Atlanta Will Survive Loss Of Date

Brandon Reed

Brandon Reed

By Brandon Reed
Posted in Columns 9/3/10

When the NASCAR Sprint Cup tour rolls into Atlanta this weekend, it will be mark the last time the tour will visit the 50 year old facility twice in one season for the foreseeable future.

It’s an odd situation to see Atlanta lose its spring race date.  Since it’s first event in 1960, the speedway has hosted to Cup events yearly.

But the spring race has always been a tough sell.  And, with the opportunity to go to new venues, the decision was made to limit AMS to only one event, the successful Labor Day race, for 2011.

The track has a history of ups and downs.

The speedway was conceived by a group of real-estate developers in the Atlanta area in 1959.  Costing around $1.8 million to build, the track, then known as Atlanta International Raceway, played host to its first race on July 31, 1960.

The track was a classic oval layout, 1.5 miles in length, with great sweeping turns and smooth straightaway transitions that meant fast speeds.

The track opened as the third true paved speedway on the NASCAR circuit, along with Daytona International Speedway and Darlington Speedway.  Charlotte Motor Speedway would be the fourth track, and it would open later that same year.

A crowd of around 25,000 came out to take in the first event at Atlanta, which was won by legendary wheelman Fireball Roberts.

The track was far from ready to go racing, however.  The asphalt had only just had enough time to cure.  Some of the stands weren’t completed, with the retaining wall blocking the view for some fans in the lower portions.

Rainstorms had turned the surrounding area into a mud pit, and early on, Atlanta gained notoriety as one of the worst tracks to get out of following an event.

Financially, the situation wasn’t rosy either.  The track struggled from the beginning, fighting to stay out of the red.  At one point, the speedway even went into bankruptcy.

Weather was not friendly to the 1.5-mile speedway to boot.  Several races early on were delayed by rain, not by days but by weeks.  It would be several years before Atlanta would settle into friendlier race times during the year.

One thing that caused the speedway problems was its location.  Placed south of Atlanta, developers thought that, with all the growth that was occurring north of the city, the southern side would do the same, putting Atlanta International Speedway in what they thought would be a prime spot.

They were dead wrong.  The growth continues to the north today.  Had the speedway been built the same distance north of town, off of Interstate 85, odds are it would have been one of the most successful venues on the circuit.

That’s not to say the track didn’t see some success, and some great moments.  Nebraska racer Bob Burdick won his first and only NASCAR event at the track in 1961.  Rex White picked up the first win for Chevy at AIR in 1962.  Indycar racer Jim Hurtubise won in a “questionable” Plymouth in 1966.

A.J. Foyt recorded one of his seven NASCAR wins at Atlanta in 1971.  Richard Petty became the first NASCAR driver to win a career total $1 million in a 1974 event there.

Legendary drivers such as LeeRoy Yarbrough, Ned Jarrett, Fred Lorenzen, Buddy Baker, David Pearson and Bobby Allison would park in Atlanta’s victory lane.

A big break occurred for AIR when the fall date for the speedway was moved to November, putting it near the end of the season.  Fans who wanted to see how the NASCAR points chase would shake out would flock to the track.

In 1987, the season finale was held at Atlanta for the first time.  Fans packed the stands to watch Dale Earnhardt win his second consecutive and third overall Winston Cup.

Atlanta appeared to have found its place.

The next big step in the right direction for the facility came in October of 1990, when Bruton Smith, chairman of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., purchased the Atlanta International Raceway.  He promptly changed the name to Atlanta Motor Speedway, bringing it, name wise, in line with his other tracks.

From there, AMS began to grow exponentially.  Additional grandstands were added in the east turn.  Suites were added all around the top of the towers around the track.  Driver and fan amenities were added.

Race wise, fans were still being treated to terrific racing.  Local fans got to see their hometown hero, Bill Elliott, crowned the Winston Cup champ in 1988.  Rusty Wallace would earn his lone championship trophy there in 1989.  Meanwhile drivers such as Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Morgan Shepherd and Ken Schrader visited victory lane.

But it was the 1992 Hooters 500, the season finale for the Cup series that year that may be the track’s all-time greatest moment.

It’s known for being arguably the most exciting race in NASCAR history.  It was the last race for Richard Petty, as he hung his helmet up after a stellar career.  Meanwhile, five drivers entered the race with a mathematical chance to win the title.

Fans watched as Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki fought though the closing laps, both looking for a title and a win.

In the end, Kulwicki led one more lap than Elliott, and took the Winston Cup by a scant 10 points over Elliott.

Davey Allison, who had entered as another title contender, was eliminated in a mid-race crash, as was Petty.

A near-capacity crowd took in all the action and drama.  It went down as one of the greatest sporting events ever held in the state of Georgia.

The track underwent more changes a few years later when, in 1997, the track was transformed from a true oval to a quad-oval track, similar to the layout at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The track saw a huge jump in speeds, making it one of the most popular tracks to attend on the circuit.

Over the last few years, it’s provided great racing and memorable moments, including several races decided by just inches at the start-finish line.

But the track lost its place as the home of the season finale in 2001 to Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.  While attendance seemed to hold steady for both events, whispers began about moving one race date to another up and coming venue.

Next year, it will happen.  The track’s spring date will go away.

But, under the helm of general manager Ed Clark, the speedway will survive, and should continue to thrive.  Clark and his staff are keen at finding new events and keeping the speedway in the public eye.  That will continue, as will racing at Atlanta.

Racing continues to grow.  Unfortunately, as it grows, it threatens to grow away from its traditional homes.  Atlanta is one of the fortunate ones to not be completely walked away from.

Hopefully, one day, the powers that be will remember where they got their start.  Until then, tracks like Atlanta and Darlington will have to think outside the norm and do what they can to keep the home fires burning.

Brandon Reed is the editor and webmaster of Georgia Racing History.com.


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