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Atlanta: The Old Track and The Older Track

NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series travels to Las Vegas this week for the running of the Shelby American Sprint Cup race, but the crew of the Wood Brothers #21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion will be back at home base, focusing on their second appearance of the season on March 5-7 in the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The Woods will be returning to a track where they’re the all-time win leader with 12 Cup victories and where their driver Bill Elliott also has five Cup wins. The Woods, and Elliott, enjoyed most of their success on what most racing folks refer to as the “old track” at Atlanta. By that they mean the old true oval configuration at Atlanta Motor Speedway, which was converted into the current quad oval during the 1997 season. But to NASCAR pioneers like Glen Wood, founder of the Wood Brothers team, the “old track” at Atlanta is Lakewood Speedway, the now-defunct one-mile clay oval just south of downtown Atlanta.

Lakewood, which was replaced on the Cup schedule in 1960 by the new superspeedway further south in Hampton, was known both as “The Grand Old Lady” and “The Indianapolis of the South.” It was built around 1915. The first automobile race there, in 1917, featured two legendary Indy car drivers, Barney Oldfield and Ralph DePalma, in a set of match races. (DePalma won the title of World Dirt Track champion when Oldfield’s car suffered a bent axle.)

One of the races that has become a big part of stock car racing lore occurred at Lakewood on Labor Day, 1941. Lloyd Seay, one of the greatest stock car drivers in the days before NASCAR, came to his home track riding an impressive win streak. It continued in the annual Labor Day Classic as Seay, driving a Modified Ford owned by Raymond Parks of Atlanta, beat another early stock car star, Bob Flock, to win the 100-miler. It would be Seay’s last race. After the race he returned to his home in Dawson County, Ga., and the next day was shot to death by his cousin during a dispute over their moonshine business.

But Dawson County was able to regain its role as the birthplace of stock car stars thanks to the red-headed son of a local Ford dealer who went on to become “Awesome Bill From Dawsonville” and now wheels one of the most famous cars in motorsports. The Wood Brothers team also made its mark at Lakewood in the early days of NASCAR, as Glen Wood was a strong runner at Lakewood in his days behind the wheel. His best finish on the Grand Old Lady came on Labor Day weekend, 1956, when he finished second to Joe Weatherly in a Convertible race.

NASCAR’s Convertible circuit, which ran regularly from 1956 to 1959 and often ran in combined Sweepstakes races with the hardtops of the Grand National Series, featured some of the best drivers in the history of NASCAR. Its roster included several drivers who went on to win races in the Wood Brothers’ Fords. They included Weatherly, Curtis Turner, Tiny Lund and Marvin Panch. And Glen Wood was one of the circuit’s top drivers.

In 1956, his first year in the series, he had 12 finishes of second or third in 31 starts. For his Convertible career, he had five wins, 43 top-five and 62 top-10 finishes plus nine poles in just 89 starts. Lakewood was one of his favorite tracks, even if it did take the men from Stuart a few wrong turns before finding the track the first time they went there to race. “I sat on the pole there once,” Wood said. “The track could either be tacky or it could get to a dry, hard, slick finish. When it got like that you couldn’t charge into the turns like you usually do. “I remember one time Curtis Turner got there late and didn’t realize how slick the track was. I guess I should have warned him, but he went into the corner too hard and about went through the fence.”

Wood said Lakewood, in its heyday, was one of the few tracks a mile in length, and its reputation was known far and wide. “The grandstands were packed, and there would be people all around the track, even up in the trees watching the races,” he said. “It could get really dusty, but the fans didn’t seem to mind getting covered with red dust.” The dust, combined with a more modern track just down the road, doomed the old track, and it held its last race in 1979. “It’s just one of those tracks that has been lost to time,” Wood said.