By Cody Dinsmore-Guest Contributor
Posted in Columns 8/10/12
In 1875, while the state of Georgia was still in the “reconstruction” phase after Sherman practically burned down the majority of the state just 11 years before, a place called Lakewood was built. Its purpose was to provide water from the man-made lake to most of the Atlanta area. It wasn’t until around 1915 that things got interesting. In 1914, the fairground buildings were built for the Southeastern Fair that took place every fall. In 1916, automobiles started to round the one-mile Lakewood Speedway facility. 15 years after the first American car race in which Henry Ford won, large, Indy-type race cars raced at Lakewood for the first time. Before this, Horse-Racing was popular in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, but was never taken to the next level.
On Armistice Day of 1938, Frank Christian was the promoter for the first organized stock car race at Lakewood Fairgrounds. Stock car racing had taken off in Daytona in 36’, but the popular craze hadn’t made it to Georgia yet. So one day while traveling to his home in Dahlonega, Christian saw a few jalopies spinning around in a pasture near the river bottoms and decided to check out what all was going on. Frank noticed how quite a bit of people came out for free after church to watch their friends and neighbors put on a show….so he figured if he would provide a bigger, and more professional place to drive, and sold tickets, that he would make money.
And so he took a gamble by renting the fairgrounds for a whole day, sold $1 tickets and provided a clean and wholesome atmosphere. His race got the attention of names like Dawsonville’s Lloyd Seay and Roy Hall, motorcycle racer turned stock car racer, Jap Brogdan, Daytona Service Station Owner Bill France, and Atlanta bootlegger, Bob Flock. Mechanic Red Vogt also kept busy as he built three of the cars entered in the competition, was on the inspection board, and got protested against one of his cars but denied it, all before the race even started. The attendance was also better than expected as a couple hundred folks from all over the Atlanta and North Georgia area attended. Lloyd Seay won that race in a 1934 Ford Roadster owned by Raymond Parks.
After the first race was in the books, promoters decided to keep Stock Car racing and welcome any organization willing to run a race there. And until 1942, many forms of auto racing was held there and many championships were settled at the 1-mile dirt track. However, just a few years after stocks were introduced to the red clay, the United States Government put a ban on all forms of racing in order to reduce on gasoline and oil consumption in effort to aid the second World War. The track was shut down for three cold, and sad years and was left to sit.
After Hitler was defeated by the Allied Forces in the early part of 1945, soldiers who longed to be back home to fine-tune their cars and see how fast they could go, finally got their wish. The first race back at Lakewood was on Labor Day of ‘45, Roy Hall picked up right where he’d left off with winning the first race back. Since racing started back after mid-season, there were no sanctioned races in ‘45, just races for local competitors.
So when 1946 rolled around the corner, several organizations got off the ground and many had their races at Lakewood. Until 1951, three major associations ran the mile – the NSCRA , AAA, and the NSCCC. When Bill France decided to start his Nascar group, he wanted to run two races a year at Lakewood, but couldn’t do it until 1951, when Bill and Sam Nunis finally found an agreement. And it stayed that way until 1959 when in 1960, The Atlanta International Raceway was built and Nascar moved it’s races to the other side of Atlanta.
NASCAR was Lakewood’s mainstay as it always attracted both fans and drivers alike. Sure there were still local races held, but NASCAR really put Lakewood on the map. Lakewood was ideal for NASCAR since at the time, it was one of it’s biggest tracks, and it was a central location for the then Southern Sport. Lakewood provided long and wide straight-a-ways which was great for passing.
And while on the subject of things that Lakewood offered…by 1952, they had 7 different types of racing that traveled to the fairgrounds – Stocks, Midgets, Indy, Sprints, Horses, Motorcycle and Boats that raced in the Lake inside of the track. In 1954, motorcycle, Ted Edwards promoted the first known drag race of any kind at the track, which was run down the front stretch. Basically if you were any type of race fan, you had to know about Lakewood in some form or fashion. There have been over 20 recorded series that raced there in the track’s 60-plus year history.
