I’m stepping way out of my comfort zone for this one. I grew up more than 500 miles from Atlanta, and I live nearly 700 miles away today. Of the 115-plus race tracks I’ve attended in 60 years as a fan, not one was in Georgia. In my entire life, I think I’ve spent about two weeks in that state.
Nevertheless, I’m going to talk about the Peach State today, because I don’t think it gets the respect it deserves from current fans for its role in stock car racing and NASCAR history. Under those circumstances, any history lesson from me has to be read with skepticism, but if you’re game, here goes.
The NASCAR world is heading to Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend for the second of two 2023 visits, and the 118th Cup event held at that often-altered track since it opened in 1960. (If I was running the show at Atlanta, I wouldn’t want an early July race date, even if the starting time was Sunday evening; it’ll likely be either oppressively hot or thunder-stormy.)
Atlanta has never been one of NASCAR’s great success stories, and for some years it was reduced to one race date as a result. It’s also gotten some crappy dates, with the weather too cold or too hot. It’s hung in there, in part because NASCAR covets major media markets (hello, Chicago), and Georgia is the eighth most populous state.
And the farther you go back, the more important it was in this sport’s history.
When Bill France kicked off his Strictly Stock (later Grand National, then Cup) division in 1949, he had no Georgia tracks on the schedule, arguably because Atlanta’s mile-long dirt Lakewood Speedway (with a lake in the infield), the South’s most prominent track at that time, was controlled by other promoters. The first championship team, however, was very much a Georgia enterprise.
Raymond Parks had a nice Atlanta business supplying vending machines and the like to the area, but he also had a large side enterprise based on illegal moonshine, and that put him in the middle of fast cars and fast drivers. Before NASCAR and at NASCAR’s birth, Parks operated one of the first true super teams. With near-Georgian Red Byron behind the wheel, a Parks car won NASCAR’s first-ever race in 1948 and its first Strictly Stock championship the next year.
It took France until 1951 to bring Lakewood on board, but its mid-November race, won by Tim Flock, took place months after two other NASCAR Grand National events on Georgia soil, 200-lappers at the long-closed Columbus Speedway in Midland and Central City Speedway in Macon. Tim Flock and Herb Thomas won those races, which had most of the early stars running: all three Flocks, Lee Petty, Cotton Owens, Jim Paschal, Gober Sosebee, Augie Walakas (oops, how’d he get here?). Columbus also drew Fireball Roberts, Buck Baker, Marshall Teague, and even Red Byron (no longer running for Raymond Parks).
Columbus Speedway closed the next year and never ran another GN race, but Central City, which opened in 1947 and ran a AAA “Big Car” race that year – won by Ted Horn – went on to host the GN tour six more times before it closed in 1956.
For the next couple of years, Lakewood and Central City each hosted a pair of GN races, but then Lakewood dropped to one event in 1954, and by ’55 both were off the schedule. However, there were other Georgia tracks in play by then. 1952 saw the only appearance of a track with one of my favorite names: Hayloft Speedway. Somehow, I can’t imagine a place called Hayloft Speedway looking much like Indianapolis, but Gober Sosebee must have liked the place, because he won that race over 13 other cars.
In ’54 the Georgia contingent was joined by Oglethorpe Speedway in Savannah, a track that only ran GN races for two years but remained open until last season.
Lakewood remained on the schedule off-and-on until 1959, after which its dates went to what we now know as Atlanta Motor Speedway, but the big dirt track remained in existence for another 20 years and ran other NASCAR divisions as well as other sanctioning bodies.
If there was a heyday for NASCAR in Georgia, it was in the ‘60s, when several short tracks made regular appearances on the schedule. Augusta Speedway had a dozen races during that decade, and Savanna (different track than Oglethorpe) had 10 (including one in 1970). Middle Georgia in Macon had 9 (again through ’70). Using totals from multiple tracks, Macon had the most races overall, with Middle Georgia and Central City combining for 16 during NASCAR’s first 20+ years. Augusta had 14 (the Augusta International Road course and Hayloft had one each).
AMS, on the other hand, has run more Cup races than all the other Georgia tracks combined. That’s easily explained by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.
Whereas Bill France would schedule a Grand National/Cup race just about anywhere with any kind of track that would pay for the privilege, Winston Cup eliminated the little 200-lappers with minimal purses, and Augusta, Savannah, Macon, and the other smaller Georgia tracks disappeared. Since 1972 – fully two-thirds of NASCAR’s 75 years – Atlanta has been the only Georgia track on the Cup schedule.
You have to wonder how close Macon – officially Middle Georgia Raceway – came to making it into the “modern era.” After all, for the last five years of the “pre-modern era,” the track ran a 500-lap race in November, yet Bristol, Martinsville, North Wilkesboro, Richmond, and Nashville – all with 400-to-500-lap races in ’71 – continued on the new Winston Cup schedule, while Macon and Ona, W.Va., didn’t.
The West Virginia track paid the smallest 1971 purse by a considerable amount, but Macon paid only $110 less than Nashville, according to Racing Reference’s actual payout numbers.
Here’s my guess: All the tracks that continued onto the 1972 schedule had to pay a considerably higher purse that year, typically about $10,000 (nearly a 50% increase for those who were paying out the least); Macon might have just decided it couldn’t afford that.
Whatever the case, starting in 1972, Winston Cup in Georgia meant Atlanta, and in today’s NASCAR Cup world, it’s still that way.
Like I said earlier, that’s too bad, given Georgia’s early prominence. The Flock brothers, all from Atlanta, were among the biggest attractions in early NASCAR, and garage owner Gober Sosebee wasn’t far behind. Sara Christian, one of the first prominent women driving stock cars, was from Atlanta. Red Byron lived in Anniston, Ala., less than 50 miles from the Georgia line and less than 100 miles from Atlanta.
Going back to pre-NASCAR days, Georgia gave racing Lloyd Seay. A moonshiner with incredible racing ability, Seay might have become southern stock car racing’s first superstar had he not been killed in a moonshine-related shooting.
Today Georgia’s primary contribution is the Elliott family – and that’s a lot – but let’s not forget that their home of Dawsonville is renowned for its moonshine past and even holds a festival, I think.
I suspect the fact that Georgia’s racing history is a bit rough-and-tumble and maybe doesn’t fit neatly into NASCAR’s official history narrative threatens to push a lot of this into the forgotten past, but I hope that doesn’t happen, because we need to remember the Lloyd Seays, Flock Brothers, Gober Sosebees, and other Georgia pioneers who helped make this the sport we love (and, yeah, the one we miss). Most of them would never have gotten a big corporate sponsorship and wouldn’t know how to do a podcast if you asked, but we owe them a lot.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
You can find plenty more about Georgia’s rich racing history online; just Google “Georgia racing history” or “Georgia racing hall of fame” and check out some of the websites. Also, there are Lakewood Speedway film clips on YouTube which are well worth looking for and at.
Speaking of YouTube, if you think the Fourth of July means watching racing ON the Fourth of July (and not the weekend before), or if you associate the holiday with some place other than Chicago, pick out a couple of old races from the ’50s or ’60 from YouTube, grab a beer and some junk food, and party on.
Photo Credit (cover); Getty Images