Our racing legacy

Johnny Hollins was just a youngster during Augusta's brief brush with NASCAR fame.

"My daddy owned a couple of race cars," he said. "And I drove my uncle's wrecker during the races."

That was back in the early 1960s, when the newly built Augusta International Speedway and its high-octane clientele seemed destined for the fame that has since blessed Daytona and Darlington.

The biggest names in the stock car circuit were all here for the early races: Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Bobby Allison - even Richard Petty.

"People don't realize it, but this was one of the largest - if not the largest - facility of its kind, in terms of racing," said Henry Jones, who leads a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the memory of the once-grand venue on the site of today's Diamond Lakes Regional Park.

Each year, Mr. Jones, Mr. Hollins and scores of former drivers and fans who enjoyed the speedway during its decade of operation gather for a reunion of sorts to enjoy old times and preserve memories.

This year's event, "Celebrating Motorsports Racing Heritage," will be held Saturday and will include displays of about 100 vintage race cars and the expansion of a monument near the Diamond Lakes Community Center.

"This is our fourth year holding this event," Mr. Jones said. "We use this as a method of educating people about what was here. Our community has grown so much that a lot of residents don't even know we had a place like this."

One of the speedway's most important races occurred Nov. 17, 1963, when the "Augusta 510" lured fans from across the nation.

The winner was Glenn "Fireball" Roberts, an icon of his era who was killed the following season after a fiery crash in Charlotte.

His death was part of an eerie pattern that plagued the racing circuit in the days before more effective safety equipment and rules were devised.

"Six of the top seven finishers in that race died within a year of that race," Mr. Jones said. "It was a real ironic sequence of events."

The speedway operated for almost a decade. Its original design included eight tracks, of which six were built. There were also seven main grandstands, a 15,000-square-foot garage, 10 septic tanks with a capacity of 29,000 gallons and miles of access roads.

"It was lots of fun," Mr. Hollins recalled. "Back in those days I was just a kid - and driving the wrecker was a way to get in free - and meet some of the drivers."

Despite its ambitious beginnings, attendance at the events waned. "I think the last races out there were in late 1969 or early 1970," Mr. Hollins said. "It was closed by the end of 1970."

Today, all that's left of the once-proud venue is a monument and a few miles of track where asphalt that once accommodated stock cars is now evolving into a walking and running trail.

The Augusta International Raceway Preservation Society expects thousands of attendees at this year's event.

"We'll have a lot of the old drivers out there - and the workers and, of course, the fans," Mr. Jones said. "But the majority will be the general public."

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Fourth Annual "Celebrating Motorsports Racing Heritage"

WHEN: Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.

WHERE

: Diamond Lakes Regional Park, off Windsor Spring Road

EVENTS: Vintage race cars, visits with former drivers, dedication of a new section of the speedway monument, concessions and souvenirs Bring Your old photos and memorabilia.

MORE INFO: www.augustainternationalraceway.com