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Weekend races bring fans, commerce to Southside

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

A steady stream of traffic filed into campgrounds at the Atlanta Motor Speedway early Friday.

With as many as 250,000 people expected to participate in events at the Speedway this week, the sight would surely grow into a slow-moving parade of automobiles by Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

According to officials, two NASCAR race weekends at the Speedway, held in March and October, generate an estimated $455 million in revenue for the state of Georgia. The spike in revenue has been fueled by increased retail sales, restaurant patronage, and hotel stays.

Most hotels near the Atlanta Motor Speedway have been filled for days already.

Comfort Suites-Stockbridge, located some 30 miles away from the Speedway, had booked all of its 80 rooms through the weekend by Wednesday afternoon.

"Chaotic," said Tim Stanely, general manager of Comfort Suites-Stockbridge, in describing race weekend.

Stanley says the new hotel has booked mostly NASCAR race venders, race teams, and race fans this week.

"The community really gets involved with the races," he said. "It's all about NASCAR from Thursday to Sunday." He said the events and activities surrounding races have become infectious for locals.

A fan of NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, Stanley said he only became a fan of NASCAR about two years ago, after participating in the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C.

"I learned a new respect for the drivers after that," he said.

All week, Stanley's staff at the hotel has greeted its patrons dressed in NASCAR and Motorsports gear, giving some of them a first glimpse into race weekend in metro Atlanta.

"We just appreciate their business," said Patrick Duncan, president and CEO of the Clayton County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It fills our hotel rooms."

Duncan said the seasonal races, not only help to occupy Clayton's 4,500 hotel rooms, but the races also bring commerce and exposure to local businesses.

Crowned by three major races - American Commercial Lines 200 of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series on Friday, Nicorette 300 of the NASCAR Nationwide Series on Saturday, and Kobalt Tool 500 on Sunday - race weekend also includes several other activities, like the Speedway's first Brunswick Stew Contest held on Friday.

The Speedway partnered with Levy Restaurants - a Chicago-based catering company and the Speedways official restaurant - and hosted the contest involving about 20 contestants.

Stews from finalists were judged by Atlanta Motor Speedway President Ed Clark, Levy Restaurants Executive Chef Lamar Nolden, Hampton Mayor R.W. Coley, and Locust Grove Mayor Lorene Lindsay.

The contest winner, Lonnie Blair of McDonough, received an official Atlanta Motor Speedway/Levy Restaurants chef coat and two Club One seat tickets for Sunday's race for his "Lonnie B's Stew."

Blair said his son, Jacob Combie, entered his stew in the contest and prepared it from a family recipe in his absence. "It's quite an old recipe," Blair said. "It's been handed down, I'd say, probably at least five generations."

Blair is a lifelong NASCAR -- and a diehard Dale Earnhardt, Jr. -- fan, who said he has enjoyed NASCAR on levels other than the race itself. Last fall, he and his wife, Neica, went to the Speedway just to experience festivities outside the oval track and its grandstands.

"The excitement, the camaraderie is unlike any other," he said. "Anyone that has been around NASCAR - it's kind of like talking about the weather, especially in the South."