By Ed Brock
Bedecked in earrings in the shape of Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s No. 3 and a Budweiser cap, 12-year-old Katie Gourley wasn't leaving Tara Field airport without Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s autograph.
"Somebody told me it would be from 2:30 to 4 p.m. (that Earnhardt would arrive)," Gourley said.
Gourley and her mother Tracy Brossoit, both of McDonough, were at Clayton County's airfield along with several other autograph-seeking NASCAR fans awaiting the arrival of some of their heroes. With the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 Winston Cup race for this weekend three days away, traffic at the airfield was already picking up by Thursday as some of the drivers began to arrive.
It is expected to soar by race day.
"On a typical day like today, with the weather like it is, we'd have 40 to 50 landings," said Wayne Patterson, director of the Clayton County Transportation and Development Department. "On race day we'll have 300 to 500 landings depending on the weather and how the points (for the race) are."
Along with the arrival of the drivers from locations in North Carolina, corporate sponsors and regular fans often arrive by air at the strip that is half a mile from Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton. Helicopters fly in every 10 or 15 minutes bringing race fans from Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport.
"With all that going on it gets pretty hectic," Patterson said.
That's why Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers like Gary Baker are brought in to run the airport's tower.
"They want the tower to have them organized coming in," Baker said.
On the ground it's Baker's job to keep the ramp clear and find parking spaces for the planes that will range from single engine prop planes to the largest plane expected this weekend, a Gulfstream 4.
They also brought an extra fuel truck and towing truck, Baker said.
As the pilots arrive they drive away in cars rented from the special booths set up by Avis and Enterprise vehicle rental companies and Allan Vigil Ford. Vicki L. McCormick with Allan Vigil has been providing rental cars for racecar drivers and fans for 13 years now.
"Usually they make their reservations from race to race but they also call at the last minute," McCormick said. "All of them are really nice. They're like old friends."
While Gourley was still waiting for "Junior" to arrive after an hour at the field, she had already gotten the autographs of Kevin Harvick and Bill Elliott.
"She wouldn't even talk to Bill Elliott. She was in shock," Brossoit said.