McCULLOUGH: Going to miss springtime at the racetrack in Atlanta

Nate McCullough

Nate McCullough

March 10, 1996. It was a Sunday morning.

I got up before the sun came up. I was a couple of weeks shy of my 25th birthday, but like a kid on Christmas Eve I’d barely slept because I was so excited.

I’d spent the night at my friend Mark Steffey’s house. Mark, his wife Melissa and I loaded up our coolers and headed out that morning around sunrise. By about 8 a.m. we were in the parking lot of our destination, Atlanta Motor Speedway. I was going to see my first NASCAR race.

I’d been a race fan since I was about 12 years old. Whenever one was on I would try to watch it. Even in black and white on my little 13-inch television, racing was exciting. In my spare time I built model kits of the cars I saw on TV.

By the time I had my driver’s license I had picked some favorite drivers — among them Richard Petty and Bill Elliot — and a favorite enemy, Dale Earnhardt. Some of my fondest memories of my teenage years are of sitting on the lakeshore with my buddies, reeling in catfish and listening to the NASCAR boys on the radio.

I continued to follow racing through college, but somehow or another I never made it to a race in person.

That all changed after I got my first “real job” after college. The department the boss put me in was full of rabid race fans. It wasn’t long before we were rectifying the tragedy of me having never gone to a race, which brings me back to March 10, 1996.

That morning was oh so cold. I was wearing my heaviest hunting coat and still shivering, at least until we started the long walk to the track. Once we got up to it, Mark told me to climb the hill and look through the fence.

It was like taking a peak at some shangri-la, a utopia of speed, oil and gasoline.

The banks were so steep, a sheer drop from the top of the wall. The track was a mile and half around (and an oval then) but it looked like a hundred it was so big. Just seeing the track was cool enough, but even cooler things were to happen that day.

First came the start of the race. When those cars took the green flag, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen or felt. The stands beneath my feet were vibrating from the horsepower as the herd thundered past. I don’t care who you are, if you witness the start of a race in person and don’t get excited, check yourself for a pulse.

Then there were the scanners. By using a scanner and a list of radio frequencies bought at the track, we could listen in as drivers and crew chiefs talked strategy, or more often, cussed and complained. Imagine being in the huddle at a Falcons game or in the Braves dugout. That’s the kind of access you have at a race via the radio.

And, of course, there was the racing. And the wrecking. All done at around 200 mph. It was glorious.

The day ended with me sun- and wind-burned and my nemesis Dale Earnhardt in victory lane, but it didn’t matter. I was more hooked than ever and found myself making trips to a half dozen other tracks in the ensuing years.

But AMS wasn’t only the site of my first race as a fan. It was also the first place I covered one as a reporter. I went from the stands to the pits, the garage and the press box. And I got hooked all over again, as more cool things were yet to come.

I’ve stood in the chow line behind those guys I used to listen to on the radio. I’ve watched a pitstop from the pitbox. I know how quickly you can lose your hearing when they rev an engine in the garage. I’ve been to the drivers’ meetings. I once toured the ESPN compound and learned how they televise a race. I’ve even met two governors, a couple of movie stars and Bo Duke, all at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

And one day, I interviewed Richard Petty. NASCAR’s “King,” winner of 200 races, stood and talked to me like we were neighbors leaning over a fence for 20 or 30 minutes. Somedays I still don’t believe it.

And all of those wonderful racing memories started that March day at what they called the spring race, a race that now, tragically, is no more. The speedway announced this week that it would no longer host a spring race.

That’s sad for a lot of people, mainly the fans, of course, and all the businesses around Hampton that will lose out on the extra revenue. But mostly I hate it for the staff at AMS because those people are the best at what they do and it’s sad that they won’t have as many opportunities to do it anymore.

Atlanta will still have the Labor Day race, though. I guess I’ll have to make more memories in September from now on.

E-mail Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays.