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.

Pine 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.

But 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.

Many who spent their Saturdays at the track will flock to the Bogart Community Center on Saturday.

They'll 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 entertainment venues.

"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."

Brooks, 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.

His old Skeeter, No. 30, sits without an engine inside a garage near Jefferson.

"This 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 to brag."

Brooks and other local favorites like Charlie Burkhalter, Herman Wise and Tootle Estes battled for wins regularly alongside accomplished NASCAR racers and convicted felons.

Sam McQuagg, a Georgia Auto Racing Hall of Fame inductee and NASCAR's rookie of the year in 1965, won races at Athens Speedway.

So did Donnie Lance, who is on death row for killing his ex-wife and her boyfriend.

While Brooks raced as a stroker - someone who took care of his car and stayed out of harm's way - Burkhalter was a hard charger.

Burkhalter raced for 18 years in different kinds of cars that had just one thing in common: He won in them.

"I 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."

There 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 night.

"It 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.

"You'd go any given night, and it'd be a packed house."

The 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.

The Skeeters that made the track famous also stopped running, their drivers opting to try out full-bodied stock cars instead.

Burkhalter decided to go bass fishing instead of stock car racing on his Saturdays.

Brooks moved on to driving other late-model stock cars for other people before unceremoniously retiring.

"Got married," he said. "Had to give it up."

The speedway suffered a similar, quiet end.

Politicians 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.

"The 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.

The 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.

But there'll never be a little oval as good as the home they wish they still had.

"I 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