By Brandon Reed
Posted in Columns 9/18/09
Georgia is known as a home for many forms of auto racing. Open wheel racing, for example, long had a foothold in Georgia, with races being held at the famed Peach Bowl, Lakewood Speedway, Central City Speedway in Macon and at the old Atlanta Speedway, including big cars, Indy cars and the ever popular midgets.
And, of course, it goes without saying that Georgia was the early cradle of stock car racing, with events held all over the Peach State, including NASCAR events, ARCA, ASA and more.
Plus, Georgia is the home to what has become one of the biggest endurance road race events in the world.
No, you didn’t misread that. Road Atlanta, located in Braselton, Georgia, is home to the famed Petit Le Mans, a 10-hour, 1,000-mile event that has annually drawn the biggest names and cars in the road racing spectrum.
It really should come as no great surprise. The Peach State has a history of road racing that many times gets overlooked.
From 1908 to 1911, four major road racing events were held in Savannah, Georgia, including the famed Vanderbilt Cup Race in November of 1911.
In the late 1950’s the SCCA held races at the Gainesville, Georgia airport. There was even a match race held between a sports car and a stock 1957 Chevy driven by local hero Bud Lundsford. The sports car won.
On November 17, 1963, NASCAR ran their only race at the Augusta International Raceway, a three mile long, high banked road course. The course was 45 feet wide, and was made up of 21 turns. Fireball Roberts won the final race of his career in the event. In March of the next year, Dave MacDonald won a 52 lap event held by the Unites States Road Racing Championship.
Both Roberts and MacDonald were lost in separate racing accidents just two months later.
Road Atlanta is no Johnny-Come-Lately to the racing scene, either. The 12-turn track was the brainchild of David Sloyer, Earl Walker and Arthur Montgomery, who built the sprawling facility on a 750-acre tract near Braselton.
Road Atlanta’s big break came when a Cam-Am event was canceled at another facility, and organizers decided Road Atlanta would be the ideal spot for a rescheduled event.
That first race took place in September of 1970, and was won by Tony Dean in a Porsche.
Over the next two decades, Road Atlanta would host several different events and series, including IMSA Camel GT, Trans-Am, as well as several SCCA events, including the annual Valvoline Runoffs.
David Shields, of Lula, Georgia, was a thirty-year veteran of the SCCA, racing in various classes, including F-Production, G-Production and Formula 440, which is now Formula 5000. He first ran at Road Atlanta in 1972.
“Road Atlanta was a great track,” he said. “When I first started, I had always heard it was kind of intimidating, and it was. Some turns, you just had to grin and bear it, and hang on for dear life. That was before they put the chicane in before the bridge. Back then, you just came out absolutely flat out down the back straight, and you just kind of went down through what was then the dip. A lot of the Formula and sports racing cars would bottom out. You could stand there just on the far side of the bridge and watch the chassis spark when they bottomed out. You could tell if it was titanium by the white sparks.”
Winners over the years read like a who’s who of road racing aces. Peter Revson, George Follmer, Al Holbert, Elliott Forbes-Robinson, Al Unser, David Hobbs, Geoff Brabham Hurley Haywood and Georgia’s own Doc Bundy all tasted champagne in victory lane. The track was also a favorite of actor and racer Paul Newman, who raced there several times during his amateur racing career.
The stock car set made a few visits to Road Atlanta too, over the years.
Tiny Lund won in a NASCAR Grand American event, which featured Pony Cars such as Camaros, Mustangs and Firebirds, in the Lanier 250 in May of 1973.
NASCAR held the first road race event for what is now the Nationwide Series at Road Atlanta in 1986, with Darrell Waltrip winning. The series would return again in 1987, with Morgan Shepard winning.
For many years, the SCCA ran the Valvoline Runoffs at Road Atlanta. Dave Shields, who moved to a small town near the track in the mid-70s, made the Runoffs five times, and remembers racing at the facility in the fall.
“October in Road Atlanta, with all the woods around you, you had all the colors with the changing of the leaves,” he said. “You got up in the morning, with temperatures in the high 20s or in the 30s. You’d have to go out there all bundled up and get your car cranked and warmed up, because if you had an 8 o’clock practice time on the track, you had to make sure everything was warmed up before you went out there. It was pretty cool.”
After being sold in 1978, the facility would change hands several times, and see several improvements. But the most significant change came in November of 1996, when pharmaceutical entrepreneur Dr. Don Panoz purchased the facility.
Panoz brought major changes to the track, including the removal of the ‘Dip’, and the building of a chicane into the long backstretch. A new paddock and pit road was also built on the infield site of the track, as well as the addition of spectator seating.
Despite the changes, the track remains a keen driver challenge. Shields said the reason is that some of the turns are very technical.
“You really had to know exactly what line to take and at what speed,” he said. “It was tougher than most. Savannah (Roebling Road Raceway) was a tough little track, but once you got the hang of it, you just went as fast as you could and hung on. Road Atlanta required some serious braking, and serious understanding of the track. Road Atlanta is the kind of track that you had to get out and walk. The way it looks from sitting in the car and the way it looks walking it, you see things very differently. You realize, for example, that turn six is banked quite a lot. You don’t see that much from driving it.
“It was a neat track. It was a challenge.”
In October of 1998, the track’s signature event was born.
The Petit Le Mans was held for the first time as part of the IMSA season. The event covers 10 hours or 1,000 miles, and brought together 29 cars for that first event.
One memorable moment came when the pole winning Porsche, with Yannick Dalamas driving, experienced a breath taking back flip as he came across the ‘hump’ on the back stretch, sending the car airborne. The race was won by Wayne Taylor, Eric Van de Poele and Emmanuel Collard in a Ferrari 333SP in the GT1 class, and the event became an instant classic.
The next year, Panoz became one of the founders of the American Le Mans Series, and the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta became one of the signature events for the series and for American Road Racing.
Drivers such as David Brabham, Andy Wallace, Olivier Beretta, Allan McNish, Andy Pilgrim, Boris Said, Ron Fellows, Jan Magnussen, Johnny O’Connell and Helio Canstroneves have all visited victory lane in the event, and each year drivers return to the North Georgia hills for another shot at glory in the Petit Le Mans.
The 12th installment of the event will be held September 26, with some of the finest road racing drivers and cars set to take their shot at the competition and at the clock.
The winning team will write another chapter not only in road racing history, but also in the history of racing in the state of Georgia.
Brandon Reed is the webmaster and editor for Georgia Racing History.com.
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