eight years, mostly as ticket manager. We lived about three miles away and decided to go to a race one weekend. Our first child was nine months old, so we got all our baby stuff and packed the pickup truck and went to the infield. It rained and it rained and it rained, and the race was cut short. They had to let us up on the track to get us out of all that mud. It was something, being on that twenty-four-degree bank holding a screaming baby. It wasn’t funny at the time. It took us five and a half hours to go three miles, and I thought: I will never go back to this place.

Rex White, a childhood polio victim who went on to become one of stock car racing’s top stars in the late 1950s and early 1960s, won the NASCAR Grand National Championship the year the track opened. Now eighty and living in metro Atlanta, he recalls how rowdy the infield could be. They had outhouses—not [portable toilets], but a hole in the ground. It was rough, but a lot of racetracks were rough then. There was a lot of booze and drinking. I remember at one of the rainouts, we were getting ready to go home, and one of my men said, “Rex, come over here, you gotta see this.” And these two women were fighting in a mudhole. They’d fought until they had practically nothing on. They were down to their bra and panties. I seen that with my own eyes.

NASCAR was simpler then. Many of the drivers worked on their own cars, which proved crucial in the 1962 Dixie 400.

White We had been to Atlanta and tested tires, so I knew that there was a little bump going into Turn 1, enough to upset the car and hurt your lap time. We worked on a shock to handle it. Back then, we didn’t just work on our cars; I built mine. We took the shock apart and got a Coca-Cola can and cut a little shim to handle the rebound, and that helped us win the race. That and Marvin Panch running out of gas. He was running in front and I was drafting him—I hadn’t even tried to pass him—and then he ran out of gas. It was near the end of the season, and I won $13,700. That made an awful good nest egg to get started racing the next year.

Ups and Downs

The track struggled through the 1960s as Nelson Weaver, a Birmingham businessman, became the main shareholder. The speedway declared bankruptcy in the seventies and emerged with two new principal owners: Walter Nix, an airplane dealer, and L.G. DeWitt, a trucking executive. As stock car racing grew in popularity, the track’s finances stabilized.

Mike Helton, president of NASCAR, worked at the speedway during the eighties. I was the PR director and then the general manager in Atlanta. I lived on the grounds in an apartment and then, after I got married, in a house in the southeast corner of the property. For the first couple of years, the speedway was barely surviving. Then we started finishing in the black, and it became fun to grow the business.

Tom Higgins, who covered racing for the Charlotte Observer, remembers an all-star race held on Mother’s Day in 1986 as one of the sport’s worst-attended events. Most of the drivers were livid that they couldn’t be with their mothers. Darrell Waltrip was very unhappy. The attendance was pitiful. They called it 18,000, but I’ll bet there weren’t more than 5,000 people there.

Helton We had bought several dozen roses to give to mothers, and we had quite a few left over. We learned that you don’t race on Mother’s Day.

The track’s modern era began in 1990 when it was sold to Bruton Smith, whose company, Speedway Motorsports, is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and owns seven other NASCAR tracks. Smith started a rebuilding program that would replace almost every part of the facility except the infield tunnel.

Ed Clark, the speedway’s president and general manager since 1992, oversaw the transformation. My boss loves to build things. He immediately started developing what we called Project 2000: new grandstands and garages, a condo tower, reshaping the track. From 1991 to 2002, the norm around here was to have a race on Sunday, and by nine o’clock Monday morning, we’d be knocking something down and starting to move dirt. For a while there, I thought that was the only reason we had races: so we’d have a deadline to finish a project.

The racing surface itself was rebuilt in 1997, adding two bends to the 1.54-mile oval. It became known as one of the fastest tracks in NASCAR, with qualifying speeds well over 190 miles per hour.

Clark We had it laser-graded every seven feet to make sure there were no bumps or drops. We wanted drivers to feel comfortable racing side by side at high speeds. The engineer brought in blueprints that had a green line, a red line, and a yellow line running around the track, and I said, “What are those?” He said, “Those are your grooves. Drivers should be able to race three wide.” At the very first race, they came off the fourth turn and went three wide across the finish line, and the guy in the middle got bumped and spun out. I had a big grin on my face. We’ve had quite a few photo finishes.

Even so, some drivers were skeptical of the new track.

Clark Drivers are funny; they don’t like you changing things. Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott loved the old track. After we rebuilt it, those guys never missed a chance to complain. Dale would grab me in a headlock and get on me. Bobby Labonte was the same way. I remember driving him around the new track for the first time in a pace car, and he just lit into me. He said there were some places that had more banking where he could make up time, and some of the other drivers didn’t know about them, and we took them out. He won the last race at the old track and the first one at the new track, so I think he adjusted.

