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Minter: Golden Memories Of Racing In Atlanta

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 5 2010

Dale Earnhardt still holds the record for most victories at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He won nine races there, including the 1980 Atlanta 500 when he was driving for Rod Osterlund. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer

Hampton, Ga. – With Atlanta Motor Speedway celebrating its Golden Anniversary it’s natural to look back on your own personal experiences over the years, especially if you live within earshot of the track.

Standing in the garage Saturday afternoon, looking across the way at the backstretch, which once was the frontstretch, brought to mind other afternoons spent on the ridge behind the first-turn side of pit road.

From that grassy bank, one could see every part of the race track.

From there I once saw Donnie Allison speed ahead of Richard Petty and Dave Marcis to get his 10th and final Cup victory. I saw the Wood Brothers reel off pit stops that made other teams look incompetent in comparison, and I saw their current driver, Bill Elliott, lose a last-lap battle with Coo Coo Marlin for a top-10 finishing position back in 1977, then go on to win five times on his home track.

Looking out the window of the media center, toward what’s now Turn One, the old block building that served as a maintenance headquarters came to mind. It’s long gone, as are most of the track’s original buildings.

Looking the other direction, toward Turns Three and Four, I thought about the line of pine trees that once grew just outside the old guardrail. I remember thinking that the lines of weary fans trudging along the path underneath those trees after a long day of racing looked for all the world like soldiers returning from battle.

I thought about the old press box where as a kid I tagged along to races with my sportswriting father.

One memorable day, track superintendent Alf Knight was escorting a rather unassuming fellow around the press box, introducing him to the writers there that day.

I remember asking my dad just who the man was. His answer: “Some friend of Alf’s that thinks he can get himself elected governor.”

Maybe my dad underestimated Alf Knight’s influence. The man’s name was Jimmy Carter, and he didn’t stop at the governor’s office.

I also recalled being sent to the corner of the room after a race, with instructions to take one of the three chairs there and to not bother my dad until he had finished his story. In walked Richard Petty, the race winner that day. A track official started to shoo me out of my chair, but the King insisted I stay. I remember that he was as friendly as he could be to me, and he that smelled awfully rank after running 500 miles on a hot afternoon in the days before driver-cooling devices were ever envisioned.

I thought about the afternoons I once spent helping spray the lane markers on the track after it had been coated with sealer. If you’ll watch some of the old films of 1970s races you’ll notice that the double-yellow line leading off pit road is as crooked as a snake. We had to do that free-hand, since the sealer was so thick at that point that the old lane markers weren’t there for us to follow.

Looking at Turn Three, I remembered the good old days of the 1980s, when I watched races from a makeshift viewing stand constructed on the back of a pick-up truck parked next to the track, ate hamburgers cooked over a small charcoal fire, enjoyed the company of life-long friends and watched in amazement as Dale Earnhardt sawed on the steering wheel every time he drove through Turn One.

I thought about how the land where the race track now sits might have looked before 1960s. I’m told it was farmland, much like the farms and fields west of the track, property that has changed remarkably little in the years I’ve been coming to races at AMS.

I thought about the people like Alf and Madaline Knight and Ernie Moore, who dedicated a big portion of their lives to seeing the speedway through its rough early years, often without pay.

And I thought about how much the current track boss, Ed Clark, has carried on the work of the Knights and Moore.

That makes it especially hard to stomach the fact that this year marks the end of multiple Cup races each year at AMS.

Golden Anniversaries aren’t supposed to be so bittersweet.

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 5 2010
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