Checkered History: Atlanta Motor Speedway

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