Augusta International Raceway: The Masters of Auto Racing
Just 30 minutes South of the iconic golfing cornerstone lies the remnants of an ambitious racing circuit that was beset by potential and tragedy.
Throughout the annals of auto racing history, certain towns and cities have become bound to their respective racing events. Locations such as Indianapolis, Monaco, Le Mans, and Daytona are all inseparably linked to their motorsport legacies. A region that is rarely talked about in the global extent of auto racing is the US state of Georgia. Even though it has gained steam as the home of the increasingly popular Road Atlanta circuit, and the birthplace of multiple hall of fame-worthy drivers, it still is a relatively quiet region in the world of racing. In 1959, a full decade before Road Atlanta was even in its planning stage, another racing venue was being dreamt up over two and a half hours away. On the banks of the Savannah River, the natural border of Georgia and South Carolina, lies the town of Augusta, Georgia. This town, today, is primarily known for its influence on the sport of golf. However, a legendary stock car driver and his comrades had another idea for what the riverside town was to be known for. If their plan was to come to fruition, Augusta could have possibly become the world center of racing. This is the ambitious tale of Augusta International Raceway: the Masters of auto racing.
Harold Peden (left), Marshall Spray (center), and NASCAR icon Glenn " Fireball " Roberts pose for photographs in front of a tractor during the construction of Augusta International Raceway in 1963. Photo from the AIR Preservation Society.
In 1959, three men began dreaming of an auto racing complex unlike anything else in the world. Alongside Harold Peden and Marshall Spray, the man spearheading the endeavor was NASCAR legend Glenn "Fireball" Roberts. The nearly 1,100-acre plot of land that was set for development was situated around 30 minutes South of downtown Augusta, in the small community of Hephzibah. The master plan for the project was to, essentially, build a mortal Valhalla for motorsports fans and drivers. Many racing venues today only have one or two main attractions within their boundaries which usually includes the main circuit and a smaller track for other series. Augusta International Raceway was to have eight (8) different circuits, catering to nearly every motorsport series imaginable. A drag racing strip and separate karting, motorcycle, 1/8 mile, and 1/2 mile tracks would dot the Northern section of the facility, with the hallmark attractions set to be built towards the Southern end. The cornerstones of the petrol-fueled heaven on earth were to be a 2 mile-long tri-oval, similar to Daytona in Florida, and a 3-mile long road course. The complex was not done either, as a full-scale golf course, horse racing track, and hydroplane boat racing area were all slated for construction as well. To say that this project was ambitious would be a massive understatement, as nothing like this had ever been attempted before, let alone in the United States.
The entire facility, labeled and photographed from the air. Photo from the AIR Preservation Society.
The land outside of Augusta was purchased in July of 1959 for a price of around $115,000 (in 1959 money), and construction began almost immediately. With the backing of investors, as well as the motivation from one of NASCAR's biggest stars at the time, the project took off. The majority of the facilities in the North were completed first in 1960, with a single-day festival taking place on opening day, with each of the newly built tracks being used. As the legend goes, the design of the 3-mile road course was completed by "Fireball" Roberts, Spray, and Peden in just a single day. With a bottle of Jack Daniels at their side, the NASCAR star and his cohorts drunkenly marked out, what they hoped, would draw tens upon thousands of spectators to Georgia. With Peden in a bulldozer behind his comrades, the design of their world-class road course was complete. Ironically enough, the circuit ended up being more appealing than anything Hermann Tilke has drawn up in years. All joking aside, the track was impressive, especially for a road course in the Southern United States. A covered paddock and seating areas, a separate pit lane, and comparatively advanced safety for the era made Augusta International Raceway a circuit truly worthy of global attention. Upon its grand opening on November 17th, 1963, hopes were high for the unique road course and the complex as a whole.
A diagram of the road course's layout. Diagram from RacingCircuits.info
The 15 turn circuit was truly one of a kind. To keep speeds up throughout a lap, nearly every corner had some form of banking to them. With a natural flow, along with some elements borrowed from the popular Riverside Raceway in California, the circuit was controversially billed as the fastest road course in North America. Another interesting differentiation regarding the new circuit was the counter-clockwise direction in which the races were run. This was quite the unique trait for this time period, especially for a road course deep in the heart of oval country. Augusta International Raceway was a racing fan's dream circuit, with elevation changes, beautiful scenery, and a fast and flowing layout. The circuit was not perfect, however, as the strange sweeping main "straight", and the odd position of the pit lane made a dedicated viewing experience difficult. The main grandstands were located behind the pits, meaning that getting a clear glance at the start/finish line was nearly impossible without binoculars. Turns 6 through 11 ran by, what could be argued to be, some of the most beautiful scenery in the history of auto racing. To the left side of the racing surface was a set of four small lakes, which provided a gorgeous backdrop for the on-track bouts. Although safety was relatively advanced at this circuit, in comparison to other road courses at the time, there were no guardrails protecting the racers from the bayou-like bodies of water. Racer Joe Weatherly would end up dubbing the lakes "Gator Hollow" after flipping into one of them during a race. After the wreck, he swore to everyone in earshot that he saw an alligator swimming about the lake after his car came to a stop. These claims were never substantiated by any of his peers, however, the nickname stuck.
