Every track on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule has its own unique history. But I daresay none has one more convoluted than Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Born in 1960 and located in Hampton, Ga., (which, given the traffic, is a good hour away from Atlanta), the 1.5-mile speedway has gone through so many changes over the years it’s hard to catalogue them.
It’s totally different than the way it used to be, largely due to its purchase by Speedway Motorsports Inc.’s Bruton Smith in 1990.
Here’s the official report of what happened thereafter:
In 1994, 46 condominiums were built over the northeastern side of the track.
In 1997, to standardize the track with SMI’s other two intermediate ovals at the time, the entire track was almost completely rebuilt.
The frontstretch and backstretch were swapped, and the configuration of the track was changed from oval to quad-oval, with a new official length of 1.54 miles, when before it was 1.522 miles. The project made the track one of the fastest in NASCAR.
But in one man’s opinion, where Atlanta differs from other speedways that have undergone numerous changes is in race dates.
Atlanta has gone from two races per year to one and back to two again. It’s held events in the cold of winter, the heat of the summer and the chill of late fall.
Races have been conducted in March, July, September and November. During one period of time, Atlanta inherited Darlington Raceway’s traditional Labor Day weekend date.
In its early years, Atlanta staged races in March and July. And, starting with this year, it’s doing so again after 20 years of single events.
Atlanta has been the site of some of NASCAR’s greatest events – like the 1992 Hooters 500, which was Jeff Gordon’s first Cup start, Richard Petty’s last and in which the championship was won by Alan Kulwicki by a mere 10 points over Bill Elliott.
But there was another race that wouldn’t be characterized by anyone as “great.” Rather, it was controversial and put NASCAR in a very bad light indeed.
The Dixie 500 on Nov. 5, 1978, was won by Donnie Allison. But not at first, if that makes sense.
At first, Petty was declared the winner. But hours later, that was changed and Allison became the official victor. The race was a victim of NASCAR’s antiquated, flawed scoring system.
As the race wound to its end, Petty was staging a battle with Dave Marcis for the victory – or so it seemed.
Suddenly, on the 326th of 328 laps, Allison shot out of the pack and passed both Marcis and Petty to advance to the front. But the scoreboard showed Allison in fifth place, two laps down.
Petty passed Marcis to be first to the checkered flag – or so it appeared. Almost immediately NASCAR declared Allison, five car lengths ahead of Petty, to be the winner.
How could it be that Allison was the winner when the scoreboard listed him as fifth, two laps in arrears?
Chief Scorer Earl Sappenfield explained that Allison’s scorers (each driver had two) became distracted and each missed a lap within three laps and there was no correction.
At the end of the race, Sappenfield felt Allison was the winner due to the scoring mistake and thus he made the call.
As an aside, the NASCAR scoring system at the time consisted of two individuals charting their driver’s laps by recording them on cards, which were then collected, counted and matched.
Even Sappenfield admitted things could get chaotic if a scorer was distracted and failed to record a lap.
Petty, the assumed winner, was in the press box for his post-race interview as he got a phone call.
“Got to go, guys,” he said. “I’m heading home to celebrate second place.”
It was 7:45 p.m., and the media had to face the task of filing a different story. To make matters worse, Allison wasn’t even at the track. He didn’t know he had won until the next day.
NASCAR has always said that it is careful with disqualifications and scoring because it wants the fans to know who won the race as they make their way home.
That certainly wasn’t the case after the Dixie 500 – and the grandstands were empty when Petty left the press box.
NASCAR President Bill France Jr. came into the press box not long after Petty left. He had received word that the media was grumbling for some kind of explanation.
France said that NASCAR felt all along that Allison won the race. But a recheck of the scorecards forced a change and gave Petty the win.
“We should not have made that announcement,” France said. “We checked some more, and Allison is the winner. It’s official and final.”
It’s been recorded that France said NASCAR “has egg on its face.” But if I remember correctly, he didn’t say “egg,” if you get my drift.
That wasn’t the first scoring mix-up in NASCAR’s history, and it wasn’t the last. But it was the one that changed the outcome of a race – and took hours to rectify.
The Dixie 500 of 1978 is part of NASCAR lore for another reason. Dale Earnhardt finished third in his first outing with team owner Rod Osterlund. He was part of a two-car team with Marcis.
But within days, Marcis quit. He did not agree with the multicar team concept. That left Earnhardt the sole driver for Osterlund’s organization.
Which was fine with him.
“I really think I can win races with this team,” he said.
And, as we all know now, he was exactly right.