Good day gentle readers, and welcome to another chapter in our series, Introduction to a Saturday Night Hero. Again this time, our “Hero” is not a person, but a race track of bygone days… or perhaps not. Time will tell if this one might come back and bring her own brand of enjoyment to an entirely new generation of race fans.
You’ll all remember, I expect, Johnny Mallonee, the man that confessed to having a love affair… with a race track in Columbia, South Carolina. Well, Johnny’s lovely wife Winnie was not the only one he was cheating on when he had his fling with Columbia. There was also his first love, waiting there in the peach orchard in Byron Georgia, and that would be Middle Georgia Raceway, a paved half-mile of good racing by all accounts, and one-time home to Atlanta International Pop Festival II, in 1970, one of the largest Rock Concert/Festival events ever held in these United States.
July 3,4 and 5 that year brought a crowd to the grounds of the little race track in Byron estimated to be somewhere between 350,000 and 500,000 or possibly up to 600,000. (And they stayed well into July 6, with Richie Havens greeting the dawn of Monday morning with his “Here Comes the Sun.”) I guess with that many people, it’s tough to get them all to stand still while you take a census. That means that the Atlanta International Pop Festival II was as big, and perhaps even bigger than the more famous (Infamous?) “Woodstock Festival” held the year before up in New York State during the “Summer of Love.”
Performing for their supper… or whatever… were acts such as The Allman Brothers, Terry Reid, B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, Procol Harum, Chambers Bros., Grand Funk Railroad, Poco, Ravi Shankar, Ten Years After, John Sebastian, Johnny Winter, Mountain, Bloodrock and Spirit, along with numerous others over what turned out to be a 4-day affair. Scheduled but cancelled were Jethro Tull (Laryngitis) and Captain Beefheart. When midnight ushered in the Fourth of July, the crowd heard Jimi Hendrix’ rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. I do believe most all of my readers have heard my opinion of said rendition. If you care to hear it, trot right on over to YouTube and listen, as it will never defile a page in one of my columns. Sorry Jimi, but that’s just the way things are. And none of that had anything whatsoever to do with racing, but it’s fun for the older folks among us to remember their careless and oft misspent youth.
Middle Georgia Raceway carries a born-on date of 1966, and NASCAR, with its Grand National series cars came calling from then through 1971. It was then when new sponsor, R.J. Reynolds, thought it advisable to trim the schedule back to a workable number of races, and many of the smaller tracks were first to leave. The track itself didn’t close the doors until 1984. Now, I’m going to step aside and let Johnny take it from here as he tells you all about his Lady in the Peach Orchard.
It looked like it was as big as Daytona when I first saw it, huddled in-between the Pecan orchards and Peach trees. I can almost smell it now, the first time we pulled in there and raced. It was so…how can I describe it… like it held you in its arms when you ran around it. The turns were so high banked that I don’t think you could run off the top if you tried, but fast it was!
I can remember going over with a friend to one race, and he was smitten with how his motor was performing that night. (Yeah, I was driving his car) He said “Go out and run a lap in 3rd gear.” Talk about winding one out; but all that got was a bunch of people wanting to protest his car.
Another time, we were running the quarter-mile track, and I was driving a guy’s coupe from Pinehurst, GA. That thing was almost as fast as Charlie Burnette’s coupe, but we came out of the number four turn running bumper to bumper. Then, here came AW Vickers, shooting by on the outside and plastering the outside wall about where the flag-stand was… his throttle stuck wide open. Don Tumberlin was the track master at Middle Georgia Raceway because he was so consistent; he had a dang good car too.
That still deal…I heard talk about it many a time, but didn’t put any faith in it until later in life. I now understand why all those neat car trailers were always there from south Florida, with cars that ran so-so.
If Mr. Brown planned the still when the track was built, he was good, but one story I heard said there was a leak in the drainage pipes of the track and a hole slowly washed out under there. A hunter was messing around downstream of the runoff one day after a rain, and the water had a funny odor to it so he backtracked and found it.