The improvement that got the most publicity was Tara Place, a nine-story condominium building overlooking Turn 4 that opened in 1995. The forty-six units sold quickly as companies, fans, and drivers paid from $200,000 to more than $1 million for a chance to nest with NASCAR.

Bill Elliott, fifty-four, is the most famous stock car driver from Georgia (“Awesome Bill from Dawsonville”). Although the speedway named a grandstand for him, he hasn’t bought one of the condos. Personally, I wouldn’t want to live at a racetrack. I’ve lived at one long enough.

Phillip Adcock, fifty-six, feels differently; the Griffin dentist has bought three units over the years. I got a small one on the sixth floor and then a bigger one on the eighth floor and then a penthouse unit. I lived there for a few years. I have to admit that the noise bothered me a little at first. But I learned not to put a bedroom on the track side. I put in extra soundproofing, and now you could take a nap during a race if you wanted to.

My wife and I are raising a family in another home and holding on to the penthouse for retirement. We’ve got thirty-two feet of couches facing the track and a spiral staircase to the roof with a hot tub and a bar. I haven’t missed a race since ’95. I’ll have forty or fifty guests at a time. We’ve had some pretty well-known people. One time we had David Greene and David Pollack [of the University of Georgia football team] and their whole front line. I had more than a ton of Bulldogs on my roof! Governor Perdue was there. The security people called and said they had Miss America downstairs, could I recommend a place for her to go to dinner? I told them to send her up, we were having barbecue. So we had dinner with Miss America.

Glory Days

The speedway hosts about a hundred races a year. The main events are two Sprint Cup races, part of NASCAR’s top circuit. (The next one is scheduled for the night before Labor Day.) Long known as the Atlanta 500 and the Dixie 500, the races have more recently gone by the names of sponsors such as Kobalt Tools, Golden Corral, and Bass Pro Shops.

Richard Petty competed in more Cup races at the speedway than any other driver—sixty-six—but he won only six times. I guess my percentage wasn’t very good. But I liked to run that track. You could really drive there. You could run inside, in the middle, against the wall. There was one race—1978, I think—when they said I had finished just behind Donnie Allison. They didn’t have electronic scoring then, so I went in and argued with them, and they decided I had won. I was getting ready to do the winner’s interview in the press box when they told me they’d changed their minds again, Donnie had won. It got real confusing.

Petty was involved in one of NASCAR’s greatest races in Atlanta. Not only was the Hooters 500 in November 1992 the last ride of his storied career, but it was also the first Cup race for a coming superstar, Jeff Gordon. A crowd of more than 150,000 watched as Bill Elliott won but barely lost the season championship to Alan Kulwicki.

Goss We had sold all our tickets, and Bruton Smith came in and said, “I found you some more seats—two thousand of them.” He had found some of the old bleachers from the backstretch down in maintenance. We were there till midnight counting seats and marking them for tickets. We sold them all.

A third of the way into the race, the crowd gasped as Petty’s No. 43 caught fire.

Petty I run into somebody and was going down the front stretch in flames. I managed to flag down a fire truck, but the guys acted like they wanted my autograph more than they wanted to put out the fire. I thought I was finished. I went up in the truck with my wife and daughters, and we all had a good cry. But my crew went to work on that thing and put in a new radiator, and they got me back out there for the last couple of laps. So I was running when I finished my career. I tell people I wanted to go out in a blaze of glory, but I just went out in a blaze.

A bronze statue of Petty outside the gift shop shows him giving a girl an autograph. The girl is modeled after the daughter of track owner Bruton Smith.

Petty From my standpoint, that’s a great statue. It’s the fans that made NASCAR. Yeah, that’s Richard Petty to me.

Kenneth Melear, seventy-nine, is one of NASCAR’s biggest fans. The proprietor of Melear’s Barbecue in Fayetteville has never missed a Cup series race at the speedway. It’s so different from watching it on TV. It’s the music of the motors, the excitement of watching how the drivers handle themselves when they get tapped and pushed to the wall. You’ve got to pick a driver. I pull for Jeff Gordon—I’ve got a Jeff Gordon cell phone in my pocket right now. I definitely don’t pull for Dale Earnhardt Jr. I didn’t like his daddy, the way he pushed other drivers out of the way. If you and I went to a race and you liked Junior and I liked Gordon, we’d just sit there arguing. It’s fun.

