Atlanta Motor Speedway news 2009-02-02

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Looking Back at History: Atlanta Motor Speedway and the Beginning of 100 NASCAR Sprint Cup Races; The following is the first part in a weekly series highlighting Atlanta Motor Speedway's storied history as the track prepares for its 100th NASCAR...

Looking Back at History: Atlanta Motor Speedway and the Beginning of 100 NASCAR Sprint Cup Races; The following is the first part in a weekly series highlighting Atlanta Motor Speedway's storied history as the track prepares for its 100th NASCAR Sprint Cup.

HAMPTON, Ga. (February 2, 2009) -- If one really wants to know how far Atlanta Motor Speedway has come during the 99 races leading up to No. 100 -- the Kobalt Tools 500 on March 8 -- they need look no further than the photographs from race No. 1 -- the Dixie 300 on July 31, 1960.

Those old black-and-white photos show 1960s Fords, Chevys, Plymouths, Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs streaking by on the shiny, smooth asphalt. But a closer look at the scenes tells the true story. Photos taken from atop the grandstands show the area between the seats and the catch fence littered with construction debris -- empty buckets, sections of pipe, dirt piles and concrete chunks. Pictures from the infield look more like a construction site, with mounds of dirt adjacent to the track, then known as Atlanta International Raceway.

But those old pictures also illustrate the determination and can-do spirit of the track's founders, who had been languishing in debt and desperately needed the income from a race to finish building the facility.

According to those around at that time, the running of that first race -- and the very existence of the track today -- is due in large part to former track superintendent Alf Knight, his sidekick Ernie Moore, and a group of their friends.

It seems many of the contractors building the track had stopped work because they hadn't been paid. In stepped Knight and his work crew. They called themselves the Chinese Bandits, a name taken from the second-string defensive unit of the Louisiana State University Tigers of that era. The football Bandits, who played under Coach Paul Dietzel, became a part of LSU lore because they made up with determined play what they lacked in God-given talent.

The same is often said of Knight's Bandits -- and a lot of others involved with the new raceway -- who worked right up until race time to get the track in presentable condition.

"We went right down to the wire trying to get it ready," said Jack Black, one of the original shareholders who later became track president.

The opening race was a dream come true for Black and his fellow investors, who got the idea to build a track after attending a race at Darlington Raceway, NASCAR's original superspeedway.

"A group of us went to Darlington, and it was so festive, and there were so many people there and so much excitement," Black said. "It just set us on fire."

Black and the others had hoped to open the track with a 400- or 500-mile race, but NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr., having concerns about how the asphalt surface would hold up, insisted on a shorter race.

"We even discussed a 250-miler," Black said.

The fears were unfounded. The track itself held up just fine.

"It was a glorious, fun-filled day," Black said. "It was a great race, and there were lots of cars still running at the end."

Black said somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 people witnessed the first race. Attendance was difficult to track, he said, because all the fencing wasn't up and many fans simply walked in for free.

The top drivers of the day, and a good many Georgians, were in the starting field.

Bobby Johns, a Miami native who later that year won the inaugural Atlanta 500, said a car preparation mistake on his part cost him a shot at the win in the opening race. In changing the rear end in his car, he wound up with one size lug nuts on the front wheels and another on the rear.

"We ended up having to change tires with a manual lug wrench and lost a lap in the pits," Johns said. Still he wound up fourth.

Rex White, the series champion that year, blew a tire and finished 23rd.

Gerald Duke of College Park was knocked out by a faulty distributor in his '59 Thunderbird. "I loved that track, but I never had any luck there," he said.

Wilbur Rakestraw of Dallas, Ga., finished 11th, but felt he could have done much better had he not been so lacking in funds. "I never had the equipment those other guys had," he said.

Perhaps no one had a worse day than flagman Ernie Moore, who suddenly collapsed in the flagstand during the race, an event that left the talkative track announcer Jimmy Mosteller almost speechless. Mosteller was calling the race from an announcer's booth that he describes as a box just big enough for him and an amplifier when Moore slumped over.

"I didn't know whether Ernie'd had a bad time the night before or what," Mosteller said. "But it turns out that a piece of metal off of one of the cars had hit him in the throat."

Moore was treated at a local hospital and recovered. His assistant Roby Combs flagged the remainder of the race.

Cotton Owens and Jack Smith, who were credited with second and third place respectively, challenged the scoring, but lost their appeal.

In the end, the legendary Fireball Roberts, driving a Pontiac prepared by the crafty mechanic, Smokey Yunick, took the checkered flag.

Black said the outcome couldn't have been any better had it been scripted, because Roberts was NASCAR's top drawing card at that time.

"It was the best thing that could have happened," he said.

But Mosteller, the announcer, and others say the real winners that day were the residents of the Atlanta area and motorsports fans everywhere.

"The opening of that track had the same effect then as building a stadium in downtown Atlanta today," said Mosteller, who still calls an occasional dirt track race at an Atlanta-area track. "It brought people to this area who wouldn't have come otherwise, and they spent their money in hotels and restaurants and gas stations."

Races at the Atlanta track, as well as others at the then-new tracks in Daytona and Charlotte, also brought national media attention and the first TV coverage to the then-fledgling sport of stock car racing.

But in that era, it was Atlanta, not Charlotte or Daytona, that was the hub of NASCAR racing.

"In those days, Atlanta was the place to be if you were in stock car racing," Johns recalled, explaining that the moonshine runners around Atlanta had played a huge role in the formation of the sport and dominated it for years. "I was a graduate of the University of Miami and I never hauled a drop of moonshine, but when I was racing, Atlanta was my second home.

"The people there loved their racing."

And Atlanta International Raceway, now Atlanta Motor Speedway, was just what they were looking for nearly 50 years ago. That tradition continues with the Kobalt Tools 500 on March 8.

-credit: ams

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