April 4, 2012

Speed and survival

Chatsworth track seeks to become hotspot again

By Devin Golden

— Since the first race on a Sunday afternoon in 1965, change has been the theme of North Georgia Speedway. Another theme is survival.

And a few people have been along for the whole ride. Leon Brindle, Jody Ridley and Gary McPherson are just a few of those who are able to sit down and recount story after story about the dirt track — from its construction in the 1960s to its prime in the 1980s and all the way to more recent years, when it has struggled to be as popular.

While fan attendance and driver turnout has dropped in recent years at the Murray County track, the history runs deep in the dirt that makes up the one-third mile loop, and staff and drivers alike hope the dirt track returns to its former glory as a Saturday night hot spot in Northwest Georgia.

A preacher’s idea

The track’s first historical name was Earnest Young, a local preacher, who built the track in the 1960s. He was friends with Brindle, who was a prominent driver each week at the track for around 40 years.

“That’s how I got my start down there,” said Brindle, a multi-time track champion and a part-owner of Brindle Auto Parts.

The idea for a Chatsworth speedway came from a desire to create a family-friendly atmosphere and give local kids something to do. Did Young have an affection for racing?

“Not really,” Brindle said. “He just wanted to do something for families and kids to have something fun to do.”

But there were some people who balked at the idea of a race track in Chatsworth.

“There were a lot of people who went against it because he was a preacher and it was a race track,” Brindle said. “It was his land, but some people called it a ‘hell hole’ and all of that. But no one had to go.”

While it started out on Sundays, it quickly shifted to Saturday nights in 1971 after lights were built around the track.

“It switched because more people come out on Saturday night than any other night,” Brindle said. “You can go to the races and stay out late and then sleep in the next morning.”

From there, it became a weekly staple of Saturday nights in Chatsworth and received the general nickname of “the fastest one-third mile in the South.”

“It’s the best track that they’ve got anywhere around,” Brindle said.

The look and racing style of the speedway has changed through the years. Originally surrounding the dirt track was a wooden fence. That changed to a concrete wall. With technology came faster speeds and more equipment in the cars. There was a time when drivers would turn a true stock car into a racer with a few simple tricks.

“You would buy a 1972 Camaro, take the doors off and put roll bars around (the car),” Brindle said.

“I’d have kids helping me with it, and I’d pay for them to get in. It was something like $20 to get in, and everyone wanted to go.”

But one part of the track always stayed the same. The surface has always been dirt, which is economical for drivers.

“I’ve raced on all (surfaces),” Brindle said. “(Asphalt) would be tough on the tires. You’d have to change them out after each race. With dirt, you could run three or four weekends in a row on the same tires.”

Pit stop for legends

In terms of legacies that have turned wheels on the track, the names go on and on.

From current NASCAR drivers to multi-time champions, a number of drivers have passed through the speedway.

Bill Elliot, the 1988 NASCAR Winston Cup champion, leads the list. Ronnie Johnson and Dale McDowell, who both won multiple Southern All Star Series championships, follow. Current NASCAR driver Kenny Schrader even made a few appearances.

Ridley is another. A lifelong Chatsworth resident, he made his break onto the national racing scene in 1972 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. But Ridley ran his first race in 1965 when North Georgia Speedway first opened.

“It wasn’t really a series at that time,” he said, noting points standings were not kept from week to week. “Over the years they kept adding to it and adding to it. Now it’s probably one of the nicest dirt tracks around.”

Ridley’s last race he ran at the track was in the early 1970s; he later became the 1980 NASCAR Winston Cup Rookie of the Year. He had two top-five finishes, 18 top 10s and was seventh in the final standings that year.

“A lot of racers who got their start at the North Georgia Speedway have gone on to bigger series races and such,” driver Gary McPherson said. “We would have 24 Super Late Model cars of well-known drivers — Ronnie Johnson, Rex Richie, Don Jones, Dale McDowell. And (North Georgia) was their rooting ground.”

McPherson is another well-known name around the track. He started racing at the speedway in 1988 and won the track’s season championship 15 times.

“When we first came there, I think the first trips I made, Robert Kinsey was the promoter then,” McPherson said. “We were racing at Cleveland (Tenn.) Speedway on Saturday nights, and then we started racing at the North Georgia Speedway when Kinsey took it over.”

McPherson said his generation’s theme was “run fast with what you’ve got.

“We built engines to run,” he said. “When we were racing, we wanted bigger motors and faster cars.”

When it came to the usual names that showed up each week at the speedway, it was always about competitive fun.

“Everybody just goes to have fun,” Brindle said. “I’ve been racing for over 40 years and I always have fun. You have a few people (who get) upset down there, but the next week it would be OK.”

“It’s a little bit different than it is now,” Ridley said. “There wasn’t a lot of money involved. You congregated a whole lot more. Now people just kind of stay to themselves. I was making a living, but most people were doing it for fun.”

And the brotherhood that existed among the drivers might have started at the speedway but grew outside of it.

“Sometimes it would get rained out and we’d take off and go somewhere else,” Ridley said, “and everyone would follow one another.”

Where people wanted to go

Those interviewed remembered the grandstands as being packed back in the 1980s and 1990s. McPherson remembers times when traffic backed up outside of the parking lot. He said attendance was “astronomical” in the speedway’s prime.

