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Atlanta Adieu-Bidding a fond farewell to Atlanta Dragway, Georgia’s House of Speed

Posted By: Steve Baur
Written by Ainsley Jacobs
Photography by Kevin DiOssi

 
Situated on a winding side road in northeast Georgia not too far from the foothills of the Appalachians, Atlanta Dragway was conveniently located right off Interstate 85. The track’s prime position about an hour outside of its city namesake made it a hotbed for drag racing ever since the facility opened nearly 50 years ago.
 
The dragway’s small-town home of Commerce welcomed the track when its founder, Gene Bennett, first began constructing Atlanta Dragway in 1975 on 318 acres of land that had previously been graded in anticipation of building an airport. 
 
Ironically, Bennett kept the original airport tower in place and repurposed it as the timing tower. Georgia’s famous red clay was in place before asphalt, and the track direction stayed the same as the airport’s original layout. Sitting at 1,002-feet above sea level on Ridgeway Road, the IHRA-sanctioned, quarter-mile drag strip quickly became well known throughout the region and popular with local racers.
 
Its opening event, the three-day $200,000 IHRA Dixie Nationals on May 21-23, 1976 with Bob Frey announcing, drew a reported crowd of 40,000 people to witness the final eliminations being contested on Sunday. The legendary “Big Daddy” Don Garlits was on the property and ran a pass of 6.06 at 234.98 mph to defeat Pat Dakin in the Top Fuel semifinals. Garlits went on to take down Paul Longenecker in the final round and captured the inaugural victory at Atlanta Dragway, while Ray Beadle did the same in Funny Car and Bob Glidden was the winner of the Pro Stock category.
 

On September 10-12, 1976, the second event of the season took place when Atlanta Dragway hosted the IHRA Nationals. Unfortunately, the race’s historic running was marred when Clayton Harris had trouble during Sunday’s eliminations. His Top Fuel dragster’s engine exploded and sent shrapnel flying; 10 people in the grandstands were injured by the debris.
 
Despite the disaster, the race continued. Garlits beat Shirley Muldowney in Top Fuel and set a new IHRA record of 5.79 at 241.93 mph, R.C. Sherman won Funny Car, and Glidden once again took top honors in Pro Stock to wrap up the track’s opening year.
 
After a few years, though, ownership of “Georgia’s House of Speed” changed hands. In 1980, it was sold to Norman Pearah and was transitioned to an NHRA-sanctioned drag strip (Division 2), although it was only open to the public twice a year for major events—one of which was the famous NHRA Southern Nationals starting in 1981.
 
Less than a decade after that, in 1987, its proprietors changed once again. Together with partners J.D. Stevens and Rudy Bowen, Pro Stock driver Gary Brown purchased Atlanta Dragway. With big goals in mind, the team spearheaded major improvement initiatives, which included installing all-new aluminum grandstand seating, constructing permanent restrooms, and rebuilding the concession buildings.
 
Two years later, the major reconstruction project expanded even further when the 13-year-old track was resurfaced and a new timing system was installed. Additionally, in 1990, the tower was reconditioned and updated to include corporate suites, an expansive media center, and a comprehensive race control center that housed operations and timing equipment.
 

By 1993, the improvements caught the attention of the National Hot Rod Association, and the organization bought out Atlanta Dragway’s latest owners.
 
NHRA made major improvements and invested a substantial amount of money into the track’s future, including resurfacing the track and adding an updating timing system in 1999; the restrooms located in the tower were remodeled and all concession, tower, and ticket buildings were rewired as well. In 2003, NHRA upgraded both the track’s FM radio and public address systems to help facilitate communication for racers and fans.
 
As the spectator count had been growing steadily over the years, thanks in part to NHRA’s involvement, four permanent grandstand sections were added to the existing structures in 2009. The following year, the entire shutdown area was repaved, and, in 2011 the track upgraded its timing system once again with state-of-the-art fiber optics.
 
For the next 10 years, things ran smoothly and it was a given that Atlanta Dragway would be around for the foreseeable future. The sport of drag racing was enjoying huge growth, Discovery Channel’s Street Outlaws series brought more fans into the market, and the overall vibe of the industry was one of prosperity.
 
