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Atlanta Has A Shining Reason To Host Labor Day Race

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, August 24 2009
Many stock-car drivers in the Atlanta area used to have more than one job. (RacinToday photo courtesy of Garry McWhirter)

Many stock-car drivers in the Atlanta area used to have more than one job. (RacinToday photo courtesy of Garry McWhirter)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

A week from Sunday, NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series will return to the South for a Labor Day weekend race. Traditionalists likely will argue that the race should be held at Darlington Raceway, where the Southern 500 was a Southern Labor Day spectacle for decades.

But there are many around Atlanta who will make the case that Atlanta Motor Speedway is as appropriate a place as any for NASCAR to be racing on Labor Day weekend.

For starters, long before Darlington held its first race in 1950, Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway was a popular holiday stop for the nation’s top racers.

“It was a long-time tradition to race in Atlanta on Labor Day,” said Georgia racing historian Mike Bell.

The one-mile dirt oval, the remnants of which still can be seen, hosted Indianapolis-style cars as well as early NASCAR vehicles. In its day it was known as “The Grand Old Lady” and “The Indianapolis of the South.”

One of the races that has become a big part of stock car racing lore occurred at Lakewood on Labor Day, 1941.

Lloyd Seay, one of the greatest stock car drivers in the days before NASCAR, came to his home track riding an impressive win streak. It continued in the annual Labor Day Classic as Seay, driving a Ford owned by Raymond Parks of Atlanta, beat another early stock car star, Bob Flock, to win the 100-miler.

It would be Seay’s last race. After the race he returned to his home in Dawson County and the next day was shot to death by his cousin during a dispute over their moonshine business.

Which brings up another reason to run at AMS on the weekend that honors working folks.

The woods in the areas surrounding AMS once were the workplace for some of the most prolific moonshiners the South has ever known. Today, Seay’s home county (also the home of modern-day star Bill Elliott) celebrates its liquor-making heritage with a well-attended Moonshine Festival every October.

The counties around AMS haven’t been as willing to acknowledge their role in moonshining, but old timers around the area will attest to it.

Joe Betsill of Fayette County just west of the speedway, is known far and wide for his masonry skills. He creates fancy waterfalls and other structures for homeowners and business owners in the area.

He also knows a thing or two about moonshining. He’s more than willing to admit that he’s made some in the past, as did his late father, late uncles and other kinfolk. Betsill said he made his last batch more than 20 years ago.

“My daddy never was ashamed of it,” he said. “It gave us things we couldn’t have had otherwise, like being able to wear new shoes to school.”

Betsill says Fayette County, now an upscale residential community, ran neck and neck with Dawson in the heyday of the moonshine whiskey business.

“At one time there was 1,000 gallons of liquor a week sold of the road I live on,” he said. “Some people were turning out three to four thousand gallons a week.”

Betsill explained that making moonshine is a lot like racing – it can be dangerous and addictive, and there’s a never-ending effort to be innovative. There’s also a parallel between trying to outsmart NASCAR inspectors and trying to do the same to the government’s revenue agents, as well as a mutual respect between the opposing parties.

“My daddy used to say that no matter how old or feeble you get, you can never get it out of your blood,” he said. “There’s the thrill of getting away with it, and the challenge of trying to make the next batch better than the one before.”

The old bootleggers around AMS also were heavy into racing back in the days before the creation of NASCAR. Just a few miles west of the current track, there once was a half-mile dirt oval called Griffin Speedway. In addition to the local hot rodders, others like Red Byron, the first champion of the circuit now known as Sprint Cup, and the Flock brothers, who went on to find fame in NASCAR, raced there.

Among the fast drivers on the Southside was a tall, wiry man of the woods. Unlike his early racing competitors, “Slim” as his friends called him, never achieved fame on the stock car circuit.

But he was a legend to many because of his speed – both in his souped-up cars and on foot.

“There wasn’t a revenuer around that ever caught him,” Betsill said.

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

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, August 24 2009
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