NASCAR enthusiasts converged on Atlanta last Sunday to enjoy the first race on the newly renovated Atlanta Motor Speedway track. The now-christened superspeedway played host to the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. It was a chaotic affair that saw Charlotte native William Byron come away with a win.
It was the first NASCAR event at the Atlanta Motor Speedway since the Quaker State 400 on July 11. Soon after, construction began to repave and reconfigure the track to make for a raucous reintroduction of NASCAR to the state of Georgia.
As a state rich in NASCAR history, it didn’t take long to get formally reacquainted.
Georgia and NASCAR: Historic counterparts
The sport of NASCAR racing, beloved around the globe, can trace its unique beginnings to The Peach State. When NASCAR was officially founded in 1948 by William France it included three individual racing divisions:
- Strictly Stock
While the latter immediately lacked in fan popularity, the Modified division was viewed by racing enthusiasts as the class of NASCAR’s offerings.
Of its 52 Modified races held in NASCAR’s inaugural season, nine of them took place in Georgia. It was the beginnings of a tight-knit relationship between the sport and the state.
The Atlanta Motor Speedway hosted its first race in 1960, the Dixie 300. Held at the then-named Atlanta International Raceway, Hall of Famer Fireball Roberts would take the checkered flag and usher in the NASCAR era in Georgia.
The early years of NASCAR
The first iterations of NASCAR races were, well … expectedly far from the near-200 miles-per-hour, angular banking turns that it features today. The bulk of the drivers took the wheel behind Pre-WW II Ford Coupes. These vehicles were virtually identical to the ones you’d find in use in public at the time. Racing at its core, so to speak.
Those Generation 1’s, as they’re nostalgically known, would remain the standard in the sport until 1967. At that time, auto manufacturers began designing vehicles that could hold up to the rigors of NASCAR’s newly unveiled superspeedways.
The chassis could be configured as the manufacturer desired within league specifications. But the frame was required to remain as a stock model. Maintaining roots amid change, if you will.
The 1980s: Speed reigns
The 1980s are when NASCAR racing really began to evolve into the sport that it is today. Cars underwent drastic changes as manufacturers were no longer required to maintain stock frames. The most significant changes made were:
- Ditched the doors
- Increased the spoiler size
- Narrowed the wheelbase for a smaller body
- And increased speed
Speed is what brings them to the show, and speed is what keeps them in the seats.
But with an increase in average speed came an increased risk for wrecks in races. Such as when driver Bobby Allison careened through the fence at Talladega in 1987. And with that the sport’s speedfreak ascension required some moderation.
Enter the restrictor plate, a NASCAR modification that limits airflow to the engine. This intentionally slows cars down and prevents disastrous events like Allison’s wreck. The restrictor plate has been a required device at Talladega and Daytona since 1988.
Early this year, its use was also mandated at the Atlanta Motor Speedway over concerns about the track’s reconfiguration into a superspeedway.
The 1990s: A decade of Gordon & Dale
The 1990s was a decade completely dominated by NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon, who racked up an eye-popping 49 wins between 1990 and 1999. Gordon, a newcomer to the NASCAR circuit in 1991, absolutely blew the doors off of the sport in the ’90s.
He won three Winston Cup Championships during that prodigious stretch, tallying his first in 1995. Gordon would be the youngest driver to accomplish that mark.
Near on his draft was Dale Earnhardt Sr., the all-time winningest driver at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Earnhardt notched 35 NASCAR wins in the ’90s, including four Winston Cup Championships.
The ’90s were a battle of the new and old guard. Gordon ushered in a brand new era in stock car racing and an entirely new group of fans in the process.
The 2000s: A tragedy and change
Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s death on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in February of 2001 changed the face of racing forever. Earnhardt, widely regarded as the greatest NASCAR driver of all time, stood like a mammoth over the sport.
His tragic death on the track brought swift enhancements to protect against such an occurrence ever happening again on a NASCAR track.
The sport’s governing body adopted:
- Softer crash walls
- Improvements to seat belts and roll cages
And contributed to the Car of Tomorrow, a vehicle with design specifications that prioritized driver safety. It became the standard moving forward.
For NASCAR, it meant a fanbase in mourning. Earnhardt had long been considered the face of the sport. And his death marked a tragic turning point — not just for the fans but for the sport itself.
Driving for Richard Childress Racing, Earnhardt was irreplaceable on the team. Richard Childress Racing pledged that his hallmark black-and-red GM Goodwrench car would never be in use on the track again, but the team still needed a driver.
Young driver Kevin Harvick would take on that massive responsibility, and three weeks after Earnhardt’s death, he earned his first NASCAR win at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Jeff Gordon finished second.
The 2000s were a time for NASCAR to evaluate driver safety in the wake of tragedy, and also the arrival of Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, and Tony Stewart. These younger drivers would carry the sport to where it is today.
It also heralded the professional racing career of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The resurfaced road ahead
The mosaic of NASCAR racing’s storied history will certainly feature the state of Georgia. From Fireball Roberts’ win in 1960, Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s dominance in the ’90s, and Kevin Harvick’s historic, and first, checkered flag at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the state is peppered with legendary moments in the sport’s history.
With its resurfacing and renovation complete, the Atlanta Motor Speedway will regain its reputation as a marquee stop on the NASCAR circuit. Kyle Busch already hates it.
The return to Georgia racing has begun in earnest, and with its deep ties to NASCAR, the state surely won’t be without more memorable moments on the historic track.
Let’s hope the track revamp means Dawsonville’s own Chase Elliott finally snags a win on it.
Photo By: Hakim Wright Sr / Associated Press