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First fans come together again

By Doug Gorman

dgorman@news-daily.com

Fifty years ago, the United States was in the middle of the Cold War.

Richard Nixon and President John F. Kennedy took part in televised presidential debates, Elvis Presley was discharged from the Army, baseball slugger Ted Williams smacked his 500th home run and Harper Lee's landmark novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" was first published.

Closer to home, in the sleepy village of Hampton, a rural part of Henry County, the green flag dropped on the Dixie 300, ushering in the first-ever race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

In the end, Glenn "Fireball" Roberts raced to the checkered flag with an average speed of 112.652.

Maybe 20,000 people were on hand the day race car drivers started their engines for the first time at AMS.

So much has changed in a half a century. NASCAR is now a booming business with millionaire drivers and fanatical fans. Sunday night in the second ever AMS NASCAR race under the lights, more than 100,000 people packed into the track to watch Tony Stewart take the checkered flag at the Emory HealthCare 500.

Evolution might have changed the sport, but a handful of people were at Sunday's race who also made their way to AMS on July 31, 1960, to watch the start of NASCAR racing in Georgia, including Forest Park resident and one-time NASCAR champion Rex White, who competed in that first event.

"I believe they have changed everything but the green and the checkered flags," White joked. "It's like everything else in this country. It has changed, but the biggest thing is television and the amount of money you can win."

Roberts' victory in that first race was worth $10,130. When Stewart crossed the finish line to the waving of the checkered flag late Sunday night, he pocketed more than $300,000.

White, who won the NASCAR points title in 1960, didn't have a great race in that first Atlanta event, finishing 23rd.

"I don't remember too much about that first race here, but I had tire troubles and it was really hot,"White said.

For fans, the years have done nothing to wipeout the memories of their first trip to AMS.

Bobby Nash was a 17-year-old from Morrow when the green flag dropped on the Dixie 300. Still an avid NASCAR fan, Nash remembers sneaking buddies into the infield inside the trunk of his car. Things have changed for Nash, too. He estimates he has gone to more than 300 races, often traveling across country in an RV.

He has spent this holiday weekend at AMS inside his 'home away from home.'

"I was just a kid, and we were thrilled to get a track like this so close to home," he said. "I never expected to see the sport get so big."

Kenny Melary was a 30-year-old back then and remembers wading through the mud to help sell tickets which went for $8.95.

The thing that intrigued Michael Greer at that first race was the sound coming from the cars.

"We sat in some of the lower rows, and the grit, the grime, the noise from the race is what sticks out the most in my mind," Greer said. "Of course, as an 8-year-old boy, the mud was just an added bonus. And I have been an avid NASCAR fan ever since."

Racing has helped bond father Andy Pearson, who was 36, and son Joel, who was only 4, over the years. They got lost on their way to that first race and missed the start, but that never turned them off to the sport. They have loved it ever since.

NASCAR President Mike Helton once served as AMS president and is grateful to these long-time fans for their dedication through the years.

"These folks are at the heart and soul of the history and roots of NASCAR," Helton said. "When you come to the speedway and you come to Georgia, there are some pretty good stories from this neck of the woods that would support that this area contributed greatly to the early years of racing."