In December of 2020, the announcement that the track was up for sale by realty firm Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) rocked the racing community. By March of 2021, NHRA confirmed that a purchase was pending. Speculation about the facility’s future ran wild, but fans remained hopeful it would continue to operate under new management.
 

Ultimately, JLL disclosed that urban sprawl had dealt the knock-out punch… NHRA had finalized the transaction and that the buyer had plans to redevelop the property for “a large mixed-use program of industrial, residential, and commercial uses” as an extension of the apartments being built nearby to serve the $2.6-billion battery factory that is coming to the City of Commerce.
 
NHRA also confirmed that its 40th Annual NHRA Southern Nationals would be the last major NHRA national event held at Atlanta Dragway and that 2021 would be the final season ever for the track. It was an undeniable death sentence for Atlanta Dragway.
 
While the demolition was scheduled and development began mid-year on the surrounding edges of the property, NHRA did affirm that the proceeds of the sale would be distributed to its other tracks—including Gainesville Raceway, Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, and Auto Club Raceway/Pomona—to facilitate updates and enhancements there instead.
 
Over 45 years of continuous operation, Atlanta Dragway hosted a huge amount of history. From IHRA to NHRA, many other sanctioning bodies—including NMRA and NMCA—found a home at the famous facility. From top-level professionals to amateur sportsmen, diehard dream-chasers to casual street car test ’n tune attendees and everyone in between, Atlanta Dragway was a place where priceless memories were made and meaningful motorsports moments were memorialized.
 
The first NHRA Southern Nationals in 1981 enabled Shirley Muldowney to win her second consecutive race of the season, and, in 1982, the late Lucille Lee joined Muldowney as the only two women at the time to win a national event in NHRA Top Fuel.
 

Many huge names had captured coveted Wally trophies at the track over the years, including Don Prudhomme, Connie Kalitta, Larry Dixon, Antron Brown, Morgan Lucas, and more in NHRA Top Fuel; John Force, Tony Pedregon, Cruz Pedregon, Frank Hawley, Robert Hight, and Ashley Force Hood—the first female driver to win the category in 2008—and others in NHRA Funny Car; and Larry Morgan, Bob Glidden, Warren Johnson, Jim Yates, Jeg Coughlin, Greg Anderson, and more in Pro Stock.
 
Although big victories and huge championship titles often get the glory, many other recognition-worthy wins took place over the years, such as former NFL quarterback Dan Pastorini winning his first NHRA national event in 1986 at Atlanta in his “Quarterback Sneak” Top Fuel Dragster, and Del Worsham winning his first as well in 1991. Warren Johnson defeated his son, rookie Kurt Johnson, in the 1993 NHRA Pro Stock final round and marked the first father-son final in NHRA history.
 
It wasn’t just the NHRA, though, that helped shape Atlanta Dragway’s storied history; both the NMRA and the NMCA had a huge hand in inking its memoirs.
 
In the 1990s, Fun Ford Weekend visited Atlanta Dragway for several years, and the 15th Annual Fun Ford Peach State Nationals made its mark in 2005. Before the NMCA was formed, however, the sanctioning body ran under the name of the PRO Drag Racing Series and 2002 was its first year putting on an event hosted in Atlanta.
 
Meanwhile, the NMRA had been running at Silver Dollar Raceway in Reynolds, Georgia, until 2009 before moving to zMAX Dragway in Charlotte, North Carolina. By 2011, however, the beloved NMRA/NMCA All-Star Nationals combination race had been relocated to Atlanta Dragway and had a home there for 10 fantastic years.
 

Similarly, several of the since-retired Chevrolet Performance Challenge Series events took place at Atlanta Dragway and NMCA also hosted the massive all-GM focused Chevy High-Performance Nationals for several years before LS Fest ever existed.
 
With a plethora of titles to his name, Mike Murillo took Atlanta by storm in 2011. Running in NMRA Pro Outlaw 10.5, his speed record of 217.45 mph stood for the rest of the year while David Beason set both the speed and elapsed time records of 197.10 mph and 7.175 seconds, respectively, in NMCA Nitrous Pro Street.
 