Sonny Perdue, sixty-three, is the governor of Georgia. He has competed in two exhibition races that were part of the track’s Thursday Thunder and Friday Night Drags pro-am series. He won both times, defeating WSB traffic reporter Herb Emory in the first contest. Captain Herb had been running his mouth on the radio about what he was going to do to the governor on the short track. I was driving some old clunker. We did a little bumping and grinding, and we spun out, and he finished second. I was so excited that I considered doing a Carl Edwards backflip, but other than politics, I hadn’t done many backflips lately. So I climbed the fence instead. It was a moment of exultation.

The king of the Atlanta speedway was “The Intimidator” himself, No. 3, Dale Earnhardt, who won more Cup races at the track than anyone to date. His nine victories exceed Cale Yarborough’s seven and Bobby Labonte’s six (the leader among active drivers). Tom Higgins, the Charlotte Observer writer, covered a 1976 race in Atlanta that could have ended Earnhardt’s career as it was beginning.

Higgins That was one of the scariest wrecks I ever saw. Dick Brooks hit the wall and caromed off. Dale hit him at full speed and flipped five times and then slammed into the apron next to Dick. The emergency crews worked for several minutes to get them out. I thought both of them had been killed. I remember one of the other writers said, “Well, that’s the last you’ll see of young Earnhardt.” But when Dale got out of the infirmary, he went to Pit Road and volunteered as a relief driver. He wanted to get back out there.

Earnhardt last won in Atlanta in a close finish at the 2000 Cracker Barrel 500. Less than a year later, he died in a crash at Daytona. The 2001 March race in Atlanta came three weeks later and provided one of the most emotional moments in NASCAR history.

Clark Everyone was mourning. We had a big, black No. 3 painted in a white circle on the grass, and we asked the crowd to hold up three fingers on the third lap as a tribute. Earnhardt’s team had chosen Kevin Harvick [a Sprint Cup rookie] to replace him, and he won the race by a split second over Jeff Gordon. I’ve been doing this since 1977, and I’d never seen a moment like that. People cheered for fifteen minutes. Harvick did a burnout on [the front stretch] and took a victory lap with three fingers held up outside his window. Tears were streaming down everyone’s faces. It was an emotional release for the entire sport.

Tragedies and Disasters

Four drivers and two crew members have been killed during races at the speedway—far fewer than at other tracks such as Daytona, where more than two dozen have died. The first Cup series fatality was Terry Schoonover, a rookie from Ohio, who died during the 1984 Atlanta Journal 500. Five years later, in the same race, Grant Adcox of Tennessee smashed into the outer wall.

Goss Grant was one of my favorite people. His dad was one of our ticket agents. He ran a Chevrolet dealership in Chattanooga. Grant would come in early to practice, and he’d come by the office and talk with us, so we got to know him. He just hit the wall at the wrong angle.

A year later one of Bill Elliott’s crew members, Mike Rich of Blairsville, died when a car spun out of control on Pit Road and struck him as he was changing a tire.

Elliott That was pretty much the worst day of my life. A driver gets to know his crew, and I knew Mike real well. I didn’t realize how seriously he was hurt until the race was over, and then I was devastated.

A wreck of a different sort occurred on the night of July 6, 2005, when a tornado hit the speedway and heavily damaged the new construction.

Clark The development guys had been here that day. We looked at an old tower that had been built in the sixties, and one of us said, “I wish a tornado would come through here and tear that thing down.” Well, be careful what you wish for. When I got here that night, the parking lot behind the grandstand was under a foot and a half of water. I could see a sofa cushion from one of the suite levels float by. That’s when the magnitude of what had happened hit me. Furniture from the condos was all over the parking lot. Vehicles were tossed and rolled over in a pile. One end of our office building was sheared off. About the only thing that wasn’t damaged was the racing surface itself.

We had three and a half months before our next big event, so we had to get to work. We brought in an army of people, something like 300 to 400 workers. They went up to suite level with some Bobcats and pushed everything out, stripped it back to the steel and concrete, and started over. With everyone pushing together, we were finished a couple of weeks before the next race.

We got a much improved facility because of the tornado. It was like we had lived in a new house for a year and thought, “If I had this to do over again, I’d make the laundry room bigger.” We got to do that. We had $40 million in damage, and while everything was torn up, we made about $7 million in improvements.

Adcock The tornado missed my condo, but the one next door looked like God did a karate chop on it. It was the best thing that ever happened to us. Bruton Smith did a $1 million facelift on the building, which was way above and beyond the insurance claims.

