Sunday night’s running of the Emory Healthcare 500 had some historical significance to it as it signaled the last time that Atlanta Motor Speedway would be hosting two Sprint Cup races in the same season. Even though the racing will be scaled down in the years to come, there is no taking away the history of one of the sport’s greatest venues.
When Atlanta started hosting events in NASCAR’s premier series, it was only the seventh superspeedway of one mile or more in length to be paved. Of the original seven, Atlanta along with Darlington Raceway, Daytona International Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway are the only ones still hosting Sprint Cup events.
While Atlanta was providing plenty of exciting racing on its 1.5- mile track, the facility itself lacked the amenities that other tracks were off ering until Bruton Smith purchased the track in 1990. Smith immediately started putting his signature on the track by adding grandstands and suites.
In 1994 he added 46 luxury condominiums, the speedway office complex and more suites, but it was the following year that the Atlanta we know today came about. In 1995 the track’s start/finish line was moved from the west to the east side of the track with the addition of two doglegs in what is now the frontstretch to transform the track into a 1.54-mile quadoval. The reconfiguration of the track made it one of the fastest on the entire schedule.
Atlanta at one time had the prized last race of the season, but through several changes of the schedule now has the Labor Day date along with an early March date that seemed to always have issues with the weather. March has brought everything from snow to rain that has hurt ticket sales to the point that most race fans waited until that weekend to show up and by tickets. In 2007 the announced attendance for the spring race was 105,000 and this past March that number had dropped to 85,000 and that might be a very generous number.
Smith had no choice when he recently announced that he was moving the spring date away from Atlanta and giving it to his Kentucky Speedway next season. Beginning next season Atlanta will build its year around its Labor Day race, but that at one time was one of the prized dates on the NASCAR calendar. For years, the Sprint Cup Series was going to Darlington Raceway on Labor Day for the running of the Southern 500. It was one of the crown jewels that made up the schedule but an aging facility and dwindling ticket sales cost the track the date. Atlanta now has the chance to once again return the date back to its once lofty place on the schedule and, by having it at night before football gets in high gear in the South, chances are that tickets may one day soon become hard to come by.
Atlanta’s most memorable race no doubt has to be the season-ending Hooters 500 in 1992. The outcome of that race produced a classic battle between Alan Kulwicki and Bill Elliott that ended up producing the closest points battle in the history of the sport up to that time. Elliott ended up winning the race that day as Kulwicki finished second, but it came down to the points earned by the bonus system that would produce the season’s champion. Kulwicki decided to stay out and lead one more lap when Elliott came in for a late race pit stop and that lap proved to be the diff erence in the championship.
Elliott had led 102 laps on the day and with that one extra lap, Kulwicki had led 103, giving him the five extra points for a 10-point final margin in the championship. If Elliott had led the most, the two drivers would have ended in a tie for the championship and the title would have been his, as he owned the first tiebreaker that was the amount of wins during the season.
The King, Richard Petty, also added to the history-making day as he was running the final race of his storied career. What was then just a sidebar on the day was the first race of the career of a very young Jeff Gordon. It was indeed a changing of the guard that day as in just three years Gordon won his first of four series titles.
Air Guard 400
Richmond International Raceway (.750-mile oval with 14 degrees of banking in the turns)
Sept. 11, 7:30 p.m. TV:
MRN Defending Champion: