Changing Times

Things sure have changed since my first visit to Atlanta International Raceway in July 1973. Standing along pit road during the race, the heat wave radiated off of the asphalt like an oven. As the drivers sped off from their pit stalls, burning rubber through the puddle of racing fuel, streams would reach your skin with its burning presence. No firesuits for crewmembers, no speed limit on pit road, and the tire changers would jerk their air hoses high into the air to avoid a one-lap penalty for their car running over it. We then began pouring pitchers of iced tea over our heads to cool off.

David Pearson and the Wood Brothers prevailed on this hot afternoon, but Atlanta had to overcome some obstacles before it first opened on July 31, 1960, when Fireball Roberts won his first race in over a year. Originally set to open in 1959, the speedway suffered setbacks in construction and with financial matters. Yet opening the following year made it part of a trio of superspeedways hitting the circuit together and added to the hype.

The Atlanta area has a racing heritage dating back to the early 1900s. Many early NASCAR fans will recall Lakewood Speedway, where Cup Series cars raced in the ‘50s on the dirt, and the modifieds before that.

Atlanta International Raceway is actually located in Hampton, 22 miles south of Atlanta. Dale Earnhardt still holds the record for most wins, with nine, and most top fives, with 26.

In the summer of 1978, Indy cars dueled at the track, playing to only about 15,000 fans, and not considered at all successful by observers. Oddly, 1978 holds another race to forget in the annals of the venue’s history.

It was the first week of November 1978. One of the worst scoring foul-ups in modern NASCAR took place. Richard Petty, ironically, was handed winless number 43 after the race, which he thought sure he had won. Turns out Donnie Allison was the true victor.

NASCAR scoring initially showed Allison the winner, a recheck showed Petty the winner, and another recheck (now considered official at 8 pm) showed Allison the winner. Apparently, a scorer had missed scoring Allison’s car on two separate laps.

So, Atlanta can throw some curves, and not all of them are made of asphalt.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2009

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