Athens (GA) Speedway...home of the "Skeeters"

 

Entrance to Athens Speedway early '60s.

Concession and track announcer stands.

Looking at Turn 1 from the top row of grandstand.

Looking down toward Turn 4 .

Standing on Front Stretch looking into Turn 1.

Looking at Flagman's Stand and entrance to track from Grandstand.

Ariel view taken June,1962.

Athens Speedway: the Early Years 

            This article is based on what I have found in the Athens Banner-Herald (the local paper) and a program loaned to me by Hugh Blackstock of Gainesville, GA. The program is from 1966. Years ago Joe Cawley sent me copies of photos from cars in the program plus a couple of pages from that program. The quote that follows is from that program. Now you know why it is so important to save these items.

             “During the winter months of 1958 and into the Spring of 1959 an idea was formed that was to change the terrain of the land on the Jimmie Daniel Road and that would also change the Saturday night entertainment for many racing fans. This idea grew and plans were finally made to bring to Athens the first auto race track for this area.

             “Bill Cooley designed and planned the race track. He checked with various organizations, insurance companies, and many other sources for all safety specifications and included them in his design for Athens Speedway.

             “The grading, grandstand construction, etc. was started in May (1959) and tons and tons of clay were hauled in for the surface of the track, which measures a quarter of a mile on the inside of the circumference. Although the work was completed by September (1959), the enemy of all dirt tracks - Rain - postponed the opening until November. Four straight rain outs in October put the first race on the new track on November 9, 1959.

             “The program for the opening race was for Super Modifieds and Amateurs in a 135 lap program. The winners of the first feature race on the clay oval were:

                                                1st                Tootle Estes                      Knoxville, Tennessee

                                                2nd                Bud Lunsford                    Gainesville, Georgia

                                                3rd                Herman Wise                       Lavonia, Georgia

                                                4th                Charlie Padgett                    Marietta, Georgia

                                                5th                Charlie Burkhalter                Athens, Georgia

                                                6th                Roy Roberts                        Chattanooga, Tennessee

                                                7th                 Truman Padgett                   Dalton, Georgia

                                                8th                Leon Sells                            Atlanta, Georgia

                                                9th                 Carl Stonecyper                  Eastonalle, Georgia

                                                10th                Doris Sosebee                   Anderson, South Carolina

             “Super Modifieds and Amateurs were the competing racers at the track until the Spring of 1962 when the program was changed to include the jalopy events, This popular addition to the program was combined with a change to the Sportsman racers, and with the Amateurs gave the fans three divisions of competition in a varied program. 1962 was an important year in the history of Athens Speedway for not only did the program undergo a major change, but it was the first and only year the Speedway operated without a rain out. 

“During the history of Athens Speedway many drivers have competed at the track and have moved up in the racing circuit. Sam McQuagg, winner of the 1965 Daytona Firecracker 400, competed at Athens Speedway.

 “The Sportsman racers were changed from restrictions on flat heads in 1963 and each year has seen them make additional improvements. Wings, “Skeeter” type bodies, modification in fuel, etc., have increased the speed and interest in the program.

 “The Two Special 100 lap Championship events scheduled each year have been won by:

                 July 4th Mid-Season Championship                                      Labor Day Championship

 1960                    _ _ _                                                                Charlie Mincey, Atlanta, Georgia

1961                Freddy Fryar, Chattanooga, Tennessee                  Tootle Estes, Knoxville, Tennessee

1962                Donald Brooks, Center, Georgia                            Bill York, Toccoa, Georgia

1963                Claude Maldin, Tucker, Georgia                            Charlie Burkhalter, Athens, Georgia

1964                Charlie Padgett, Marietta, Georgia                          Charlie Padgett, Marietta, Georgia

1965                Charlie Mincey, Atlanta, Georgia                            Charlie Padgett, Marietta, Georgia

1966                 Charlie Padgett, Marietta, Georgia                         Charlie Padgett, Marietta, Georgia

 “As the speeds increase each year, the officials at Athens Speedway try to do all things possible to afford the drivers the maximum in safety features. Each year additional improvements are made for the safety of participants and spectators.

 “Much time is devoted by Bill Cooley and his staff to provide the fans with the best racing program possible and it is hoped that in the future as in the past that the fans and drivers will continue to support Athens Speedway with their interest and cooperation.”

 By the way, Charlie Padgett won the 100-lap Labor Day Championship race in 1966. Charlie Mincey trailed Buck Simmons for the first 97 laps but finally got by for second. The late Dub Meeler and Tommy Roberts followed Simmons.

 Where did all this start? Bill Cooley was born and raised in Athens. His father, M. S. Cooley, was an accountant who loved to go to the races. Bill says, “The first race I can remember was at Lakewood.” But his father carried the family all over North Georgia to watch all the early pioneers of Georgia. In the mid-fifties, Bill and some friends bought a car that was built to run on the Beach in Daytona. They figured this would be a “real” stock car. Problem was the car was geared too high and wouldn’t handle besides that. What was built for the Beach wouldn’t work at the small tracks in North Georgia.

 Their second try was with a bit more success but Bill discovered he was no Bud Lunsford nor Charlie Padgett nor anyone else running up front. He was what has become known as a field filler. He was always there and always ran the top class (flathead modifieds at the time). “One time at Twin Lakes Raceway (near Elberton), all the top dogs had dropped out and I had a chance of winning the consolation race. I really started pressing the pedal and before the checkered flag fell I spun out. What was so bad, all the guys in the pits had stopped what they were doing and were on the edge of the track rooting me on. That was as close as I ever came to winning a race.”

