HAMPTON – For nearly 60 years, the Atlanta Motor Speedway, just west of the Hampton city limits, has been one of the most important stops on the NASCAR calendar.
The track has hosted some of the most famous races on the NASCAR circuit and has been instrumental in the growth of numerous careers. Some of those careers, such as that of the defending Cup champion, Joey Logano, pretty much started in Hampton.
The Thursday Thunder Connection: Logano 20 years down the road from his first days of success
In 2019, Joey Logano hopes to successfully defend the NASCAR Cup Series Championship, the top prize in American motorsports. Logano secured his first championship last year, the culmination of a 20-year journey that pretty much started at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Twenty years ago, Logano, then a 9-year old, made his debut in Bandolero cars, likely to little fanfare. When his time concluded on AMS’s Thunder Ring, his name riddled the record book like nobody else’s as he dominated the summer racing series in Hampton.
In 2000, Logano started eight Bandits races and won all eight of them. In 2001, he started nine races and won six of them. In 2002, he started 10 Semi-Pro races and won five of them, and in 2003, he started three Pro races and won one of them.
When it was time for him to go to bigger and better things in racing, Logano had won the Bandits championship in 2001 at both Atlanta and Charlotte Motor Speedway, the Pro Legends Nationals Championship in 2002, the Young Lions Nationals in 2002 and the Semi-Pro title at AMS in 2002. He won 14 consecutive races, a mark that was tied by Clay Thompson in 2016.
Last year, Logano climbed to the top of the mountain and scored his first NASCAR Cup Series championship, becoming the first Thursday Thunder alumnus to score the Cup title.
Logano is far from the only Thursday Thunder alumnus to compete in NASCAR’s top series. Chase Elliott, last year’s Most Popular Driver, cut his teeth at Thursday Thunder, as did Austin and Ty Dillon, Bubba Wallace, David Ragan, Reed Sorenson, and Daniel Hemric.
Other interesting names have popped up in Thursday Thunder, such as Myatt Snider, Garrett Smithley, Daytona Truck Series winner Austin Hill (the 2009 Pro champion) and Austin Cindric, among others.
The Pavement: The oldest in NASCAR
Twenty-two years ago, the Atlanta Motor Speedway featured a billiard-table smooth, lightning-fast racing surface, allowing Geoff Bodine to turn a 197 mph lap en route to the pole position for the season finale.
Today, that same surface chews up tires, is painful to the touch and allows for multi-groove racing similar to a dirt oval. That surface is the oldest in NASCAR and likely the most popular surface among the drivers.
Because of the wear and tear on the surface, combined with new rules that will slow the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup cars in the name of better combination, it is likely that Bodine’s mark, set 22 years ago, will never be approached.
That pavement has housed some of the most exciting racing - and the most exciting finishes on the NASCAR circuit. Perhaps it was appropriate that the first race ever held on the pavement saw a three-wide photo finish.
That was the 1997 Reese’s 400 ARCA race, where, on a late restart, Frank Kimmel found himself trying to hold off a hard-charging Andy Hillenburg (who, according to ESPN’s Benny Parsons, was shot out of a canyon ) and Georgia peanut farmer Harris DeVane. The three came to the line side-by-side, and DeVane edged forward in the final 250 feet to win by a fender’s length.
Last-second finishes became commonplace in Hampton after that race. Dale Earnhardt beat Bobby Labonte by one hundredth of a second in 2000. Kevin Harvick beat Jeff Gordon by six thousandths of a second in 2001. Carl Edwards beat Jimmie Johnson by three hundredths of a second. In the first Truck Series race held in Hampton, Bobby Hamilton and Mike Skinner were side-by-side until just before the line when the two made contact, resulting in a spin.
More than NASCAR: Speedway host to a number of other forms of racing
While the Atlanta Motor Speedway has hosted NASCAR racing for 60 years, the track has been the site of a vast number of other forms of motorsport, including Indy Cars, Sports Cars and rallycross.
In irregular intervals from 1965 until 2001, the track hosted Indy Car racing in three different forms. In 1965, the track was the site of the Atlanta Championship 250, a United States Auto Club-sanctioned race, won by Johnny Rutherford. It was the first of 27 Indy Car wins for the driver known as “Lone Star JR,” a driver that captured three Indianapolis 500 wins in his career, and two additional victories at the Hampton oval over his career, both in 1979, the first year of Championship Auto Racing Teams’ sanction of races.
One year later, Mario Andretti captured victory in a 300-mile USAC race, one of his eight Indy Car wins that year, en route to a national championship.
Rick Mears, another of Indy Car racing’s greatest drivers and one of only three drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 four times, won more Indy Car races than anyone else at the Hampton oval, winning there five times – a 150-mile USAC race in 1978, a third CART race in 1979, two twin 125-mile CART races in June 1981 and a 200-mile CART race at the start of May 1982.
After a hiatus starting in 1983, Indy Cars returned to Hampton, this time in the form of the Indy Racing League. The IRL ran four times in Hampton from 1998 to 2001.
In 1993, the IMSA Camel GT series made its only visit to the Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Atlanta Grand Prix, a race featuring the louder-than-thunder closed-cockpit GTP cars in their final year of competition. The race was run on a specially-designed infield road course that had been built the year previous on top of the oval. That race was won by the Toyota Eagle out of Dan Gurney’s All American Racers stable and driven by Argentina’s Juan Manuel Fangio II, the nephew of the Formula One legend from the 50s.
Television: Atlanta one of NASCAR’s first consistently-televised races
These days, NASCAR is a staple on television. Sunday’s race will be aired on the FOX Network across the country, and by assorted networks around the world. The race will be one of 36, and each of them is aired across America and worldwide by NASCAR’s television partners.
When the track, then known as the Atlanta International Raceway, was in its formative years, things were vastly different.
Many races went without television coverage or even radio coverage. The only way for a fan to find out where his or her favorite driver finished in a Grand National race would be in their local newspaper.
Atlanta was a notable exception. In the 1960s, the race was a regular stop on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, albeit in highlight form. Race fans nationwide would tune to watch the highlights of action in Hampton mixed in with events such as the World Ice Dancing Championship and the National Platform Tennis Championship, as was the case in 1969.
Eventually, tape-delayed highlights of racing gave way to live start-to-finish coverage of the races, and Atlanta was a part of ABC’s racing schedule until 2000, except in 1993, when the Storm of the Century rolled through the area the week of the Atlanta race. That year, the race was aired by what was then known as the Nashville Network, a regular broadcaster of NASCAR races at the time.
Since 2001, fans across America have tuned into their local FOX station to watch the action on the Hampton oval and will do so this Sunday at 2 p.m. for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.