Hippies in Henry County

The speedway has hosted more than just races. Six weeks before Woodstock, on July 4 and 5, 1969, more than 100,000 people who didn’t look much like stock car fans journeyed to the track for the Atlanta International Pop Festival.

Alex Cooley, seventy, is a legendary Atlanta music promoter. The Atlanta pop festival was his first big show, with a lineup that included Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Blood, Sweat & Tears. It was the only place big enough for the crowd we wanted, and the only place that would rent to us. Back then people wanted to keep out rock ’n’ roll. The speedway had reservations. It was like: “God knows what these hippies will do; they’ll probably take off their clothes.” Some of them did, but that’s neither here nor there. The biggest complaint we heard was from neighbors who said, “They’re peeing in my yard.”

Clark Alf Knight was the track superintendent back then, and he ruled this place with an iron fist. When the pop festival was coming to town, the owners decided to send Alf and his wife on a vacation so they wouldn’t be here. He was in Florida when somebody called him and told him these kids had broken into his house and were sleeping on the floor. He set a world record driving back here and kicked them out.

Cooley The logistics were terrible. Getting acts in from the airport was tough because the highway was blocked. We didn’t have enough trailers or Porta-Johns. It was really hot, and we started having heat prostration. The fire department came in with a tanker and sprayed down the crowd. But most of my memories have to do with the music. Blood, Sweat & Tears blew everyone away. Joe Cocker came on at 4 a.m. There were probably 5,000 people left, and he just did an incredible set.

The speedway’s largest crowd was for another concert years later, Country Fest, which, according to press accounts at the time, drew more than 250,000 people to hear Hank Williams Jr., Patty Loveless, Alan Jackson, and other stars on the weekend before the 1996 Olympics began in Atlanta.

Brandon Hutchison, vice president of events for Atlanta Motor Speedway. That was a little bit of ambush marketing. Hanes was an official sponsor of the Olympics. Fruit of the Loom [a competitor] sponsored Country Fest as a way to get exposure. You had to buy one of their products to get a ticket to the concert. A lot of people bought Fruit of the Loom underwear that summer.

Clark We’ve had car shows, motorcycle shows, kennel shows, Scout shows, gun shows—pretty much anything with the word “show” on the end.

Hutchison In this down economy, we aren’t renting it out as often as we were. We’ll do about 150 days this year. Three or four years ago, we did 280 to 300. Most of it’s car-related: racing schools, auto manufacturers showing off their new models.

Perdue I’ve taken the Richard Petty and Jeff Gordon driving experiences out there. They give you a printout of your speed, and I got up to 163 miles per hour. It’s something to feel the centrifugal pull and g-forces as you go around those steep banks.

Clark Garth Brooks filmed a music video here [for “Workin’ for a Livin’”]. We’ve had TV commercials. There’ve been a few movies filmed here [including Smokey and the Bandit II with Burt Reynolds and Days of Thunder with Tom Cruise]. The latest one was Zombieland with Woody Harrelson. They didn’t even shoot inside the track; they used our outside shower and restroom facilities as an interstate rest stop.

Spinning Forward

Attendance at the speedway peaked a decade ago and has declined in recent years, as it has at many NASCAR tracks, because of the recession. That led to speculation that Atlanta would lose one of its Sprint Cup dates.

Clark The Labor Day weekend race looks like it’s going to be one of NASCAR’s four or five biggest draws. Our March date is the one people talk about. Our company bought a track in Kentucky and would like to hold a Cup race there. NASCAR told us that one of our options is to move a date from one of our other tracks.

The decision was announced in August: Atlanta will lose the March race as part of a schedule shake-up that will put Kentucky on the calendar. Even so, NASCAR says it remains committed to Atlanta.

Helton NASCAR loves coming to Atlanta. Stock car racing goes way back in that area. It’s our biggest TV market. When you think about it, those races are like miniature Super Bowls.

And when the crowds go home, Rex White, the championship driver who retired to nearby Fayetteville, visits the track in a quieter pursuit.

White My pastor holds a Bible study every Wednesday up in the speedway’s offices. Most of the time we talk about God and preaching, but we’ll talk about racing, too. You know that’s going to come up.

Checkered History

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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.

The first race was won by one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers, Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, whose nickname came not from speed but from his early prowess as a baseball pitcher. Miss Georgia 1960 greeted him on Victory Lane.