Under the stands, there was a room; an area where the drivers hung out after the race to talk and just be sociable. It was kinda like a brotherhood because we sorta looked out for each other. True, we argued like sore tailed cats on the track and shook fists at each other on the track but off [the track] every one made sure all were well for the trip home. If you broke down, someone…or three…would stop and get you going again.
We had that cop from Macon (Tommie Clinard) running out there, and at first I didn’t know if you could get away with bumping him to pass without retaliation later, but he turned out to be A-OK and is now a really close personal friend.
Friday Hassler, Bob Burcham, Red Farmer, Bobby and Donnie Allison were regulars, along with more names than I can remember. I also hear through the grapevine that The Miss Middle Georgia Raceway, from back in the day, may just make another appearance at the track. (Maybe that convertible will come too.)(Editor’s note: This piece was written before the first RacersReunion was held at MGR and that is what Johnny refers to here)
There were many drivers whose names might not be household words that got their start there on MGR. I know I learned a lot real quick running there and after I drifted out, I would come back for a refresher course, and it always helped.
When RacersReunion met with the present owner, I took a lap or two around the old gal and it was just as I remembered it; the trash on the track didn’t bother me at all. Even the quarter-mile track brought back strong memories.
Bob Moore, Tommie Clinard, Guy Jenkins and I stood over at the pit entrance, close to where the infamous still entrance was, talking of past races. Old names kept popping up as we talked, making more precious memories of days gone by. Having the undivided help I had, from Bob Brown building my engines to Skip Leonard showing me the finer points on tuning and set-up (he was like a brother to me) are things MGR created and will never be forgotten.
Drivers like Charlie Burnette and Friday Hassler were the ones I could always go to for advice. That’s something you don’t get in this day. My first Speedway car was built by Stewart Seymore and I cannot leave him out of the picture; When you had a friend like Seymore you had a gold mine for a friend.
Middle Georgia Raceway was described by some as, “The next Bristol” because it was so fast; maybe we will still see that happen. The bleachers are still standing at attention, waiting for the return of the crowd and the roar of the race, so beware! The ghost from the past may just comeback for a visit.
That Pop Festival was something all its own. True, I liked rock ‘n roll, but not in a mess of people like the ones out there at the track during that time. I rode out once, and people were camping in every conceivable place possible, and if you kinda looked hard you could see a whole lot of skin showing. And down at creek, the fishing hole turned into the local bath house with regular sorties back and forth.
The temptation was too great to resist:
The closing of the track really hurt our habit of weekly racing at home. The NASCAR races there were the highlight of the track for awhile because racers came there that you heard about on TV or read about in magazines. You could even walk up to them and talk to them and just be one of them. Try that today, if you will.
This is how I remember growing up around our Lady in the Peach Orchard. She was fair, sometimes forgiving, but always ready for you. It’s hard to end a subject like this because it was a part of my life back then, and now too. It’s my ——————–memories.
Ah yes… memories. That, dear race fans, is the way our Johnny closes everything he writes. Johnny, thank you so much for sharing those memories with me and with all my gentle readers. I know we all enjoy a trip down Memory Lane with you as our guide.
Though she sat idle for some time, interest has resumed in this old girl over the past few years. You might recall some Dodge commercials shot two or three years ago on a decaying old race track, which was identified in the film as “Brixton Raceway.” It was not; there is no such place in the United States. The track in the commercials was our Middle Georgia Raceway, and her step back to popularity didn’t end there.
There have been two RacersReunions held at Middle Georgia Raceway to date, in 2011 and 2012. My understanding is, the third is already scheduled for Saturday, September 14, this year, which I fully intend to attend, even if I reluctantly have to go inside that “perimeter” that circles the city of Atlanta and venture down I-75 to get there. The Atlanta perimeter, aka I-285, is Talladega without walls. Never mind what the signs tell you. Once on it, the minimum speed appears to be 85 mph, and you’d better know what lane you belong in w-a-y before you need to be there. On second thought, though it’s about twice the drive, I may head over to Gainesville and take 129 down to the Macon area. I know I’ll survive that drive and arrive alive…
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you.
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