By Johnny Jackson
Ed Clark peered out of his office suite window, overlooking an empty 1.54-mile oval race track, and reflected on what first interested him in motor sports.
Clark, the president and general manager of the Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, said his love of fast cars began in his childhood. "I was 8 years old, and was on a Ferris wheel at the Virginia State Fair, and I could see all the cars race by at the Speedway in Richmond, Va.," he said.
For the past 18 years, the speedway president has seen many motor sports fans live out their dreams on the asphalt track in Hampton, just 20 miles south of the international City of Atlanta. The oval track and its patrons, he said, have been major staples in the area for more than half a century.
"The people that make AMS [the Atlanta Motor Speedway] what it is, are the fans," he said. "I've seen a lot of change in the 18 years I've been here, and it's been an absolutely wonderful experience."
AMS is celebrating its 50th year as a premier venue for NASCAR racing in Henry County -- a celebration marked by the loss of one of the speedway's two marquee NASCAR events.
On Aug. 5, Clark and other officials announced that the speedway would eliminate one of its NASCAR race weekend events. Its 2011 schedule includes a NASCAR race weekend event in late summer, Sept. 2-4. AMS' other NASCAR event, held annually in early spring, was moved to the Kentucky Speedway, which will play host to its inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on July 9, 2011, according to Bruton Smith, the chairman and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., which owns both speedways.
AMS' loss deals a hefty blow to the area's NASCAR fans, according to Elizabeth "B.J." Mathis, chairman of the Henry County Board of Commissioners. The chairman, born and raised in nearby Morrow, Ga., said she has lived near the race track in Henry County for the past 27 years. "NASCAR has always been a part of my life," she said. "NASCAR at AMS is a top-quality sports venue. To have something of this magnitude in our backyard, we are very fortunate indeed."
Mathis said she believes the loss will also adversely affect the region's developing economy. "We're disappointed to lose the spring race," she said. "It's going to be a tough economic blow to our economy. But we're going to work with AMS to make the Labor Day Weekend race the best celebration that it can possibly be, in light of this milestone 50th Anniversary."
Henry County Chamber of Commerce President Kay Pippin said as much in a written statement about the lost NASCAR event. "Henry County has been very fortunate to have two NASCAR races [per year] since 1962," Pippin said. "The most recent state economic impact statistics available indicate that in 2008, Henry County tourists, many of them race fans, spent $184 million dollars in local restaurants, hotels, retail centers and attractions across the county.
"Those dollars equated to over 2,000 local jobs in the tourism industry," she said, "$7 million in state tax revenue and nearly $6 million in local tax revenue. Without those tourism dollars, every household in Henry County would have to have paid an additional $172 in taxes in 2008 to make up the loss.
"Businesses and citizens alike have benefited from the presence of Atlanta Motor Speedway," Pippin added, "and will continue to benefit from the remaining race as the community works together to make the Emory Healthcare 500 the premier racing event of the season."
Speedway officials expect AMS will have about as many attendees this year, as it had during last year's Labor Day Weekend event, when 111,300 race fans attended.
This year's Sept. 3-5 Labor Day schedule will include the Friday, Sept. 3, Fan Fest, presented by Your Georgia's Best Chevy Dealers; the Saturday, Sept. 4, Great Clips 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series race; and the Sunday, Sept. 5, Emory Healthcare 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event.
"We've got a lot of tickets to sell, but sales have been real brisk this past week," said Clark, speedway president. He said he believes AMS' reputation as being a fan-friendly, driver-friendly racing venue will be an attribute in the speedway's future as a premier attraction in NASCAR.
"We're going to be very positive going forward," Clark added. "While our schedule will change, our commitment to the racing fans, who have been the heart and soul of Atlanta Motor Speedway through these years, will be stronger than ever. Our entire staff will be even more driven to produce the top annual sporting event in Georgia for many years to come."
To learn more about AMS and upcoming events, call (770) 946-4211, or visit www.atlantamotorspeedway.com.