Sandra Tally Coolik I had never been to a race before. I was overwhelmed by the heat and the noise. I remember chatting with Fireball Roberts very briefly. Then I patted his crewcut; I imagine that was staged for the photographers. I don’t think I kissed him. I’d remember that because I’m sure he was hot and sweaty, and that probably wouldn’t have been the most pleasant thing to do.

There was so much lousy weather early on that sportswriters called the track the “Atlanta International Rainway.”

Frances Goss, seventy-two, got a soggy introduction to the track where she later worked for thirty-eight years, mostly as ticket manager. We lived about three miles away and decided to go to a race one weekend. Our first child was nine months old, so we got all our baby stuff and packed the pickup truck and went to the infield. It rained and it rained and it rained, and the race was cut short. They had to let us up on the track to get us out of all that mud. It was something, being on that twenty-four-degree bank holding a screaming baby. It wasn’t funny at the time. It took us five and a half hours to go three miles, and I thought: I will never go back to this place.

Rex White, a childhood polio victim who went on to become one of stock car racing’s top stars in the late 1950s and early 1960s, won the NASCAR Grand National Championship the year the track opened. Now eighty and living in metro Atlanta, he recalls how rowdy the infield could be. They had outhouses—not [portable toilets], but a hole in the ground. It was rough, but a lot of racetracks were rough then. There was a lot of booze and drinking. I remember at one of the rainouts, we were getting ready to go home, and one of my men said, “Rex, come over here, you gotta see this.” And these two women were fighting in a mudhole. They’d fought until they had practically nothing on. They were down to their bra and panties. I seen that with my own eyes.

NASCAR was simpler then. Many of the drivers worked on their own cars, which proved crucial in the 1962 Dixie 400.

White We had been to Atlanta and tested tires, so I knew that there was a little bump going into Turn 1, enough to upset the car and hurt your lap time. We worked on a shock to handle it. Back then, we didn’t just work on our cars; I built mine. We took the shock apart and got a Coca-Cola can and cut a little shim to handle the rebound, and that helped us win the race. That and Marvin Panch running out of gas. He was running in front and I was drafting him—I hadn’t even tried to pass him—and then he ran out of gas. It was near the end of the season, and I won $13,700. That made an awful good nest egg to get started racing the next year.

Ups and Downs

The track struggled through the 1960s as Nelson Weaver, a Birmingham businessman, became the main shareholder. The speedway declared bankruptcy in the seventies and emerged with two new principal owners: Walter Nix, an airplane dealer, and L.G. DeWitt, a trucking executive. As stock car racing grew in popularity, the track’s finances stabilized.

Mike Helton, president of NASCAR, worked at the speedway during the eighties. I was the PR director and then the general manager in Atlanta. I lived on the grounds in an apartment and then, after I got married, in a house in the southeast corner of the property. For the first couple of years, the speedway was barely surviving. Then we started finishing in the black, and it became fun to grow the business.

Tom Higgins, who covered racing for the Charlotte Observer, remembers an all-star race held on Mother’s Day in 1986 as one of the sport’s worst-attended events. Most of the drivers were livid that they couldn’t be with their mothers. Darrell Waltrip was very unhappy. The attendance was pitiful. They called it 18,000, but I’ll bet there weren’t more than 5,000 people there.

Helton We had bought several dozen roses to give to mothers, and we had quite a few left over. We learned that you don’t race on Mother’s Day.

The track’s modern era began in 1990 when it was sold to Bruton Smith, whose company, Speedway Motorsports, is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and owns seven other NASCAR tracks. Smith started a rebuilding program that would replace almost every part of the facility except the infield tunnel.

Ed Clark, the speedway’s president and general manager since 1992, oversaw the transformation. My boss loves to build things. He immediately started developing what we called Project 2000: new grandstands and garages, a condo tower, reshaping the track. From 1991 to 2002, the norm around here was to have a race on Sunday, and by nine o’clock Monday morning, we’d be knocking something down and starting to move dirt. For a while there, I thought that was the only reason we had races: so we’d have a deadline to finish a project.

The racing surface itself was rebuilt in 1997, adding two bends to the 1.54-mile oval. It became known as one of the fastest tracks in NASCAR, with qualifying speeds well over 190 miles per hour.

Clark We had it laser-graded every seven feet to make sure there were no bumps or drops. We wanted drivers to feel comfortable racing side by side at high speeds. The engineer brought in blueprints that had a green line, a red line, and a yellow line running around the track, and I said, “What are those?” He said, “Those are your grooves. Drivers should be able to race three wide.” At the very first race, they came off the fourth turn and went three wide across the finish line, and the guy in the middle got bumped and spun out. I had a big grin on my face. We’ve had quite a few photo finishes.

