WOFFORD: Reflections On The Atlanta Motordrome

Hunter Wofford Hunter Wofford Blog, Southeast, Staff Columns 1 Comment

A postcard view of the two-mile Atlanta Auto Speedway dirt track, built in the early 1900s.

ATLANTA — Georgia has a long, solid history in motorsports that can be traced all the way back to the very beginning.

The Vanderbilt Cup, one of the earliest forms of big-time auto racing, was held in Savannah from 1908 to 1911 and had historic figures such as Louis Chevrolet taking part in the event. However, that’s not all Georgia had to offer the young world of motorsports.

If you’re reading this, you’re likely a race fan, and if you’re a race fan, you know about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Just mentioning IMS to any race fan nowadays can strike up a conversation about the track’s history, but mention the Atlanta Motordrome to anyone in the modern-era, and they’ll immediately think you’re talking about Hampton, Georgia’s Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Once they realize you’re not, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy.

Before I go any further, I want everyone to take a second and realize how far-reaching Coca-Cola’s involvement in motorsports is, both past and present. They’ve been a sponsor at nearly every single motorsport event in the past century.

It doesn’t matter if you’re at Monaco or Martinsville, Le Mans or Laguna Seca, you can’t run from Coca-Cola’s likeness plastered on track billboards, garages, firesuits, or even the cars themselves. That’s all thanks to Asa G. Candler, who founded the Coca-Cola Company in 1888.

Candler had a passion for auto racing. In late 1908, word got out to him about Carl Fisher’s two-mile oval that was in the process of being built in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was impressed with the idea and envisioned bringing a track similar to Fisher’s Indianapolis Motor Speedway to the city of Atlanta.

With the help of two local business men, Candler wasted no time in finding land to house his dream track. He bought some 287 acres of flat land next to Virgina Avenue, just a few miles south of the city, for $77,000. Along with the $77k piece of land came the construction expenses, which set Candler back about $400,000, mainly due to the new wooden grandstands and pit boxes.

Asa’s dream was completed in the fall of 1909. The result was a monstrous two-mile, high banked dirt-oval simply named the Atlanta Auto Speedway, or the Atlanta Motordrome for short.

It was the first of its kind, and had a lot of the same features as most tracks on the NASCAR circuit today, including 20 degrees of banking in the turns (a number unheard of at the time for non-board tracks); special suites located in the infield, and even straightaways built several feet below ground level with sloped embankments on each side to give fans a better view of the cars on track, much like Bristol Motor Speedway has today.

With the track race ready, it was time to put Candler’s $477k investment to the test, with a week-long festival of speed held in November of 1909. Sold out crowds were on hand for three of the five races held that week. Louis Chevrolet won a 200-mile stock chassis race at an average speed of 71.94 mph, and Louis Strang set a one-mile speed record of 95.465 mph, seven seconds faster than anyone ran earlier in the year at Indianapolis.

The track and its races were a success, or so it seemed.

Candler soon realized that he barely covered his expenses for the first five races on his new speedway, but he didn’t let that stop him. Determined to show that his track was worthy of a spot in the history books as one of America’s most iconic speedways, Candler held a pair of 200-milers under the sanction of the American Automobile Association, what has since evolved into IndyCar today, six months later.

This time, Candler wasn’t so lucky.

No more than seven cars started in each of the 200-milers, but the fans still filled every inch of the wooden grandstands to watch the daring drivers take on Atlanta’s high banks, one of them being a young Bill Hartsfield. You’ll see why that’s important later on down the road.

Continued on the next page…

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