A photograph of the event program for the one and only NASCAR Grand National race held on the road course, the Augusta 510. Photo from the AIR Preservation Society.
The facility's inaugural flagship event, the Augusta 510, was slated for the circuit's opening day of November 17th. With over $50,000 (over $428,000 in 2021) on the line and an all-star lineup of future NASCAR Hall of Famers on the grid, the excitement at the venue was at its peak. Among those taking the green flag on Sunday was track owner "Fireball" Roberts, Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett, Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Wendell Scott, Junior Johnson, Rex White, and Fred Lorenzen. At noon, the field raced down into turn one for the first time, with Fred Lorenzen leading from pole. The originally scheduled 510-mile race would morph into a mini-endurance event, with the race lasting nearly five hours, and 20 competitors encountering some form of mechanical trouble. Bobby Johns would bring out the one and only caution flag of the day, crashing his 1963 Pontiac on lap 2. The race would be called short of its 170 originally scheduled laps, as darkness began to fall over Augusta. The race win would go to "Fireball" Roberts, capturing top honors with over a lap separating him and the 2nd place Dave MacDonald. The race was truly a spectacle, put on by some of the best stock car racers in history. So, why did this circuit, and subsequently the entire complex, fall into ruin?
A Tragic End
The Daytona Beach Evening Newspaper from July 2nd, 1964. The headline breaks the news of "Fireball" Roberts passing away at the age of 35. Newspaper from SnapLap
Even though the facility was truly one of a kind, and would be held in very high regard today, the American racing culture of the 1960s was just not ready for such a racing facility. With Augusta being nestled in the Southern United States, road course racing was fighting an uphill battle against the growing popularity of ovals. The original plans to construct their own Superspeedway were scrapped in favor of the new road course. This change would not reap the rewards that the governing body was hoping for, and would ultimately help lead to the complex's eventual fate. The investors and circuit owners predicted a sizeable crowd of around 45,000 fans for the 1963 NASCAR event. Unfortunately, only a little over 1/3rd of that prediction were trackside for race day. This was a crushing disappointment for those involved, as their crown jewel did not draw in the public as originally anticipated. Of course, with a lack of attendance comes less money, which typically does not please investors. The NASCAR Grand National Series would stay at Augusta International Raceway for the next couple of years on the newly paved half-mile oval, but they would never return to the unique road course. Other series such as the United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC) would run races following NASCAR's departure from the circuit, with Dave MacDonald and Ken Miles winning both USRRC sanctioned races in 1964. This year would also mark the beginning of the end for Augusta International Raceway, as they would suffer the biggest setback in their brief history.
Robert's 1964 Ford Galaxy lines up on pit road prior to the start of the 1964 Daytona 500. Photographer unknown.
On lap 7 of the 1964 World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson would collide on track, subsequently spinning out. "Fireball" Roberts attempted to avoid the wrecking duo, only to end up smashing rear-first into the inside retaining wall. The No. 22 Ford Galaxy's fuel cell would rupture on impact, quickly igniting soon thereafter. With the car on its roof and engulfed in flames, Ned Jarrett raced over from his machine to save Roberts, who was desperately pleading for his assistance. Ned would brave the fire and the flames to save Roberts from almost certain death, dragging him to safety. Roberts would be admitted to a Charlotte-area hospital, where it was discovered that he had suffered severe burns on over 80% of his body. After about a month in the hospital, it appeared as though "Fireball" was going to recover. Unfortunately, Roberts would take a turn for the worst on June 30th, before tragically succumbing to his burns and resulting sickness on July 2nd. Robert's death would send shockwaves through the racing community, but none more so than that of his own racing circuit in Augusta. The loss of "Fireball" hit the venue like a ton of bricks, as now one of their leading investors and founders was gone. Eerily, Robert's passing was not the only accident to affect the circuit, as the one and only Augusta 510 became somewhat of a cursed race.
The six drivers who finished inside the top 10 at the 1963 Augusta 510, many of whom would not live to see the end of the following year. Image gallery from Speedway and Road Racing History
Six drivers who finished inside of the top seven at the 1963 race on the Augusta road course would all be killed in accidents within the next two years. 2nd place Dave MacDonald would be killed in a fiery crash alongside Eddie Sachs on May 30th, 1964 at the Indianapolis 500. 3rd place Billy Wade would be killed during a test at Daytona in January of 1965. 4th place Joe Weatherly, the man who gave "Gator Hollow" its iconic nickname, would die in an accident during the NASCAR Grand National race at Riverside just a few months after the race in Augusta. 6th place Jimmy Pardue would also die after a tire test went awry at Charlotte Motor Speedway in September of 1964, just a couple of months after Robert's fatal crash at the same circuit. Lastly, 7th place Larry Thomas would pass away following an accident on Interstate 75 in Georgia on January 25th, 1965, whilst driving to perform a tire test. The sole survivor of the top seven was the man who pulled "Fireball" from his blazing wreck at Charlotte, Ned Jarrett. The fates of these six drivers in the aftermath of the only Augusta 510 cast a shadow over the entire complex, a shadow that the circuit would never escape from.