Even so, some drivers were skeptical of the new track.

Clark Drivers are funny; they don’t like you changing things. Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott loved the old track. After we rebuilt it, those guys never missed a chance to complain. Dale would grab me in a headlock and get on me. Bobby Labonte was the same way. I remember driving him around the new track for the first time in a pace car, and he just lit into me. He said there were some places that had more banking where he could make up time, and some of the other drivers didn’t know about them, and we took them out. He won the last race at the old track and the first one at the new track, so I think he adjusted.

The improvement that got the most publicity was Tara Place, a nine-story condominium building overlooking Turn 4 that opened in 1995. The forty-six units sold quickly as companies, fans, and drivers paid from $200,000 to more than $1 million for a chance to nest with NASCAR.

Bill Elliott, fifty-four, is the most famous stock car driver from Georgia (“Awesome Bill from Dawsonville”). Although the speedway named a grandstand for him, he hasn’t bought one of the condos. Personally, I wouldn’t want to live at a racetrack. I’ve lived at one long enough.

Phillip Adcock, fifty-six, feels differently; the Griffin dentist has bought three units over the years. I got a small one on the sixth floor and then a bigger one on the eighth floor and then a penthouse unit. I lived there for a few years. I have to admit that the noise bothered me a little at first. But I learned not to put a bedroom on the track side. I put in extra soundproofing, and now you could take a nap during a race if you wanted to.

My wife and I are raising a family in another home and holding on to the penthouse for retirement. We’ve got thirty-two feet of couches facing the track and a spiral staircase to the roof with a hot tub and a bar. I haven’t missed a race since ’95. I’ll have forty or fifty guests at a time. We’ve had some pretty well-known people. One time we had David Greene and David Pollack [of the University of Georgia football team] and their whole front line. I had more than a ton of Bulldogs on my roof! Governor Perdue was there. The security people called and said they had Miss America downstairs, could I recommend a place for her to go to dinner? I told them to send her up, we were having barbecue. So we had dinner with Miss America.

Glory Days

The speedway hosts about a hundred races a year. The main events are two Sprint Cup races, part of NASCAR’s top circuit. (The next one is scheduled for the night before Labor Day.) Long known as the Atlanta 500 and the Dixie 500, the races have more recently gone by the names of sponsors such as Kobalt Tools, Golden Corral, and Bass Pro Shops.

Richard Petty competed in more Cup races at the speedway than any other driver—sixty-six—but he won only six times. I guess my percentage wasn’t very good. But I liked to run that track. You could really drive there. You could run inside, in the middle, against the wall. There was one race—1978, I think—when they said I had finished just behind Donnie Allison. They didn’t have electronic scoring then, so I went in and argued with them, and they decided I had won. I was getting ready to do the winner’s interview in the press box when they told me they’d changed their minds again, Donnie had won. It got real confusing.

Petty was involved in one of NASCAR’s greatest races in Atlanta. Not only was the Hooters 500 in November 1992 the last ride of his storied career, but it was also the first Cup race for a coming superstar, Jeff Gordon. A crowd of more than 150,000 watched as Bill Elliott won but barely lost the season championship to Alan Kulwicki.

Goss We had sold all our tickets, and Bruton Smith came in and said, “I found you some more seats—two thousand of them.” He had found some of the old bleachers from the backstretch down in maintenance. We were there till midnight counting seats and marking them for tickets. We sold them all.

A third of the way into the race, the crowd gasped as Petty’s No. 43 caught fire.

Petty I run into somebody and was going down the front stretch in flames. I managed to flag down a fire truck, but the guys acted like they wanted my autograph more than they wanted to put out the fire. I thought I was finished. I went up in the truck with my wife and daughters, and we all had a good cry. But my crew went to work on that thing and put in a new radiator, and they got me back out there for the last couple of laps. So I was running when I finished my career. I tell people I wanted to go out in a blaze of glory, but I just went out in a blaze.

A bronze statue of Petty outside the gift shop shows him giving a girl an autograph. The girl is modeled after the daughter of track owner Bruton Smith.

Petty From my standpoint, that’s a great statue. It’s the fans that made NASCAR. Yeah, that’s Richard Petty to me.

