Athens Speedway Reunion
March 6, 2010
BOGART - Athens Speedway exists today only as an informal dump for old tires and mattresses and a clump of woods where Jimmy Daniel Road runs into New Jimmy Daniel Road.
trees have grown up through the red clay and over the old concrete grandstands
where locals would go cheer on their friends and family on Saturday nights. The
red and white pockmarked walls still stand in some areas, and are smashed to
rubble in others.
there are many Northeast Georgia race drivers and fans who remember the glory
days of the old dirt track like it was yesterday. The speedway that closed 20
years ago still is alive in the memories they have and the stories they tell.
who spent their Saturdays at the track will flock to the Bogart Community Center
eat barbecue about noon and listen to some gospel music, but mostly, they'll
reminisce and tell their stories about one of Athens' most colorful
"We're going to have a lot of old cars, a lot of old drivers out there," said Donald Brooks, who is helping organize the reunion. "There'll be some car owners and fans out there, too. There are a lot of people who plan on coming out."
who is 69 now, was one of the younger and faster hotshoes when he drove back in
the 1960s. He raced everywhere in just about anything, but he called Athens
Speedway his home track.
His driving career took off shortly after Bill Cooley carved out the track west of Athens in 1958. Not long after it opened, the speedway gave birth to the Skeeter car class.
A Skeeter, as Brooks explained, was an open-wheeled chassis covered by a 1930s Ford factory body with a wing bolted on the roof and powered by a 327 cubic inch Chevrolet engine.
old Skeeter, No. 30, sits without an engine inside a garage near Jefferson.
was the fastest kind of car that ran at Athens Speedway," he said. Then he
smiled a little. "Sometimes, this exact car was the fastest. I don't want
and other local favorites like Charlie Burkhalter, Herman Wise and Tootle Estes
battled for wins regularly alongside accomplished NASCAR racers and convicted
McQuagg, a Georgia Auto Racing Hall of Fame inductee and NASCAR's rookie of the
year in 1965, won races at Athens Speedway.
Donnie Lance, who is on death row for killing his ex-wife and her boyfriend.
Brooks raced as a stroker - someone who took care of his car and stayed out of
harm's way - Burkhalter was a hard charger.
raced for 18 years in different kinds of cars that had just one thing in common:
He won in them.
started up in the amateur division and won my second start out," he said.
"I didn't come just to ride around. I came to win the money."
always was an eclectic mix of drivers and an even wilder mix of fans who cheered
for them, said Chuck Hawkins, who used to go watch the races every Saturday
was a really good atmosphere, almost like a family," Hawkins said. "It
was pretty well-controlled. You'd have to watch out for some of the women in the
stands who'd get to fighting.
go any given night, and it'd be a packed house."
crowd kept coming until the speedway's final days, when the urban sprawl in
nearby Jennings Mill put the track on the endangered species list.
Skeeters that made the track famous also stopped running, their drivers opting
to try out full-bodied stock cars instead.
decided to go bass fishing instead of stock car racing on his Saturdays.
moved on to driving other late-model stock cars for other people before
married," he said. "Had to give it up."
speedway suffered a similar, quiet end.
hated the place and wanted to grow the county right in the track's direction,
said David Archer, an old speedway regular who runs a shop northwest of Athens.
people in Jennings Mill were complaining about it, and there's a lot of big
money there," Archer said. "They closed it for good in '90."
Mementos from the speedway are sprinkled around Northeast Georgia. The track's safety fence, scoreboard and even its clay now are Hartwell Speedway. A piece of sheet metal from an old Athens Speedway racecar hangs on a wall inside The Grill.
most direct link to the track's past - the people who made the speedway its own
little community every week - now drive an hour to see dirt track racing in
towns like Hartwell, Lavonia and Toccoa.
there'll never be a little oval as good as the home they wish they still had.
loved the dirt; the crowd was great," Archer said. "It was one of the
nicest tracks out there."
Originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Thursday, March 04, 2010