Marshall Spray standing next to the Augusta 510's official Pontiac GTO safety car. Photo from Dave MacDonald's memorial website.
Whilst the tragic deaths surrounding the drivers of the NASCAR Grand National race at Augusta did not directly spell the end for the venue, the incidents certainly did not help the struggling raceway, none more so than that of "Fireball" Roberts. Without a true hallmark race, and most of their additional projects being scrapped, Augusta International Raceway struggled to get people through the gates. The largest single-day crowd recorded at the complex was a disappointing 14,000, a far cry from what was originally envisioned upon the circuit's opening day. The NASCAR Grand National series would pack up for good in October of 1969, with a mediocre crowd of only around 4,500 turning out to watch Bobby Issac win a rather boring race. Without a major series anchoring the track onto racing schedules, the end of the road came into view for the near-decade old complex. By the dawn of the new decade, Augusta International Raceway closed for good, an unfortunate end to one of the most ambitious dreams in motorsports history.
The Augusta International Raceway memorial, located near the original pit road. Photo from Heather Sepielli.
The facility would sit abandoned for decades following its closure, left relatively untouched. In 1996, nearly three decades after Augusta International Raceway shut its doors, the City of Augusta purchased the vast plot of land for redevelopment. Typically, these types of revitalization projects by city governments destroy every last remnant of a once magnificent facility, usually just to build a Wal-Mart or Amazon distribution center on top of its foundations. Historic racing and sports facilities such as Riverside Raceway and Candlestick Park in California both suffered this fate, with only small plaques marking what once stood upon the site. Almost 30 years to the day of the raceway's abandonment, Diamond Lakes Regional Park opened to the public. The facility is located along the original start/finish straight of the road course and features dozens of sports facilities for baseball, softball, basketball, and tennis. A library was also erected in the years following the land's redevelopment. The vast majority of the northern end of the former Augusta International Raceway property has been repurposed as residential subdivisions, but a small section of the 1/2 mile oval and most of the drag strip remains in place. Amazingly, the bulk of the road course still exists! Aside from the park and certain side roads being built upon the old racing surfaces, most of the original raceway can still be seen and visited. Everything else that was slated for completion at the circuit is underneath various housing developments or has been reclaimed by nature.
Augusta International Raceway in 1993, before its redevelopment in 1999. Image from Google Earth.
Augusta International Raceway in the present day, with most of the circuit still remaining. Image from Google Earth.
So, why has Augusta International Raceway survived for over half a century in a fully abandoned state? In 2003, a non-profit foundation called the Augusta International Raceway Preservation Society (AIRPS) was formed to help keep the memory of this once top-tier circuit alive. Headed by the families of former drivers who once raced at the track, and some of the drivers themselves, the AIRPS has continued to preserve "Fireball's" dream raceway, nearly 60 years after his tragic passing. In 2017, a memorial and small monument were erected next to the library to honor Augusta International Raceway, and a number of racing drivers gone far before their time.
Marshall Spray (left) chats with Ned Jarrett (right) on the 1/2 mile oval in 1962. Photo from Speedway and Road Racing History.
Augusta International Raceway could have easily become, in the modern-day, one of the most beloved circuits in the world. With eight active tracks, catering to nearly every motorsport imaginable, today's fans would flock to this massive complex. Unfortunately, "Fireball's" ambitious project was simply at the right place at the wrong time. With Southeastern tracks such as Barber Motorsports Park and Road Atlanta steadily growing in popularity in the 21st century, Augusta surely would have seen similar growth as well. What truly hindered the facility, among other factors that I mentioned earlier, was the incompletion of the tri-oval. NASCAR was expanding and only getting more popular every single year. In a weird timeline-altering way, Augusta's Superspeedway was set to open years before Talladega in Alabama. What if Augusta did build their arena of speed first? Would Augusta be the oval everyone recognizes for its insane speeds and pileups, or maybe even a Will Ferell movie from 2006? We will never know. If Augusta survived into the 1970s and beyond, we might have a completely different story on our hands. Not one of bankruptcy and tragedy, but one surrounding the most prosperous motorsport venue in history. Even today, the track would be flourishing. With NASCAR looking at road course expansion, Indycar hitting its biggest peak since the 1990s, and IMSA anchoring the US endurance scene, Augusta would have no shortage of events to book. Today, all that remains are the outlines of what once was. A racing venue unlike anything before or since. A dream among three men, which would not come to fruition.