The Real Dirt on Atlanta’s Racing Past
Hint: It’s under the tires
(By now everyone’s sufficiently befuddled by NASCAR’s new points system that proposing other changes might cause your heads to explode, so I’ll take a week off from my series on possible fixes for NASCAR’s ills and instead look deep into the past of racing in this week’s Monster/Xfinity/Camping World destination, Atlanta.)
Sunday’s “Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500” will be the 110th Grand National/Cup (Winston/Nextel/Sprint)/Monster race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The first race was in 1960, which is before an awful lot of today’s fans were born, or at least old enough to remember. Nevertheless, AMS is hardly the beginning of racing in what was for years the population hub of the South.
(A couple of notes about the current track: First, it originally was Atlanta International Raceway, only acquiring its current name when it became part of the Speedway Motorsports’ empire. Second, the race was just called the Atlanta 500 once upon a time, but that was back when we had newspapers, and they wouldn’t allow race titles that ate too much space on the page.)
Back before World War I, Atlanta briefly had a 2-mile dirt track, built by the inventor of Coca-Cola, but it wound up as the site of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Int’l Airport.
Lots of short tracks also have come and gone – the Peach Bowl was perhaps the most famous and successful – but for big-time NASCAR (and other) racing, the base of Atlanta’s history was Lakewood Speedway.
Lakewood from the air.
A one-mile fairgrounds dirt track originally built in 1917 for horses, Lakewood quickly became a destination for motorsports of all kinds, even boats racing on the lake. Pre-World War II statistics are difficult to find, but we know that Indy-type cars were an attraction from the beginning (the track was sometimes called “the Indianapolis of the South”), and that the first stock car race took place in 1938.
After WWII, we know that NASCAR ran a modified race at Lakewood in 1948 and began running Grand Nationals in 1951, but this track also remained AAA/USAC territory, with a lot of ARCA stock car races as well. ARCA and USAC continued to run at Lakewood after NASCAR abandoned it for shiny new AIR/AMS, save for two Grand Touring/Grand American events in 1969 and ’70.
Indy Cars continued to visit Lakewood into the 1950s; there were six post-WWII AAA/USAC Indy Car races, including the tragic 1946 event when drivers George Robson (winner of that year’s Indy 500) and George Barringer were killed at the end of the race.
Additionally, Lakewood hosted one race for NASCAR’s ill-fated Speedway Division, which featured Indy-type cars with stock car engines.
This is said to be from the 1952 NASCAR Speedway Division race.
Eleven GN races took place at Lakewood between 1951 and 1959, and the winners list covers most of the sport’s greatest names: Tim Flock, Herb Thomas, Buck Baker, Curtis Turner, Junior Johnson, Lee Petty.
Lee Petty’s name almost didn’t get there. He won the track’s final GN race, when son Richard was flagged the winner, only to have Dad file a protest, correctly complaining that a scoring error had robbed him of the win.
(Thanks to TMC Chase for the clip below.)
Rounding out the memorable names list, Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts won the two Convertible Division races at Lakewood.
Lakewood continued to stumble along for nearly two decades after Grand Nationals and Indy Cars departed, but the happenings were less memorable, unless you include the scenes from “Smokey and the Bandit” that were filmed there. But even though the place closed in 1979, pieces of it remain, although it would be hard to rebuild.
While you’re watching or listening to the Atlanta race this weekend, allow yourself a little time for fantasy and think about tearing up Bruton’s asphalt, shrinking the track a little, and bringing back Lakewood (with or without the lake) at AMS. More than one person has commented on the possibility of adding dirt tracks back into the Monster/NASCAR series mix, and maybe this would be the place to do just that.
Just put this sign out…
… and you might get this again.
One final note: Those NASCAR GT/GA races in ’69 & ’70 – which you might call Lakewood’s “last hurrah,” were won by Atlanta’s own T.C. Hunt and the great Tiny Lund. Siler City, N.C., racer Wayne Andrews, whose son Dennis is a great contributor to several racing websites, finished third in both Lakewood events, six and nine positions ahead of a guy who’ll be more in the spotlight this weekend… Richard Childress.