- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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Atlanta Motor Speedway has it all.
History, modern amenities, the most improved traffic patterns on the schedule, and nothing less than the greatest collection of right-of-the-decimal-point, door-to-door finishes of any racetrack over the past 10 years.
So, um, where the hell is everybody?
Every March and October the AMS front-office staff is forced to answer that question and (unfairly) catch the blame for the rows of empty seats that are annually broadcast to the world in high definition. At one point the suits down in Daytona even made noise about taking away one of the track's two Cup dates.
However, the blame isn't on the employees.
It's on you, race fans of Georgia. Those seats aren't going to fill themselves. And Atlanta's reputation as a wishy-washy sports town is never going to improve until you start showing up.
Second to none
For all the complaining and all the e-mails that constantly flow into the ESPN.com inbox about NASCAR abandoning its roots, there are few stops on the Cup calendar that provide the opportunity to conjure up the spirits of racing's past like the track in Hampton, Ga.
"We've been going to Atlanta as long as we've been going everywhere else," says a man who knows a little something about NASCAR history, Richard Lee Petty. "It was in the very first class of superspeedways. Daytona, Charlotte and Atlanta all came along at the same time. Only Darlington has been around longer. And if some of the older guys are being totally honest with you, they'll tell you that they liked racing at Atlanta a little more than some of those other places."
As usual, his Royal Fastness is correct. AMS opened its doors in 1960, one year after Daytona, the same year as its current corporate sister in Charlotte, and nine years before Talladega or Michigan.
The list of Atlanta winners is a roster of surefire Hall of Famers, guys who don't even need their full names mentioned before you know exactly who they are -- The King, The Silver Fox, Fireball, Fast Freddy, Cale, Bobby and Donnie, Jimmie and Jeff, B.P. and A.J., and two different Earnhardts.
Three of the nine closest Cup finishes since 2000 were recorded at AMS, and perhaps the greatest race in the sport's history, the season-ending Hooters 500 of 1992, took place on the Atlanta blacktop. Yeah, they flipped the start-finish line and added a double dogleg in '97, but since those improvements, the presence of the ghosts of the past certainly haven't faded, thanks to plaques, statues and grandstand dedications.
The track isn't old-school. It's a cum laude graduate.
"We have really tried to embrace that history," says track president Ed Clark, who appreciates NASCAR's past after a childhood spent sitting in the grandstand at Martinsville. "We can't ever become so worried about the future that we forget the past. That's why we're bringing back Bill Elliott's entire championship crew from 1988 to meet the fans this weekend. All those guys are Georgia guys, they still live in Georgia, and it's important that we always remember their contribution to the sport."
Cradle of speed
Most of those guys come from Northern Georgia, in and around Dawsonville, birthplace of Awesome Bill and Lloyd Seay, the greatest racer you've never heard of. From those hills the bootleggers made their moonshine runs down to Atlanta and north to Knoxville. Those bootleggers became racers and mechanics, who became NASCAR's first drivers and team owners, the forefathers of the spectacle that we'll see at AMS this weekend.
"Racing is literally in our blood down here," says Elliott, who owns five wins at his hometown track. "Every little ol' country road you drive on, chances are somebody from the Flock family or Lloyd or Seay or somebody like that raced on it one day a long time ago. From Dawsonville clear down to the track south of Atlanta. NASCAR owes a lot to Georgia."
So why don't those people, the ones whose forefathers birthed the sport, show up for races?
"The economy maybe? Traffic? I don't really know."
Mowing down the myths
"Traffic was definitely a problem," Clark freely admits. "But it's not anymore. In March, we had the whole place cleared out in an hour and a half. That's hard to beat in this sport."
Amen to that. Years of lobbying the state for freeways in and out of the 1.5-mile speedway have finally paid off with hammer-down four-lane highways leading in and out. And remember that '05 tornado that literally went down the backstretch, destroying the seats and the old press box? Mother Nature must be a race fan, because the damage she did actually cleared the way for wider roads and a quicker traffic flow.
And about that economy ... with gas prices dropping to their lowest levels since early spring, the track is hoping to get a last-minute boost of out-of-towners. The AMS ticket office is also offering up a ton of bargain-basement deals, including $39 tickets for Sunday's race and a Bill Elliott family four-pack that includes hot dogs and Cokes for $159.
Back to the future
If Clark wanted to, he could fire back at the AMS critics by reminding them that, unlike most racetrack locales, his box office is competing with four major league teams -- the Falcons, Braves, Thrashers and Hawks -- not to mention Georgia and Georgia Tech. He could also bring up the aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola and a never-ending schedule of top-shelf concerts. In the Peach State, even high school football is in direct competition with racing.
But Clark and his staff don't whine about any of that. They just keep working hard, already pointing to their new '09 fall date on Labor Day Sunday night (finally, an Atlanta night race, woo hoo!). They're burning the midnight oil, inexplicably, to try to convince Georgians to come out and see the most consistently great racing on the NASCAR schedule.
Do yourself a favor this weekend, Georgia sports fans. Gas prices are falling like the autumn leaves, your other Atlanta big league options are generic at best, the Dawgs and Jackets will be done by Saturday night, and Sunday's weather forecast is aces.
So get up off the couch and get to Atlanta Motor Speedway, where there's a 1-in-3 chance that you're going to see the closest finish of the season.
Or you can be wusses, watch it from your sofa and continue to tarnish your once-great racing legacy by allowing those seats to remain empty.
Awesome Bill, Fonty Flock and Raymond Parks, not to mention Ed Clark, deserve better.
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.