News & Media

Retro Racing: Atlanta Motordrome south's first superspeedway

September 02, 2011, Mark Aumann,

Crowds still flock to site of Atlanta Motordrome, but for a different burst of speed

A view of the subterranean frontstretch at the Atlanta Motordrome shows the wooden pit boxes and grandstands. (George Eastman House Collection)

If only for a better sense of timing, the south's first superspeedway -- built 50 years before Daytona International Speedway -- would be entering its second century of competition, the hub of stock-car racing would have been based in Atlanta instead of Charlotte, N.C., the championship would definitely be called the Coca-Cola Cup and the Candlers would have replaced the Frances as the first family of the sport.

Instead, Asa Griggs Candler's nearly $500,000 gamble known as Atlanta Motordrome (or Atlanta Speedway) lasted just two seasons before it was abandoned. However, the location of the 2-mile track is as well-known now for another form of high-speed transportation.

The Atlanta Motordrome was home to early superspeedway racing. (Georgia State Archives)

Just like today's NASCAR, it all has to do with marketing, profits, attendance and even the weather.

Civil War veteran John Pemberton was the inventor behind Coca-Cola, but Candler -- a 26-year-old drug-store owner and entrepreneur from Villa Rica, Ga. -- was the one who saw its marketing potential. Candler purchased the formula from Pemberton for $2,300 in 1887, and with an aggressive advertising campaign, made millions from the product during the next two decades.

Candler also was infatuated with motor racing, which was just coming into its own after the turn of the century. At the time, Carl Fisher's group was detailing plans for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. So Candler thought, "If Indianapolis can build a superspeedway, why not a similar facility in Atlanta?"

With the help of two other businessmen, Candler began buying property south of town, where the land was more flat, eventually spending more than $77,000 to purchase some 287 acres abutting Virginia Avenue. Candler spent another $400,000 to grade the property and build wooden grandstands and pit boxes in hopes of hosting the inaugural races in the fall of 1909.

Candler's dream was to create an oval rivaling the one in Indianapolis, and the resulting dirt track was nearly a carbon copy, on a slightly smaller scale. The two straightaways ran in a north-south direction, just like IMS. However, the Motordrome turns were more rounded and had a higher degree of banking than Indy, which made it the fastest superspeedway in the country at that time.

It also had one unique feature. Candler had the front straight cut several feet below ground level with sloped embankments on both sides, allowing fans in the stands to look down on the cars as they passed by, much like today's Bristol Motor Speedway.

With the track completed, Candler invited the top drivers and teams, including the legendary Barney Oldfield, for the first series of races in November 1909. By all accounts, the five-day festival of speed was a huge success. Record crowds turned out to watch Louis Chevrolet win the 200-mile stock-chassis race (and the Coca-Cola Cup trophy) at an average speed of 71.94 mph. In addition, Louis Strang set a 1-mile speed record at 95.465 mph -- or nearly 7 seconds quicker than the fastest car could attain on Indianapolis' crushed stone surface earlier that year.

But when the dust had settled, literally and figuratively, Candler quickly realized that he barely covered his expenses, let alone had anything left over to repay the debt on the track. Undaunted, Candler tried again six months later, this time running a pair of 200-milers under national sanctioning from the American Automobile Association.

Unfortunately, the car counts were significantly smaller the second time around, with no more than seven cars starting any of the four events. Still, the fans still came out in droves to see drivers dare to take on Atlanta's high banks.

On May 5, 1910, Pennsylvania native Ray Harroun -- an engineer for the Marmon Motor Car Co. -- drove one of the company's cars to a 20-lap victory over Strang in the first 200-miler, perhaps a precursor to his win in the inaugural Indianapolis 500. Two days later, Tom Kincaid's National -- with relief driving help from John Aitken -- beat Herbert Lytle's American by nearly 3 minutes in the finale. One of those in attendance was a young man named Bill Hartsfield.

Candler attempted to keep the track open, hosting air races, motorcycle shows and other events through 1911. But the track eventually was shuttered, the grandstands removed and then abandoned. Candler's attention turned to other pursuits. He was elected mayor of Atlanta in 1916, balanced the city's budget and helped in reconstruction after much of the city was destroyed in the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917. He gave $1 million plus a land grant to have Emory University relocate to Atlanta. And in 1922, he donated a large plot of land to the city for what would be named Candler Park.

In 1923, then-mayor Walter Sims turned to a newly elected alderman to help find a suitable spot for Atlanta's new airport. That alderman was Hartsfield, who suggested Candler's former race track. Two years later, Candler negotiated a five-year, rent-free lease and construction soon was under way. The first flight into Candler Field was on Sept. 15, 1926, and by 1930, the airport was the third-busiest in the country, behind New York and Chicago.

The original terminal and runways were built on what was the track's infield, and until the early 1970s, some of the corner banking still remained.

Candler suffered a stroke in 1926 and died three years later. Hartsfield became mayor in 1937, and with the exception of one year, remained in that position until 1962. When the new midfield terminal was completed in 1980, the facility was renamed Hartsfield International Airport.

This post-World War I aerial view of the site where the Atlanta Motordrome was built shows the abandoned track's layout. (Georgia State Archives)

Candler's dream superspeedway is little more than a memory. But many of the drivers, crews and fans attending the races this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway may have landed and taxied across the same ground where Oldfield, Chevrolet, Strang and Harroun sped by 100 years ago.