 

Bill Cooley drove this '34 Ford sponsored by Massey's Used Cars and O.B. Alewine's Garage. Pictures taken in April, 1958

 

 Then Bill and friend “Dynamite” Cole had the idea of building a track on some property off US Highway 78 west of Athens on Jimmie Daniels Road. The property was owned by Dynamite’s family. They secured a long-term lease in the spring of 1959. “That had to be the hottest summer in history in Athens,” was how Bill remembers the work. “Mr. Cole had some construction crews that worked from about seven in the morning until noon. They would kick off until late in the afternoon and then return to work. We moved dirt from the side of a hill to form the back stretch.”

 This went on until late September. At that time the rains that didn’t come during the summer started. Bill relates the biggest problem,  “ The clay we had moved to make the second turn was completely washed away one night as it rained locally about nine inches. We went back to work and reformed the turn.”  The final product was ready to put before the fans or was it?

 Bill suddenly realized that none of his people had ever run a race track before and hired a few notable officials from North Georgia. His mother would run the concessions (“sometimes if it wasn’t for the money she made at the concessions, we would have never made money.”), his sister Janice was the ticket taker while his father ran the pit gate. But for the first few races, Bill hired Jimmy Mosteller as race director. “Whatever Jimmy said we needed to do, we did.”

 And this caused the worst accident of Jimmy’s over 50 years of involvement in racing. As a Amateur heat race was about to start, Jimmy told Bill that they should not run the race but water the inside of the track. The racing surface was okay, but as all racers do, some were trying the short way around and that was the very bottom. When Bill had watered the track, he had not paid that much attention to the inside. “As I started to walk over to the truck, I heard the crowd groan. I turned to see one of the cars run over what looked like a hundred-pound bag of flour. “ It was Jimmy. He had come out on the track to direct the cars to the pits as the track was watered. In a deposition that Bill gathered for his court case towards the law suit filed, it is noted that Bill Galloway of Baldwin, GA was the driver that had run over Jimmy. PART OF STATEMENT.

 As a result, Bill hired his own crew not because the others had done a bad job but because he wanted his “own people” doing the job. Howard Sims was his flagman from the beginning. Howard was a long time friend.

 Harold Fryar of Chattanooga, TN won the second race a week later on November 15th. Bud Lunsford of Gainesville, GA won the 50-lap feature on Sunday afternoon, November 22nd. Tootle Estes had led for 32 laps until Bud got by him. Tootle held on for second and T. C. Hunt finished third. There were several pile-ups and one engine fire but no serious injuries. Wendell McFarland of Toccoa won the 30-lap Amateur event over Wendel Roach of Lavonia and Billy Bowman of Winterville.  This was suppose to be the last race but another was run on Thanksgiving Day. Bud Lunsford again won the modified feature. Lunsford went through the same scenario as the week before only he waited until lap 36 to pass Tootle Estes. T. C. Hunt again ran third. Harold Fryar ran fourth. Wilton Watkins of Baldwin won the amateur race, with Wendel Roach again finishing second. Bob Derrick of Walhalla, SC was third.

 The first full season of racing at Athens Speedway opened in late April 1960 the late Howard Corbin of Duluth, GA won that opener. In the first four races there were four different winners. Howard then Bud Lunsford then T. C. Hunt then Tootle Estes won the modified feature events. Then Bud Lunsford took possession of the speedway with 7 straight wins. From early June until late August, Bud beat everybody that came to Athens Speedway. On August 20th, T. C. Hunt beat Bud but did not get the bounty offered by the speedway as Bud dropped out with mechanical problems. Charlie Mincey won the first 100-lap championship race at the track on Labor Day. Bud again had mechanical problems, as did Tootle Estes, who led for 88 laps. Bud then went back to winning with four more victories. In early fall, they went to Sunday afternoon racing and finished about mid-November. All together, Bud won 11 races; T. C. Hunt and Tootle Estes won four main events each with Howard Corbin winning the opener only. This is speculation, as there didn’t seem to be too much information in the paper. One of amateur college teams takes up all the sports pages in Athens during the fall. A third division of racing was started at the speedway in 1962 with the addition of the Jalopy Division, giving Athens a three-division race card each week.

 

Following picture sequence was taken during the initial racing season in 1959. Full-bodied "flatheads".

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Getting lined up for start of race in 1960. (Notice car pulled off inside of track due to mechanical problem starting.)

                                                        Row 1  Harold Fryar #74                       Bud Lunsford #49

                                                       Row 2  Charlie Padgett #7                     Unknown #7

                                                       Row 3  Tootle Estes #6                          Unknown #73

                                                       Row 4  Charlie Burkhalter #75                Unknown (Super modified)

                                                       Row 5  Ivan Stephens #13                      Unknown

                                                       Row 6  Bill York #2

 

Coming to the "Green" at start of race. 

 

  

Taking the "Green" flag to start race in 1960.

 

Wrecking in turn 1.

 

   

Cleaning up aftermath of turn 1 wreck.

 

Under caution, flagman showing them "1" to go before dropping the green flag.

There was reason that car wouldn't start at beginning of race.