Kenneth Melear, seventy-nine, is one of NASCAR’s biggest fans. The proprietor of Melear’s Barbecue in Fayetteville has never missed a Cup series race at the speedway. It’s so different from watching it on TV. It’s the music of the motors, the excitement of watching how the drivers handle themselves when they get tapped and pushed to the wall. You’ve got to pick a driver. I pull for Jeff Gordon—I’ve got a Jeff Gordon cell phone in my pocket right now. I definitely don’t pull for Dale Earnhardt Jr. I didn’t like his daddy, the way he pushed other drivers out of the way. If you and I went to a race and you liked Junior and I liked Gordon, we’d just sit there arguing. It’s fun.

Sonny Perdue, sixty-three, is the governor of Georgia. He has competed in two exhibition races that were part of the track’s Thursday Thunder and Friday Night Drags pro-am series. He won both times, defeating WSB traffic reporter Herb Emory in the first contest. Captain Herb had been running his mouth on the radio about what he was going to do to the governor on the short track. I was driving some old clunker. We did a little bumping and grinding, and we spun out, and he finished second. I was so excited that I considered doing a Carl Edwards backflip, but other than politics, I hadn’t done many backflips lately. So I climbed the fence instead. It was a moment of exultation.

The king of the Atlanta speedway was “The Intimidator” himself, No. 3, Dale Earnhardt, who won more Cup races at the track than anyone to date. His nine victories exceed Cale Yarborough’s seven and Bobby Labonte’s six (the leader among active drivers). Tom Higgins, the Charlotte Observer writer, covered a 1976 race in Atlanta that could have ended Earnhardt’s career as it was beginning.

Higgins That was one of the scariest wrecks I ever saw. Dick Brooks hit the wall and caromed off. Dale hit him at full speed and flipped five times and then slammed into the apron next to Dick. The emergency crews worked for several minutes to get them out. I thought both of them had been killed. I remember one of the other writers said, “Well, that’s the last you’ll see of young Earnhardt.” But when Dale got out of the infirmary, he went to Pit Road and volunteered as a relief driver. He wanted to get back out there.

Earnhardt last won in Atlanta in a close finish at the 2000 Cracker Barrel 500. Less than a year later, he died in a crash at Daytona. The 2001 March race in Atlanta came three weeks later and provided one of the most emotional moments in NASCAR history.

Clark Everyone was mourning. We had a big, black No. 3 painted in a white circle on the grass, and we asked the crowd to hold up three fingers on the third lap as a tribute. Earnhardt’s team had chosen Kevin Harvick [a Sprint Cup rookie] to replace him, and he won the race by a split second over Jeff Gordon. I’ve been doing this since 1977, and I’d never seen a moment like that. People cheered for fifteen minutes. Harvick did a burnout on [the front stretch] and took a victory lap with three fingers held up outside his window. Tears were streaming down everyone’s faces. It was an emotional release for the entire sport.

Tragedies and Disasters

Four drivers and two crew members have been killed during races at the speedway—far fewer than at other tracks such as Daytona, where more than two dozen have died. The first Cup series fatality was Terry Schoonover, a rookie from Ohio, who died during the 1984 Atlanta Journal 500. Five years later, in the same race, Grant Adcox of Tennessee smashed into the outer wall.

Goss Grant was one of my favorite people. His dad was one of our ticket agents. He ran a Chevrolet dealership in Chattanooga. Grant would come in early to practice, and he’d come by the office and talk with us, so we got to know him. He just hit the wall at the wrong angle.

A year later one of Bill Elliott’s crew members, Mike Rich of Blairsville, died when a car spun out of control on Pit Road and struck him as he was changing a tire.

Elliott That was pretty much the worst day of my life. A driver gets to know his crew, and I knew Mike real well. I didn’t realize how seriously he was hurt until the race was over, and then I was devastated.

A wreck of a different sort occurred on the night of July 6, 2005, when a tornado hit the speedway and heavily damaged the new construction.

Clark The development guys had been here that day. We looked at an old tower that had been built in the sixties, and one of us said, “I wish a tornado would come through here and tear that thing down.” Well, be careful what you wish for. When I got here that night, the parking lot behind the grandstand was under a foot and a half of water. I could see a sofa cushion from one of the suite levels float by. That’s when the magnitude of what had happened hit me. Furniture from the condos was all over the parking lot. Vehicles were tossed and rolled over in a pile. One end of our office building was sheared off. About the only thing that wasn’t damaged was the racing surface itself.

We had three and a half months before our next big event, so we had to get to work. We brought in an army of people, something like 300 to 400 workers. They went up to suite level with some Bobcats and pushed everything out, stripped it back to the steel and concrete, and started over. With everyone pushing together, we were finished a couple of weeks before the next race.

