When the lights turn on for the Pep Boys Auto 500 on Sunday, Sept. 6 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, NASCAR will celebrate the return of Labor Day weekend racing in the South.
Appeasing throngs of NASCAR diehards who have desired the date return to the South after a 2003 move to California, Atlanta Motor Speedway acquired the Labor Day weekend race in a scheduling coup prior to the 2009 season. While Atlanta Motor Speedway is starting a new tradition, NASCAR's history book shows Atlanta has a long history tied to Labor Day weekend.
Way back before NASCAR was even envisioned, racing first came to Atlanta 100 years ago in 1909. The first era of racing in Atlanta was founded by Coca-Cola tycoon Asa Candler who built a two-mile oval near what is now Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Candler drew the biggest names in racing - Barney Oldfield, Louis Chevrolet and Walter Christie - to Atlanta by rail. Ray Harroun, who would go on to win the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911, claimed the first win in Atlanta.
Atlanta later developed a connection to holiday racing when Atlanta's historic Lakewood Speedway hosted the nation's best drivers on Labor Day.
"It was a long-time tradition to race in Atlanta on Labor Day," said Georgia racing historian Mike Bell.
Lakewood was a flat, one-mile dirt oval on the south side of Atlanta. In its day it was known as "The Grand Old Lady" and "The Indianapolis of the South."
Atlanta's Lakewood Speedway opened in 1917 to host match races featuring legendary Indy car drivers Barney Oldfield and Ralph DePalma. The track wouldn't become a part of stock car racing lore until the 1940s, when Lloyd Seay continued an impressive winning streak in Atlanta by defeating stock car star Bob Flock in the 1941 Labor Day race. Unbeknownst to fans in attendance, the win would mark Seay's last after the Dawson County native was shot and killed the next day in a dispute over his moonshine business.
Among those who would often find their way to Lakewood was none other that Bruton Smith, the founder of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., the parent company of Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"Lakewood was THE race," he said. "It always drew a huge crowd, always sold out.
"You were always getting dirty there. That was part of it. You didn't want to miss a race there."
Although Smith never promoted a race at Lakewood, the sanctioning body he once headed, the National Stock Car Racing Association, did run in Atlanta, and featured some of the top stars of that era.
"Ed Samples was one of the great drivers," he said. "We had Buck Baker, Buddy Shuman, Billy Carden, the Flocks.
"Fonty [Flock] was on top for a while. Bob was a spectacle. Tim was consistent. All three were great."
Despite the Speedway's early prominence, the track was owned by the City of Atlanta, whose leaders weren't supportive of racing there in the track's later years. Slated to closed after 1979, it seems fitting that the last auto race ever held there was a Labor Day weekend event, a race won by the popular Georgia short tracker Buck Simmons.
But Atlanta's new Labor Day date has a lot going for it that Lakewood didn't. It has broad community support, and fans won't have to endure the heat and dust as they did in the old Lakewood days. In fact, it should be balmy and mild for the 500-miler, because AMS has something Lakewood never did - lights and therefore night racing.
An old Atlanta tradition resumes, with a new twist.