By Michael Davis

The south side will be turned virtually upside down this weekend as Hampton is invaded by thousands of race fans looking for a way into Atlanta Motor Speedway. But plans are already in place to deal with the onslaught, officials say.

"If you come in from the north, you park on the north and leave to the north," said AMS spokeswoman Angela Revell. The same goes for fans coming in from the south.

Similar patterns have been in place for the past several years. On race days, a twice yearly event, the Georgia State Patrol for several years has been instituting what it calls a counter-flow on U.S. Highway 19/41, the highway that runs north and south in front of the raceway.

As traffic begins to build on Sunday morning, usually around dawn for the afternoon race, the northbound lanes north of the racetrack, and southbound lanes south of the racetrack, will be reversed so that all lanes will lead to the speedway.

For Sunday's Golden Corral 500, the weekend's main event, track officials expect more than 120,000 fans, a phenomenon that crowds many of Clayton and Henry counties' two-lane highways. About 250,000 are expected over the entire weekend, Revell said.

But Friday's events are also expected to draw record crowds during the busy evening rush hour, with congestion beginning as early as mid-afternoon, said Georgia State Patrol spokesman Trooper Larry Schnall.

"We expect Friday traffic around mid-afternoon to get a lot heavier than usual," he said.

Qualifying runs, sponsored by Georgia Power, for Sunday's race are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Friday as the rush hour winds down, but track officials are expecting large crowds for the event because after the qualifying event, the Craftsman Truck Series race is scheduled to begin at 9 p.m.

"While NASCAR hasn't given us a night race, they've given us a night qualifying," Revell said. "Qualifying under the lights is just awesome. This is the fastest track anyway, and under the lights, they just look faster."

Saturday is expected to be a bit calmer. Morning events include Legends racing and, in the afternoon, the Busch Series.

"Mainly, the biggest problem in the city is coming in on (Ga.) Highway 20 or Hampton-Locust Grove Road," said long-time Hampton Police Chief Bud Smith, whose entire force will be working shifts throughout the weekend. But as Ga. Highway 3 and Oak Street are not part of race traffic routes, "that leaves most of the city open to local traffic," he said.

The Georgia State Patrol, which will have a large contingent of traffic control personnel on the scene as early as 7 a.m. Sunday and provide air support for traffic monitoring, encouraged locals to use familiar side streets to get around.

"Those who live in the area are urged to use the routes they are comfortable with as far as avoiding crowds," Schnall said.

Race traffic exiting I-75 at exit 218 in McDonough will be diverted onto Ga. 81 at that point, and westward to U.S. 19/41 north of the speedway to avoid the meandering section of Ga. Highway 20 - in the midst of a widening project - as well as its convergence with Hampton-Locust Grove Road just outside the city.

"It always gets backed up there if 20 is flowing normally," Revell said.

Interstate traffic from south of Henry County is encouraged to take either Hampton-Locust Grove Road westbound or Ga. Highway 16 west to Griffin and U.S. 19/41.

Southbound traffic from the Atlanta area can exit at U.S. 19/41 in Riverdale, exit 221 at Jonesboro Road or exit 218 in McDonough.

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On the net:

Atlanta Motor Speedway

http://www.atlantamotorspeedway.com

NASCAR

http://www.nascar.com