We got a much improved facility because of the tornado. It was like we had lived in a new house for a year and thought, “If I had this to do over again, I’d make the laundry room bigger.” We got to do that. We had $40 million in damage, and while everything was torn up, we made about $7 million in improvements.

Adcock The tornado missed my condo, but the one next door looked like God did a karate chop on it. It was the best thing that ever happened to us. Bruton Smith did a $1 million facelift on the building, which was way above and beyond the insurance claims.

Hippies in Henry County

The speedway has hosted more than just races. Six weeks before Woodstock, on July 4 and 5, 1969, more than 100,000 people who didn’t look much like stock car fans journeyed to the track for the Atlanta International Pop Festival.

Alex Cooley, seventy, is a legendary Atlanta music promoter. The Atlanta pop festival was his first big show, with a lineup that included Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Blood, Sweat & Tears. It was the only place big enough for the crowd we wanted, and the only place that would rent to us. Back then people wanted to keep out rock ’n’ roll. The speedway had reservations. It was like: “God knows what these hippies will do; they’ll probably take off their clothes.” Some of them did, but that’s neither here nor there. The biggest complaint we heard was from neighbors who said, “They’re peeing in my yard.”

Clark Alf Knight was the track superintendent back then, and he ruled this place with an iron fist. When the pop festival was coming to town, the owners decided to send Alf and his wife on a vacation so they wouldn’t be here. He was in Florida when somebody called him and told him these kids had broken into his house and were sleeping on the floor. He set a world record driving back here and kicked them out.

Cooley The logistics were terrible. Getting acts in from the airport was tough because the highway was blocked. We didn’t have enough trailers or Porta-Johns. It was really hot, and we started having heat prostration. The fire department came in with a tanker and sprayed down the crowd. But most of my memories have to do with the music. Blood, Sweat & Tears blew everyone away. Joe Cocker came on at 4 a.m. There were probably 5,000 people left, and he just did an incredible set.

The speedway’s largest crowd was for another concert years later, Country Fest, which, according to press accounts at the time, drew more than 250,000 people to hear Hank Williams Jr., Patty Loveless, Alan Jackson, and other stars on the weekend before the 1996 Olympics began in Atlanta.

Brandon Hutchison, vice president of events for Atlanta Motor Speedway. That was a little bit of ambush marketing. Hanes was an official sponsor of the Olympics. Fruit of the Loom [a competitor] sponsored Country Fest as a way to get exposure. You had to buy one of their products to get a ticket to the concert. A lot of people bought Fruit of the Loom underwear that summer.

Clark We’ve had car shows, motorcycle shows, kennel shows, Scout shows, gun shows—pretty much anything with the word “show” on the end.

Hutchison In this down economy, we aren’t renting it out as often as we were. We’ll do about 150 days this year. Three or four years ago, we did 280 to 300. Most of it’s car-related: racing schools, auto manufacturers showing off their new models.

Perdue I’ve taken the Richard Petty and Jeff Gordon driving experiences out there. They give you a printout of your speed, and I got up to 163 miles per hour. It’s something to feel the centrifugal pull and g-forces as you go around those steep banks.

Clark Garth Brooks filmed a music video here [for “Workin’ for a Livin’”]. We’ve had TV commercials. There’ve been a few movies filmed here [including Smokey and the Bandit II with Burt Reynolds and Days of Thunder with Tom Cruise]. The latest one was Zombieland with Woody Harrelson. They didn’t even shoot inside the track; they used our outside shower and restroom facilities as an interstate rest stop.

Spinning Forward

Attendance at the speedway peaked a decade ago and has declined in recent years, as it has at many NASCAR tracks, because of the recession. That led to speculation that Atlanta would lose one of its Sprint Cup dates.

Clark The Labor Day weekend race looks like it’s going to be one of NASCAR’s four or five biggest draws. Our March date is the one people talk about. Our company bought a track in Kentucky and would like to hold a Cup race there. NASCAR told us that one of our options is to move a date from one of our other tracks.

The decision was announced in August: Atlanta will lose the March race as part of a schedule shake-up that will put Kentucky on the calendar. Even so, NASCAR says it remains committed to Atlanta.

Helton NASCAR loves coming to Atlanta. Stock car racing goes way back in that area. It’s our biggest TV market. When you think about it, those races are like miniature Super Bowls.

And when the crowds go home, Rex White, the championship driver who retired to nearby Fayetteville, visits the track in a quieter pursuit.

White My pastor holds a Bible study every Wednesday up in the speedway’s offices. Most of the time we talk about God and preaching, but we’ll talk about racing, too. You know that’s going to come up.

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