Wednesday, August 29, 2012

My Home Track: Atlanta International Raceway

(Now known as Atlanta Motor Speedway)

It was the first big track that I ever went to.  Back then the Walt Nix and L. G. DeWitt family owned Atlanta International Raceway and it was the best damn oval in racing.  Quote me. 

I don’t have one single memory of my first trip to AIR.  In the summer of 1969 my mama was pregnant, very pregnant with me.  The Dixie 500 was held on August 10th and Judy was in the grandstands, 8 months preggers.  It was hot.  And apparently I was hooked! (LeeRoy Yarbrough won, FYI)

As a child, my daddy had season tickets.  He and Uncle Paul would get up at the butt crack of dawn on race day and drive to the track.  Eventually, they took Robin with them, leaving me at home.  I wanted to go sooo bad.  But being the typically raised southern male child, Robin told me that girls couldn’t go to the racetrack. 

After Robin died, Daddy finally caved, taking me to my first race when I was 15 years old.  We sat in the family no drinking section about row 40 (behind a bunch of bleeping Earnhardt fans).  We had the most awesome view of the start finish line.  And basically, another one was gone, done, sucked into the vortex of NASCAR fandom when the sport was at its greatest.

I was in the infield when the local home grown favorite won the first professional sports championship in the state of Georgia.  Yes, for years we were blue oval die hard Bill Elliot fans.  And I so badly wanted to be in the pits.  I had found my true love and my home. 

My very first pit pass was at AIR as a guest of the great team owner Junior Johnson in March of 1991.  I went on to become an intern with Racing for Kids Magazine the summer of 1992.  I traveled all over the US, writing about motorsports.

It wasn’t enough.  I wanted to WORK for a team.  And back then, there weren’t a whole lot of women in the sport.  Wives and trophy girls, that’s about it.  A few PR girls were beginning to tenaciously venture in.  Fast forward through a bunch of race teams, lots of road trips, short tracks and headaches.

Atlanta had now become Atlanta Motor Speedway.  Bruton strait out rurnt the track, adding that dog leg and flipping the start finish line.  The condos are nice, but I still loved that true oval, not the cookie cutter want a be a superspeedway track.

Scott and I had met, married and had two kids.  He had semi-retired from racing.  I was a part time grad student and SAHM.  He got to talking to a former team owner, Mark Gibson again.  Yeah, we missed racing.  We were living in Jasper at the time.  So Scott went over and helped Mark with a little body work prior to the upcoming Atlanta ARCA race.

We arrived at the track early that Saturday morning.  It was almost a reunion of the old MGR crew.  In fact, several discussed how Mark “owed” us one.  I even told his wife Jan, that I felt entitled to a trip to Victory Lane because Mark had done me wrong on his first ARCA win.

Flashback September 14, 1997
Mark and the CSG racing crew were all in St. Louis at Gateway  International Raceway.  And I was in Winder, Georgia overseeing the move into a new shop.  I had lucked into some really cheap tickets round trip to the race for 99 bucks each and had told Kenneth Jackson that whatever happened, they better not miss that flight back…unless they won the race.

Uh huh.  Famous last words, y’all.  First I get a phone call from the team owner’s wife (and friend) Anne.  She was babbling so excitedly I figured out that Mark had won the race.  Then I get a call from Kenneth and the crew from victory lane.  Yelling, screaming and carrying on something about missing their flight.  Rub it in boys.  And they did.  Did I mention this was only two weeks before my birthday?

So the next day when they got home, I was a tick jealous and maybe a bit mad.  I mean, I worked hard, helped load trucks and push cars.  Why did I have to miss that first win?

Back to March 8, 2003
Mark and the crew were wrenching on the car before the race making some mysterious changes.  Eventually the cars were rolled out to the track and everybody headed down pit road.  The new Atlanta track has a terrible view from pit road.  I commandeered a few tires and attempted to watch what little bit of the race I could see.

Mark started 10th and as usual Frank Kimmel was on the pole.  Mark, with a few well timed pit stops had begun passing everybody in the field as was running second with 13 laps to go.  Kimmel’s motor went sour and Mark inherited the lead.  It was by far the longest 13 laps of my entire lap.  And probably the sweetest!
Mark Gibson in Victory Lane
(AP photo)
That's it right there people.  That trophy.  And why I'll always love Atlanta.  Wishing I could be there this weekend.  But for the truck or Busch race only.  Y'all can have that cup traffic! 

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