It’s been nearly 30 years since the last automobile race was held on the mile-long dirt track at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway, but the memories of the place haven’t faded.
On Aug. 9, the inaugural Lakewood Speedway Reunion will be held at the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame at the Dawsonville City Municipal Complex.
According to Mike Bell, CEO and historian of the Georgia Automobile Racing Hall of Fame Association, the Atlanta track saw its first auto race in 1917, and took its last lap in 1979 — although a horse race in 1983 could be considered the last official race on the surface.
The speedway — whose site is now home to the Lakewood Amphitheatre — had plenty of Forsyth County connections during its more than 60 years of operation, Bell said.
Forsyth was home to its share of speedways during Lakewood’s heyday, where local drivers would hone their skills before heading to Atlanta for more high-profile competition.
“The same drivers would drive, say, at Forsyth County Speedway in the late ‘60s and they would also drive at Lakewood on Sunday afternoon for the big races,” Bell said.
Among the best of those area drivers was Dan Lingerfelt of Cumming, who raced three times at Lakewood in a souped-up Ford Starliner during the 1960s, winning once. (Lingerfelt, now 69, actually claims two wins on the track, but notes that the first result wasn’t allowed to stand.)
Lingerfelt said the track’s infamous rocky clay, which threw up enough debris and dust to bedevil its drivers, caused him his share of difficulty during his win there.
“It was rocks flying up and my windshield was almost beat out when the race was over,” he recalled.
Bell said that the dirt at Lakewood became a chronic problem, due to lack of routine replacement.
“People don’t realize it, but the dirt on a race track after decades gets to where it’s not usable anymore and needs to be changed. The dirt just got to where ... it was almost like a powder,” said Bell, describing how the air on and around the track would become filled with dust a few laps into a race.
Perhaps the most notable tragedy on the track can be attributed to the surface, when British racer George Robson — the then-current Indianapolis 500 champion — and American driver George “Tex” Barringer both died in a multi-car pile-up in summer 1946. The accident was blamed on low visibility from dusty conditions.
Though high-profile, the incident wasn’t unique. In all, more than a dozen lives were lost on the track, a fact which will be a prime focus of the reunion.
During its time, the speedway was just one component of a larger resort experience. Bell said the Lakewood area was once comparable to what Lake Lanier now offers.
In addition to auto races and motorcycle races, the area was generally devoted to recreation, with the opportunity to take foot-powered boats onto the lake, have picnics and, once a year, visit the popular Southeastern Fair.
In later years, the property and its Greyhound roller coaster were used in the filming of the “Smokey and the Bandit” movie trilogy, released in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Even then, it seemed clear that the property’s glory days were behind it. The roller coaster, inactive for years by then, was actually destroyed as part of the plot during the filming of the second movie.
These days, the track has seen two turns removed to make way for the amphitheatre, the lake isn’t much to speak of anymore (“It’s more like a drainage ditch now,” Bell said) and even the monthly flea markets that once added a little life to the area have faded away.
The city of Atlanta, which owns the property, hasn’t quite figured out what to do with it, Bell said. While filled with history, the area is too far from downtown to fit in with attempts to revitalize and promote the heart of the city.
Still, anyone interested in seeing a piece of area history can take a Hall of Fame-sponsored tour on August 10, the day after the reunion in Dawsonville.
Lingerfelt, who briefly ran in NASCAR’s Baby Grand circuit before financial considerations caused him to put racing aside, is looking forward to the reunion and a chance to revisit some of his fondest racing memories.
“It was lots of fun running Lakewood. I wish somebody could have took that track and kept it going,” he said.
In the end, the track just wasn’t drawing the crowds anymore, Bell said.
Once called “the Indianapolis of the South,” Lakewood might be gone, but it still holds enough intrigue to appeal to racing and cultural enthusiasts alike looking to hear the ghosts of engines long since silenced.