Murillo returned to Atlanta with a vengeance in 2012 and yet again set records, this time doing so in two separate classes. In NMRA Pro Outlaw 10.5, his speed of 227.00 mph and elapsed time of 6.496-seconds both set the bar, while his ET of 6.496 seconds was the pinnacle of performance for NMCA Super Street. Similarly, Willard Kinzer set the speed record in NMCA Super Street when he ran 234.74 mph, and Bob Kurgan was the quickest ever in NMCA Xtreme Street with a time of 7.843 seconds.
 
Mark Micke dominated NMCA Super Street at Atlanta Dragway in 2013 with his elapsed time record of 6.394 seconds and speed record of 234.21 mph. Mike DeMayo did the same in NMCA NA 10.5 when he ran 7.982-second and 179.18 mph, then reset both of the class records once again in 2014 when he ran 7.981-seconds and 169.87 mph.
 
The 2014 NMRA/NMCA All-Star national event marked the debut of the highly anticipated NMCA Radial Wars class, and Atlanta was home to the occasion. NMCA jettisoned Super Street 10.5 following the season opener in Florida. It was replaced by Radial Wars, and the series offered its first extreme radial tire track prep to host racers such as Jason Rueckert, Keith Berry, Mark Woodruff, Mark Micke, Willard Kinzer, Paul Major Brandon Carter, and the late Keith Szabo.
 

When 2015 rolled around, Atlanta once again didn’t disappoint as the track and conditions were prime for more records. In NMCA, two men set records that went undefeated for the rest of the year; in NA 10.5, Robert Blankenship set a speed record of 174.14 mph and an elapsed time record of 7.867 seconds and in Nitrous Pro Street, Joe Bucaro ran 188.31 mph and 7.241 seconds to do the same.
 
In April of 2016, the Borla Exhaust NMRA/NMCA All-Star Nationals presented by Miller Welders saw the creation of both the NMRA/NMCA Sealed Stock All-Star Showdown and the Open Comp Shootout. The first pitted the NMRA Coyote Stock class against the NMCA Chevrolet Performance Stock category in an 8-car shootout, while the latter paired NMRA Open Comp against NMCA Open Comp on with 32-car field and resulted in some of the closest racing in Open Comp that the organizations have ever seen.
 
Additionally in Atlanta that year, NMRA Edelbrock Renegade elapsed time get reset with a dramatic run from Aaron Bates and his Dez Racing-backed Fox Mustang. Bates ran 7.406 at 187.86 mph during the first round of eliminations and obliterated the previous year’s record of 7.59 seconds.
 

Street Outlaw contender Dwayne Barbaree also ran an incredible trap speed at that same event, although not necessarily on purpose. When his throttle body stuck and ran him flat-out through the eighth mile, Barbaree earned a timeslip showing a 173 mph run to decimate his previous fastest speed and class record of 167.92 mph. His engine kicked out a rod as a result and the leaking oil caught fire, but he was able to keep the car out of the wall.
 
The hits didn’t stop there, though, as four other men made the race one for the record books. Johnny “Lightning” Wiker set the speed record of 174.93 mph in NMRA Coyote Modified, Teddy Weaver set both the ET record of 9.553 seconds and the speed record of 139.24 mph in NMRA Pure Street, Mike DeMayo set an ET record of 7.859-seconds and a speed record of 170.73 mph for NMCA Dart NA 10.5, and Tim Savell set a new ET record of 3.767-seconds in NMCA VP Racing Fuels Xtreme Pro Mod.
 
The following year’s event, the 9th Annual NMRA/NMCA All-Star Nationals presented by Steeda Autosports in 2017, also facilitated new records being set. In NMCA Xtreme Pro Mod, Steve Summers unleashed a speed of 216.06 mph during the final round of qualifying and bested his previous mark by two miles per hour and Adam Flamholc dropped the class elapsed time mark to 3.729 seconds. Manny Buginga hustled his way to a blistering elapsed time of 4.330 seconds and speed of 169.74 mph to claim both ends of the record in NMCA Street Outlaw.
 