“If you didn’t get there early, then you didn’t get in,” McPherson said. “I’ve won a lot of races there, and on local nights there have been times where the driveway into the parking lot was full.”

Mitch Walker, special events director for the track, said the crowds were not limited to the North Georgia area. People came from all over to watch the races.

“In the mid-to-late 1990s, it was nothing to come into the parking lot and see license plates and see five or six states represented,” Walker said.

Even in the 1970s, the weekly racing was of high interest to folks in the area, and even the drivers. Brindle remembers being in a rivalry with Snooks Defore in the mid-1970s. The two were friends, but they often were side by side on the track each race.

“The fans would be split, some on his side and some on my side,” Brindle said. “We would race side by side each week.”

Saturday nights could not contain the excitement surrounding the weekly races. McPherson remembers doing radio interviews during the week and talking about opponents and whether they would beat him in the upcoming race or not.

“People would get pumped up and would call in live,” McPherson said. “And that would help promote the track locally. If North Georgia is going to be a successful race track, it’s going to have to do it locally.”

But once the week ended, the focus again shifted to the speedway, which became the place to be for Saturday night entertainment.

“Everybody would say, ‘I’m going to North Georgia Speedway tonight,’” Brindle said. “Back in the day there wasn’t much to do on Saturday night except go to the speedway or go to church.”

Brindle’s son, Chip Brindle, has raced at the speedway for about 11 years. He remembers being at the track “all the time” while growing up.

“It seemed like more people were into racing back then,” Chip Brindle said. “Racing just isn’t as big as it used to be. I always remember the Hooters girls being down there when I was young.”

Even today, the speedway has its good days, but the numbers aren’t as consistent. Terry Wilson, a current co-promoter for the speedway, said the attendance numbers in the 1980s and 1990s, the speedway’s prime, were approximately 3,500.

“Now, if you get 1,500,” he said, “then you are doing good.”

Losing trust

In the past few years, the speedway has had a revolving door of promoters and even had to close down for a month due to financial trouble.

“It has gone through several promoters in the last few years,” Wilson said. “When you go and change promoters, the public loses trust in you. The fans never know if it will be open or not.”

Wilson and Keiff Ellis became the new promoters last June after the track closed down for one month in the middle of the 2011 season. Timmy Millwood was the promoter before them, and Monty Morrow held the title from 2007-2009. Ron Harris and Ronnie Sutton ran it from 2005-2007 and Scott Lee and Kristi Ayre from 2003-2005.

“If you go to a different employment each week, or have a different employer, it’s hard to adjust to that,” McPherson said. “Everybody goes into the position with the objective that you’re trying to do the best that you can.”

It wasn’t just the number of different promoters. An unintentional monopoly system with one driver winning almost all of the races did not help. McPherson tells the story how in one recent season he won each race except for two. The prospect of “racing for second” pushed other drivers away from the speedway.

“We weren’t doing nothing to do it; we weren’t cheating or anything,” McPherson said. “Obviously there was nothing going on, but it got bad for the track. They didn’t want to race because who’s going to go for second?”

Some people say the reputation and stability of the track was hurt by the reins of some promoters. According to previous Daily Citizen reports, when promoter Monty Morrow oversaw both the North Georgia Speedway and Tennessee’s Cleveland Speedway in 2009, racing at North Georgia was moved from its traditional Saturday night to Fridays — Cleveland got the coveted Saturday night spot — and then became so sporadic that few drivers chose to compete at the Murray County track.

“You are going to take care of your home track,” Wilson said.

McPherson said the insecurity of whether the track will stay open adds fuel to people’s doubts.

“We’ve run there but we haven’t been able to be competitive there,” McPherson said. “We haven’t been able to put our investment there because it’s unsecure. I can’t go buy four tires to race there Saturday night because they could be closed in five weeks.”

‘Coming back’

Most associated with the track wants to see the grandstands filled and the same type of energetic atmospheres that would be showcased on a normal Saturday night many years ago.

“The Youngs have always owned the race track and they’re very good people,” McPherson said. “They really want to make it work. I really wish that it would become successful again, become like it used to be.”

Wilson said the maintenance has greatly improved in the past year and the future will include autograph sessions with fans and drawings to entice people to come to the speedway again.

But attendance is not the only thing needing a boost. Wilson also wants to encourage drives to return to the speedway. Without good, competitive racing, there is no reason for fans to come and watch, he said.

“We just want to get the fans’ trust and drivers’ trust back,” Wilson said, “because the drivers spend a lot of time in the winter to work on their car.”

Brindle, who has seen many promoters come and go, believes in the current promoter duo.

“I believe (Ellis and Wilson) will do some good things,” Brindle said. “If anybody can do it, I think they can bring it back. There are going to be some pretty big shows.”

Walker used the analogy of a family spending its Saturday night at a movie theater. A family of four could see a movie for about $60 and spend two hours, Walker said. At the speedway, the same size family would spend about $40 and get four hours worth of entertainment.

“We’d like to return to where it was,” Walker said. “We want to provide good, family fun, four hours of racing and let everyone be out by midnight.

“I’ve been around racing for over 30 years, and in a time when you see race tracks closing right and left, it’s good to see a race track coming back.”