So much has changed in the past 20 years within NASCAR, and Atlanta Motor Speedway has played a vital role in the sport’s rapid growth. Oddly enough, 2012 is also Atlanta Motor Speedway President Ed Clark’s 20th year on the job at the track located just south of downtown Atlanta.
Since its purchase by Speedway Motorsports Inc. in 1990 and Clark’s 1992 arrival, the track has flourished, becoming a standard-bearer in many ways for both fan amenities and exciting racing.
Today, Atlanta’s racing surface tests the power of stock cars and abilities of drivers, enabling them to race two and three-wide around the track, helping set the stage for some unforgettable finishes. Some of NASCAR’s most exciting endings to races have happened here in the past 20 years. Ones immediately coming to mind include Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards’ first career Sprint Cup victories and Dale Earnhardt’s final Atlanta win.
“The track has given us some of the greatest finishes in NASCAR, some photo finishes, what Darrell Waltrip has coined ‘another one of those Atlanta finishes.’ That’s something we’re proud of,” Clark said. “Lap after lap, the guys are able to race high, low and in between. We’re proud of the fact that the drivers love it, they get out of their cars and high-five when it’s over because they’ve had such a great time. The fans love it because it’s such a super show. It’s some of the best racing in NASCAR.”
The exciting racing at Atlanta, however, has been no accident. Rather, it goes all the way back to when the track was repaved and converted from an oval to the current quad-oval configuration.
“I’ll never forget sitting here looking out my office and I think we only had one building left standing in the infield, that was the old garage area, there were piles of red clay everywhere,” Clark said. “We were grading and it rained a ton that summer. As a matter of fact, twice we had the track within a day of paving after grading it for about two weeks in the turns and had torrential downpours that put ruts in the track.”
All of that work, however, paid off, as Clark recalls. He still has vivid recollections of an engineer bringing him blueprints of the planned configuration of the new racing surface.
“It had a red stripe, blue stripe and yellow stripe. I said, ‘What are these three lines?’ He said, ‘Those are your three grooves.” I said ‘Well, what does that mean?’ He said, ‘Well theoretically, that means that you should have cars able to run three-wide around the track.’ I said, ‘Well, just get us two-wide.’ And low and behold, the first race we had on the new surface was an ARCA race and we had a three-wide finish for the win.”
But the evolution of Atlanta Motor Speedway has been more than what has happened on the track. The facility may as well be an entirely new venue. When Clark took the reigns in 1992, the track only had about 40,000 seats and very limited areas to be used for parking and camping.
Today, Atlanta Motor Speedway’s grandstands seat more than 99,000 fans, there are nearly 4,000 camping spaces and an excess of 400 acres for parking. The Fan Zone and driver souvenir rigs are also conveniently located near the frontstretch grandstands, providing great convenience for fans and sponsors alike.
With a tenure of 20 years at one place, there are likely to be some vivid memories. That, of course begs the question – what are some of Clark’s most memorable moments at Atlanta Motor Speedway?
For starters, there’s the 2001 March race, when Kevin Harvick edged Jeff Gordon in a photo-finish win, three races following the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr.
“I’ve been in this business for a lot of years, 30-something years. I have never heard the fans in the stands continue to cheer and clap and express their emotion once the winner crosses the start/finish line (like that). It literally went on for seven or eight minutes without dying down at all. I think it was several things; it was a new winner with Kevin beating Jeff Gordon by a foot. But the biggest thing I think was just a rush of release of emotion for a lot of fans. The fact that Dale Earnhardt drove that very car and won that race in a photo finish the race before in his last win here and it being three weeks after his death, I think it was just a release for everybody. I’ll never forget how resounding it was and how long it lasted.”
And oddly enough, this year marks the 20th anniversary of Gordon's debut in NASCAR's highest division - the 1992 Hooter's 500, which was Clark's first race at Atlanta Motor Speedway as track president.
An off-track event also stands out. In July 2005, an F2 tornado damaged the Speedway, causing more than $40 million of damage, less than three months prior to a scheduled NASCAR race weekend. But the staff of Atlanta Motor Speedway surged forward unfazed. It’s for this reason that Clark highlights not the tornado, but the response of the staff of AMS as one of his top memories while at the Speedway.
“The way the whole team here pulled together and about 400 people came together to rebuild this place and do something that a lot of people when they saw it said there was no way it can be done and yet we finished weeks early before the race, that’s pretty neat. “
The on-track action during last Labor Day Weekend’s AdvoCare 500 is also not easily forgotten. In that race, two of the sport’s legends, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson dueled during the closing laps for the win, slinging their cars into the turns side-by-side. Johnson even pulled even with Gordon, but the driver of the No. 24 pulled away for a very hard-fought victory.
“When Jimmie Johnson caught him with about six laps to go, I said’ well that’s it. It’s over,” Clark recalls. “For Jeff to be so tenacious and stay up on that wheel and for them to battle like they did, I think that’s going to be remembered for a long time.”
As Clark looks toward the upcoming weekend of NASCAR Night Racing, capped by the AdvoCare 500, the motorsports veteran sees only great things ahead at AMS.
“I love where we are on the schedule, I think there’s a tremendous amount of drama both here and at Richmond after us as the field for the Chase is set. Not only to get in the Chase but to get that extra win and those bonus points,” Clark said. “I think it’s a great time year in and year out and have drama and intensity, whereas it’s not just another race. The fact that we have such a raceable facility here- so many drivers love the track, so many drivers say it’s their favorite track – you throw all those things in there and I think it has all the elements to make for a compelling weekend that people put on their calendar early and plan to be part of it.”