In April of 2018, an Xtreme Pro Mod racer once again rewrote history. This time, it was Jason Hamstra whose Camaro ran a new elapsed time class record of 3.67 seconds at the 10th Annual NMRA/NMCA All-Star Nationals presented by MAHLE Motorsport. Also in Atlanta that year, Shawn Ayers reset the ET record in NMRA/NMCA Street Outlaw with a time of 4.234-seconds, NMCA Dart NA 10.5 racer David Theisen set both ends of his class record with an ET of 7.772 seconds and a speed of 177.49 mph, and NMRA Coyote Modified driver Daniel Pachar set the pace with an ET record of 7.583-seconds—all three men’s accomplishments stood for the remainder of the year.
 

Phil Hines took back the top marks in NMRA VP Racing Madditives Street Outlaw in 2019 when Atlanta enabled him to run 4.373-seconds and 164.49 mph to once again reset each end of the record spectrum, and his performance was untouchable that season.
 
In addition to records, there have been many other jaw-dropping moments and countless other priceless memories made at Atlanta Dragway. In particular, one Street Outlaw race saw Ayers fly through the quarter-mile finish line at over 220 mph due to a brake issue before spinning the car in several complete 360-degree turns without hitting anything and sustaining damage of only four flat tires.
 
Similarly, Jeff Rudolph showed incredible perseverance during an interesting NMCA ARP Nitrous Pro Street elimination round when he spun the tires early on. He got back into it and drove the car all over his lane, but never touched the center line and wound up winning despite the hiccups.
 
And, in what is perhaps a fan-favorite memory, “HiPo” Joe Charles and Mike Washington claimed their fair share of internet fame with a hilarious once-in-a-lifetime photo capture in 2014 by Scott Sparrow. The men were racing each other in NMRA Coyote Stock when Washington took the lead around the 1,000-foot mark and Charles gave him the ol’ one-finger salute.
 
Passionate fans loved making their pilgrimages to the mecca of horsepower to shop for souvenirs in the midway, purchase apparel and commemorative memorabilia, get up close in the pits to meet their favorite drivers, and watch the thrilling action from the expansive stands. Tailgating and cookouts, both in the spectator parking fields as well as on the property itself, was a tradition that many loved and often made an entire weekend out of with their friends and family in tow.
 
Despite the South’s sweltering summers, and despite the hot and humid air presenting challenging conditions, Atlanta Dragway’s racers and fans persevered and their successes were made sweeter by having overcome such obstacles.


Familiar faces of the staff will be missed as well, including Amy Gunter, who started working at Atlanta Dragway alongside her father when it opened when she was just a teenager. Now a grandmother, Gunter had a long career in the ET shack and would record racers’ times by hand via an old telephone and later transitioned to operating the newer, more sophisticated timing system.
 
With the exception of the unprecedented pandemic in 2020 causing the cancellation of the event, the NHRA Southern Nationals had run continuously from 1981 through 2021. 
 
Now, the final car powered down the iconic 1,320-foot drag strip, the final timeslip printed with Atlanta Dragway’s name at the top, and the final fan exited through the gates of Georgia’s House of Speed.
 

Local fans face a tough choice in the future, as it’s a 200-plus-mile trip to the next nearest large NHRA dragstrip; either Bristol Dragway in Tennessee, zMAX Dragway in North Carolina, or even South Georgia Motorsports Park near the Florida state line.
 
Historically, too, when a racing venue is removed from an area, illegal and potentially dangerous street racing tends to increase—the exact opposite effect of why NHRA began working so hard to develop its networks of drag strips in the first place.
 
As one of NHRA’s longest-running tracks on its nitro circuit has ceased to exist, and forty years of NHRA Southern Nationals fun has been quelled, 2021 was filled with both highs and lows. However, Georgia’s House of Speed will continue to exist in the hearts and minds of those who were lucky enough to attend an event at Atlanta Dragway or make a pass down its beloved racing surface.




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