The Pre and Post-War Days were very gracious to the 1-mile clay oval. It saw dozens of championships, races, fights, and celebrations. The Late 50’s – 1979 when the track closed were also good to the track. Let’s pick up in June of 1959. It was one of the last Nascar races to be ran at the old track. Fierce competition was all around all race long. But when the checkered flag was flown…a young Richard Petty was declared the winner. The 21 year old son of a then two time national champion was thrilled he won in his 57’ Oldsmobile in just a about a year, as he got his first start in July of the previous year. But he knew it couldn’t last too long since Squirrel Sr. came walking over to victory lane. He told his son that he had won the race and wanted him to give it up. Lee knew he had won the race since he had lapped Richard. There was also a $500 bonus to any driver who drove a 1959 model automobile to victory lane. Lee was driving a brand new Dodge, and Richard sat there pondering what his dad said in his 1957 model Olds. So Richard figured that the $500 could be a big help to their team and possibly win more races. So, Richard could’ve had over 200 wins…instead of just 200.
After the Atlanta International Raceway was built in 1960 and Nascar moved their touring series across Atlanta to the new 1 ½ mile track….Lakewood kind of slowed down for the first time in a while. Promoters were always willing to try something different like stunt driving shows, and in the mid 60’s, motorcycle racing was added back to the schedule.
But in 1962, there came a big change. A group of promoters, drivers, and businessmen pooled there money in an effort to make Lakewood more safer. This group included Jimmy Summerour, Alf Night, Ernie Moore, Weyman Milam, and Jimmy Mosteller. They even went as far as trying to tone down the bad dust problem that cost so many lives. Red Clay Dust was so bad at the track that many men died from what they called a “dust-crash”, when you ran into another because you couldn’t see where you were going. That happened to many, including George Barringer at the Labor Day Indy race of 1946. Both Barringer, that year’s Indy 500 Champ, and another George, Robson that is, died on the back stretch after one crashed into the other. In 1957, during a MARC event, Wilbur Rakestraw couldn’t see through the dust and trying to avoid the disabled car of Fonty Flock….he wound up in the lake. He was sinking fast; 20, 30, even 50 feet as he was attached to a 3500 pound 57’ Ford. But since he just got out of the Navy a few years before, he was quick at getting out of the car and swim back to the top where Fonty Flock helped him onto the dirt.
The new track owners spent close to $100K in special chemicals in order to try to eliminate the dust problem. Unfortunately for them, it rained the night the chemicals were put down, and it washed it all away.
But the good thing was, the late 60’s always drew a large crowd. With Curtis Turner winning in Bruce Brantley’s car in 1967 and Buck Simmons’ championship race in 1969. Speaking of Buck, in the decade of the 70’s, he was one of the biggest winner’s at the track right up there with Georgia Legend Leon Sells. Dan Lingerfelt also was a crowd favorite. He won the second to last race at Lakewood in 79’ while driving a car for George Elliott.
With Charlie Mincey winning the last race of the 78’ season, promoters noticed how bad attendance was since all kinds of tracks were popping up – Dixie, Rome, Lanier was to open up in a few years, then for the Late models, you had Knoxville, and others….and Lakewood just couldn’t compete. They had a lot of people to come and watch when Smokey and the Bandit was filmed there, but other than that….it was just slow. Two races were run in 79’ with Dan Lingerfelt winning the first, and Buck Simmons’ winning the last auto race held there on Labor Day of that same year.
In 1983, a small horse race was run there…and it was a big deal with all kinds of sponsors, but the deal only lasted one race. The Southeastern fair had shut down and all of its buildings were used for storage by the city of Atlanta. For about 4 years around 2005, they had a flea market in the old buildings, but it too lost interest.
I went with a group of racing historians and fans in 2009 take a good look at the track for what was then the last time. An Amphitheater, or an outdoor concert theatre was built in turns three and four. The old cement grandstands were crumbling, but were firm, and the front and back stretch was paved for easy access to Lakewood Avenue to concert goers with the back stretch built up to the road.. A majority of the Lake was also filled in. However, the fair buildings, which were built around 1914 and 1915, looked like they were built yesterday.
Yes, it was kind of a sad since the city of Atlanta was supposed to tear it down the following week. BUT, several movie companies from Hollywood signed leases with Atlanta to use the facilities for sound stages for up coming movies. In fact, last year, part of Fast and Furious 5 was filmed there. There is 12 movies in progress….and from what sources tell me, there is planned to be over 30 next year.
Cody Dinsmore is a racing historian, racing emcee and long time volunteer at the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame. He can also be heard weekly on Racers Reunion Radio.
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