0

Speedway celebrating 50 years of racing

By Valerie Baldowski

vbaldowski@henryherald.com

Atlanta Motor Speedway, an important landmark for many racing fans and the site of this weekend's NASCAR racing events, will mark its 50th anniversary this year.

The track first opened on July 30, 1960, according to raceway officials. Speedway Motor Sports, Inc., bought it 30 years later.

Ed Clark, president and general manager of Atlanta Motor Speedway, recently recounted some of the memories he has collected during his nearly 20 seasons at the track.

"My first event here was the fall race of 1990, and that was Richard Petty's last race," he said. "We completely sold out in July, and the race was in November.

"A lot of people categorized that race as possibly the greatest race in NASCAR history, because it was his last race, and Jeff Gordon's first race. We had the closest finish for the points championship we'd ever had. That was a magical afternoon, one I'll always remember. I grew up with Richard Petty being one of my heroes."

The track itself has grown over the years, Clark said, from track and seating improvements to the addition of condominiums.

"When our company purchased the track in 1990, there were about 45,000 seats here," he said. "The front-stretch grandstand was located where our back stretch is now."

The track was a "true oval" back then, Clark said.

"Since that time we've spent about $140 million rebuilding, expanding, and redeveloping the property. We've got one of the nicest tracks on the NASCAR circuit now," he said.

Seating has been increased to upwards of 100,000, said Clark, and the track can accommodate 135,000 fans on race days.

Brandon Hutchison, the track's vice president of events, began working at the raceway in 1995 and remembers the reconfiguration of the race track in 1997.

"We actually cut the track in half in March, flipped it, and we were ready to race by November," he said.

The worked involved switching out the track's back and front stretches, said Hutchison, to allow for the construction of additional seating along the front stretch. The work was needed, he continued, to accommodate trackside condominiums completed in 1995.

In 1997, the track added the Champions and Earnhardt grandstands. The Winners grandstand was added in 2005, he said.

In the summer of 2005, a tornado that tore through the speedway caused $40 million in damage, Hutchison said. Repair efforts began immediately, he added.

"It hit the first week in July, and we were racing the last week in October," he said.

Hutchison said the best part of the job for him is the contacts he makes with individuals from all stations in life.

"It's been a lot of fun," he said. "I've met a lot of interesting people."