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Minter: A Tale Of Two Top Georgia Race Tracks

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 1 2011

Darrell Waltrip knew how to win at Road Atlanta. (Photo by RacingOne/Getty Images)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The two race tracks across from each other on Georgia Highway 53  – Road Atlanta and Lanier National Raceway  – have combined to produce some great NASCAR drama and great memories from years ago as well as from hours ago.

Today, Lanier’s grounds are serving as a parking lot for the Petit Le Mans across the highway. It might be the best use of the facility in recent months as the storied short track may well have run its final Saturday night race. Owner/promoters Donnie Clack said he’d done with weekly racing because of declining car counts and attendance.

But there was a time when Lanier was as hot or possibly hotter ticket than the road course across the road. When NASCAR’s series now known as Nationwide ran most of its races at places other than Sprint Cup venues, the circuit visited both Road Atlanta and Lanier.

In 1986 at Road Atlanta, Darrell Waltrip won in a battle of NASCAR giants as Terry Labonte finished second and Dale Earnhardt third. Waltrip won four Busch races that year, among them a triumph over Dale Jarrett at the half-mile oval now known as Gresham Motorsports Park. It’s just up the road from Road Atlanta.

But for many, the most memorable NASCAR race at Road Atlanta occurred the next year when Patty Moise had the lead with five laps to go but wound up losing to Morgan Shepherd. Moise’s sports car racing skills helped her get in position to win, but her sports car racing background also was her undoing. Shepherd had no problem racing on a portion of the track at the entrance to pit road that was off limits in sports car events. Moise wouldn’t do it, and NASCAR officials saw nothing wrong with Shepherd’s shortcut.

After that race, NASCAR moved its Busch Series events across the road to Lanier’s 3/8-mile oval, mostly in an attempt to increase attendance. It worked.

Series veteran Tommy Houston won the first time, then Ronald Cooper from nearby Statham got his only Busch win at his home track in 1989, beating Rob Moroso, Tommy Houston, Robert Powell and Jack Ingram to score one of the most popular wins ever at Lanier.

Chuck Bown led all 200 laps in 1990. In 1991, David Green was the Lanier winner over a youngster in the No. 1 Ford who went on to much greater things in the Cup circuit driving the No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. Jeff Gordon’s second-place finish at Lanier was his first-ever top-five in big-time NASCAR racing.

Bobby Labonte won the last Busch race at Lanier in 1992, a race that was the one and only Busch Series start for a promising young Georgian, Brad Sorenson, who finished 13th but stopped driving shortly afterwards to help shepherd his son’s quarter-midget racing efforts. Reed Sorenson now is one of the championship contenders in the Nationwide Series.

And to think some people believe all the hot NASCAR action in Georgia occurred on the other side of downtown Atlanta.

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

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 1 2011
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