When the University of Georgia plays the University of Florida each year in Jacksonville, the closest to midway you can get between the schools, it’s anything but collegial — on the field and off. They take their college football seriously in the South.
They take their NASA racing seriously, too, but off the track, it’s like a gathering of old friends. As the day’s racing comes to a close, you can smell wood smoke from the barbecue and hear the telltale cracking of beers throughout the paddock. NASA Southeast and NASA Florida joined forces at Road Atlanta in September — the weekend after the National Championships — for a combined event of HPDE and racing.
You know you’re in the South because the waitresses all call you darlin’ and there are Waffle Houses on both sides of the freeway exit to the track. You come home with red Georgia clay clinging to your shoes and you have to look up what “kudzu” is in the dictionary.
You also can tell you’re in the South because of the number of old Sprint Cup cars on track. Atlanta is just four hours from Mooresville, N.C., where you can pick up used stock cars for a song, and they often live long second lives in amateur motorsports.
The draw is the racing, of course, and Road Atlanta is something special unto itself. Billed as one of Car and Driver magazine’s six top road courses in the United States, Road Atlanta is a spectacular facility, with a 2.54-mile ribbon of asphalt and 12 turns making excellent use of the rolling north Georgia landscape. One of the signature stretches of track is “The Esses,” which winds downhill and back up, and it’s one of American motorsports’ most enduring images.
Built in 1970, Road Atlanta is a fast track. In fact, there are really only two slow corners. Turn 7, which leads on to the long, high-speed back straight. The straight is so long, it reportedly was used as a landing strip for drug smugglers’ planes in the 1980s. That’s another story altogether, but yes, the back straight really is that long. Then there is the 10A and 10B chicane that lead under the bridge, over the blind Turn 11 and into the fast downhill Turn 12.
Road Atlanta is a take-no-prisoners track. Get it right and you feel like a superhero. Get it wrong and the consequences can be grim. Of the nearly 300 cars that set a wheel on the track that September weekend, we counted seven that left on a flatbed. NASA Southeast Regional Director Jim Pantas and Florida Regional Director Jon Felton had no trouble filling the paddock of this bucket-list track, and they put on a huge Carolina-style barbecue Saturday night as the two regions celebrated a weekend of fantastic racing. Our thanks go out to Jim and Jon and the racers in the Southeast and Florida regions for the warm welcome and the spectacular racing.
We hope readers in all regions enjoy this story as much as we enjoyed putting it together.