Minter: AMS Owes Debt Of Thanks To Alf Knight
By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
Hampton, Ga. – Ed Clark is the resident Big Man at Atlanta Motor Speedway, both literally and figuratively.
But to old-timers around the Hampton speed plant, the original Big Man at the Atlanta track was Alf Knight.
Knight was a tough, no-nonsense man who gave more to the Atlanta track than he ever took. It’s been written often than without Alf Knight there would be no Atlanta track.
In fact, there might not even be a NASCAR as we know it today without him.
He was a familiar figure in NASCAR even before the Atlanta track was envisioned. He promoted NASCAR races at tracks across the South in the earliest days of the sanctioning body. In 1959, when a group of businessmen decided to build Atlanta International Raceway he was hired to be the track superintendent.
Knight and wife Madaline lived in a brick home just off the present Turn 3 of the track, and although he had a dual career as a railroad engineer, his passion was the race track.
The harder the times got for the race track, the more Alf worked.
One of his biggest challenges over the years was just getting the track ready for the opening race, back in 1960. Looking at old black-and-white photos from that first race, 1960s Fords, Chevrolets, Plymouths, Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs are streaking by on the shiny, smooth asphalt. But a closer look at the scenes tells the true story and illustrate Knight’s challenge.
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.
But those old pictures also illustrate the determination and can-do spirit of Knight and the track’s founders, who had been languishing in debt and desperately needed the income from a race to finish building the facility.
Local folks like to tell the story of how that first race came about. 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 LSU 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.
More than a decade later, Knight and his crew had a similar challenge when a tornado struck the track, wrecking the grandstands just days before a Cup race that the track desperately needed to run to keep afloat.
Over the years, Knight had friends from all walks of life. He could get down and dirty with plumbers and ditch diggers, and he also knew the rich and famous.
In one of my first trips to the Atlanta track, I tagged along with my dad, then covering the race for the Atlanta newspaper. Alf Knight, who treated us local kids like nephews or grandchildren, brought a young man around the press box, introducing him to his writer friends.
After my dad shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with the fellow, I asked my dad who he was.
My dad barely looked away from the action on the track, but answered: “Some friend of Alf’s that thinks he can get himself elected governor.”
It wasn’t wise to underestimate what Alf and his friends could accomplish.
Alf’s friend did indeed get himself elected governor, and when Gov. Jimmy Carter later won the Presidency, he invited Knight and his NASCAR friends to dinner at the White House.
In his later years, Knight was slowed by a stroke. But he still tended to his beloved race track. Friends had to be much more careful when they showed up for visits because Knight’s German Shepherd “Bullet” became overly protective of his master. Looking back on it, Bullet wasn’t a bit more protective of his master than the master was of his race track.
Today, decades after his death, few in the garage have ever heard of Alf Knight.
Veteran crew chief Dale Inman is one of the few who go back that far.
Asked to identify a driver in an old Victory Lane photo, Inman said the driver was Dick Rathmann. Then he pointed out Knight, the promoter of that long-ago dirt race and said: “He was a good man.”
The track Knight built and nurtured barely resembles the place he knew. His once-fine brick home has been razed in the name of progress.
But he would be immensely proud of the track, and of the Big Man who runs it now.
– Rick Minter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgOne Comment