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Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Atlanta track was built in wrong place


Atlanta Motor Speedway
Atlanta Motor Speedway has plenty of competition for NASCAR fans' dollars.

My family calls Atlanta home, and although none of us live there now, we hope to move back as soon as possible. We love all 90 miles of it north to south, all 150 miles of it east to west -- reckoned once by "Time" magazine to be the largest settlement, by land mass, in the history and even the archaeology of Homo Sapiens.

I was on the far north side on personal business, in the South's most civilized mountains, when the news broke -- rather, blipped faintly on Atlanta's radar screen and then disappeared -- that Atlanta Motor Speedway is losing one of its Cup races.

In what is now the nation's seventh-largest television market (currently estimated at 5.6 million people), the big three newscasts each gave the report 30 seconds or less. The anchors tried to sound somber, but there was a tacit undertone of good riddance.

That was all the report was worth, what with the Braves hosting San Francisco, the Falcons in camp and the populace's four favorite college football teams -- Georgia, Auburn, Georgia Tech and Florida -- all nationally ranked in the early polls.

By contrast, they're holding a b-i-i-i-g deal media conference Tuesday in the 32nd largest TV market, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky, to announce that the Cup race removed from Atlanta will land at Kentucky Motor Speedway next year.

There'll be at most a blip on Atlanta TV screens.

You may wonder how and why the South's largest city, by far, and the very birthplace of stock car racing as we know it, could lose a Cup race and not even care.

For openers, Atlanta in fact is losing only one of four annual Cup races, the other two being at Talladega, Ala., 90 minutes away on I-20 and long preferred by north- and west-side race fans due to the easier drive home than from way down in Hampton, Ga., through all that traffic.

The rest of it all came back to me the other day, having lunch in the storied Dawsonville Pool Room, epicenter of Georgia's -- indeed, all -- stock car racing history and the moonshiners who begat it.

The walls are covered with photographs and paintings of the NASCAR cornerstone Raymond Parks, the driving Flock brothers (Bob, Fonty and Tim), Roy Hall, Lloyd Seay, Gober Sosebee, Bill Elliott, and the downtown Atlanta mechanic who birthed the speed in moonshine cars and then NASCAR, Red Vogt.

Dawsonville lies on the northern end of this vastest of all human settlements. Ninety miles to the south, on the opposite end, lies Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Between the pool room and the racetrack, between the cradle and the modern venue, dwell those 5.6 million people, commuting 100 million miles a day -- a day, mind you -- in their cars.

The racetrack's environs have long been more a part of sleepy, less-prosperous rural Georgia than of booming Atlanta. And the far south end has only recently begun to prosper -- and only because the north end is full, all the way to the mountains.

The original track owners went south solely for the cheap land in 1960, when they didn't think Atlanta, or NASCAR, would ever get big enough for location to matter much.

They should have built it up north, nearer the mountains that spawned the 'shine runners who spawned the sport, nearer the passion, nearer the history, and then Atlanta's racetrack for these 50 years would have been the very heart of NASCAR.

It's a geographical mistake that not even the iron-willed track tycoon Bruton Smith could overcome, in nearly 20 years of trying. He thought it was a can't-miss project, considering such a population.

When Smith was acquiring AMS, and I still lived in the ATL, I suggested to his lieutenants that their money would be better spent buying the old track, closing it down, and taking the two Cup dates to a new track somewhere to the northeast, out past Road Atlanta and Atlanta Dragway.

The access not only from metro Atlanta, but from the Carolinas, would have been much better.

But Smith barreled ahead with his spectacular improvements and reconfiguration of the track … and still it was a struggle to draw.

It still is. And it always will be.

The Saturday after the news broke, there was a big reunion of old-timers to reminisce about Atlanta's most beloved old racetrack -- Lakewood Speedway, the 1-mile dirt track long ago razed from inside the city itself, where in the 1930s the moonshiners came down from the mountains to organize a sport called "stock car racing."