NASCAR’s Deep Georgia Roots
by Tom Jensen March 15, 2021
The Peach State has produced NASCAR championship teams and drivers, as well as fascinating tracks and back stories.
NASCAR fans know that Georgia is the birthplace of current NASCAR premier series champion Chase Elliott, a native of Dawsonville. While Elliott, like his father before him, Hall of Famer Bill Elliott (2015), is popular with contemporary race fans, there’s a lot more to the story of Georgia and its connections to NASCAR, which dates back to the sanctioning body’s very beginning.
And we do mean from the very beginning, as in NASCAR’s first season of 1948.
Here are five storylines from NASCAR in Georgia.
The First Season
In 1948, NASCAR launched with its Modified Division (now Whelen Modified Tour), which at the time consisted of drivers racing in pre-World War II Ford Coupes, usually from 1939-40. During its first season, NASCAR staged 52 Modified races, nine of which were run in the state of Georgia, including three of the first five.
Fonty Flock won the first two Georgia races in 1948, taking the checkered flag at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway on March 27th, and then winning a week later at Macon’s Central City Speedway. On April 11, Fonty’s brother Bob won at Augusta Speedway.
The First Champion
NASCAR’s first championship team owner was Hall of Famer Raymond Parks (2017) who won the Modified Division title in 1948 and the Strictly Stock Division title a year later, both times with driver Red Byron (2018).
Parks was a fascinating character. Like Bill and Chase Elliott, Parks was born in Dawsonville, but that’s where the similarities end. Parks was the oldest of 16 children and ran away from home as a teenager, settling in Atlanta. He quickly built a fortune through bootlegging illegal liquor and operating legitimate businesses like gas stations and vending machines. Legend has it that Parks became a millionaire before reaching 20 years old, and in the early days of NASCAR, he helped provide financial stability to the sanctioning body through his close association with NASCAR founder William H.G. France (2010).
The Moonshine Track
Middle Georgia Raceway was one of three tracks in the city of Macon that hosted NASCAR premier series races. Richard Petty (2010), then entering the prime of his career, won the first two races at the track in the spring of 1966 and ’67.
But less than two months before the track’s second race in 1967, federal agents raided the track and found a trap door in the ticket office that led to a ladder and a 125-foor tunnel. Beneath the track in Turn 3 were a 2,000-gallon tank to cook illegal liquor and a 1,200-gallon tank to ferment it. Track President H. Lamar Brown Jr. was arrested and tried for his alleged involvement in the moonshine operation but was eventually found not guilty.
The Middle Georgia 500 went off as scheduled on Nov. 12, 1967, which made it the first race of the 1968 season. Bobby Allison (2011) won over Richard Petty (2010), while Red Farmer (2021) posted a career premier-series best finish of fourth, albeit 24 laps behind Allison.
A footnote: Over the July 4th weekend in 1970, the second annual Atlanta International Pop Festival took place in a soybean field next to the track. An estimated 300,000 people showed up to see more than 35 acts perform live, including the Jimi Hendrix Experience, B.B. King, Grand Funk Railroad and hometown favorites, the Allman Brothers Band.
Fireball’s Last Win
Daytona Beach native Fireball Roberts (2014) won 33 premier series races in 207 starts, the final one coming at Augusta International Raceway on Nov. 17, 1963, just five days prior to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Augusta was a 3.00-mile Georgia road course that hosted just one premier series race, the First 510, which as the name implies, was scheduled to run 510 miles. Impending darkness caused NASCAR to shorten the race to 139 laps, making the final distance 417 miles. Even at the shortened distance, the race took nearly 5 hours to complete.
Attrition was brutal: Just 16 of 36 cars were running at the finish, but Roberts had no such trouble in his Holman-Moody Racing Ford, which was powered by a V-8 engine built by Waddell Wilson (2020). Roberts finished a lap ahead of Holman-Moody teammate Dave MacDonald, followed by Billy Wade and Joe Weatherly (2015). Ned Jarrett (2011) came home fifth, ahead of Jimmy Pardue and Larry Thomas.
And in a truly macabre note, of the top seven finishers at Augusta, six died in crashes over the next 21 months. Jarrett was the lone survivor, while Thomas died in a non-race crash. But the other five all were killed on the track - or as the result of a race crash, in Roberts’ case - in 1964 or ’65.
The 1992 Hooters 500
The most famous race ever run in Georgia is also one of the most famous in NASCAR history. The season-ending 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway featured a six-way championship battle among Davey Allison (2019), who came into the race leading Alan Kulwicki (2019) by 30 points and Bill Elliott (2015) by 40. Longshots who were mathematically alive were Harry Gant, Kyle Petty and Mark Martin (2017).
The race garnered national attention because it was also the final start for NASCAR’s most successful driver, Richard Petty (2010), who had won 200 races and seven championships in a remarkable career. Although it didn’t draw near as much attention at the time, the Hooters 500 also marked the first career start for a promising rookie named Jeff Gordon (2019) who turned out to have a pretty good career of his own.
Although he entered the race with the points lead, Allison was taken out in a crash triggered by Ernie Irvan, leading the battle to be settled between Georgia native Elliott and Kulwicki, a heavy underdog. In the end, Elliott won the race, but Kulwicki finished second and led 103 laps to Elliott’s 102, earning Kulwicki 5 bonus points for leading the most laps. And that was the difference, as Kulwicki finished 10 points ahead of Elliott in the final points standings. Kulwicki, a degreed engineer, became the first college graduate to win a premier series championship and the first owner-driver to win a title since Rex White (2015) in 1960.
Meanwhile, crashes eliminated both Petty, who finished 35th, and 31st-place finisher Gordon. And in an interesting bit of trivia, this was the first time all five members of a Hall of Fame class raced against each other at the same time. The NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2019 featured three drivers – Kulwicki, Gordon and Allison – and owners Jack Roush and Roger Penske, all of whom competed against each other in Atlanta in 1992 and the first five races of 1993.