Saturday, July 20, 2013

Atlanta Speedway, Atlanta's Early Racetracks - Episode #16

By: David L. Morrill
@ Deadly Dave's Blog 

Updated - February 2, 2017

Asa Candler's Atlanta Speedway
In the early 20th century, motorcycle racing exploded in popularity across the country. It drew tens of thousands of spectators to tracks across the country. The races were regularly covered by the sports pages of major newspapers and racers became household names. 
 Motorcycles were first used to pace professional bicycle racing, on wooden Velodrome tracks. Soon, motorcycles shifted from pacing to racing, and the events drew large crowds. The first race held at the newly constructed Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909 was a motorcycle race.

Indian Motorcycles Club France Collection
Atlanta would become the capital of southern motorcycle racing, having three major tracks dating from the earliest days of racing. The Atlanta Speedway, Atlanta Motordrome, and Lakewood Speedway, would all play key roles in the City's rich motorcycle racing history. This is the story of the first of those legendary racetracks, the original Atlanta Speedway.
The Atlanta Speedway 
 In 1887 Villa Rica, Georgia businessman Asa Griggs Candler had purchased the formula for Coca Cola from it's inventor, John Pemberton, for $2300.00. While some though the purchase was a fools errand, it proved to be very wise investment.

Asa Griggs Candler

Candler, who owned a drug store in Villa Rica, saw the potential of Coca Cola. Through shrewd marketing, he had turned Coca Cola into a household name. He also made a fortune, which allowed him to pursue other business ventures.
Candler was also an auto racing fan. When he heard about the racetrack, which was being built in Indianapolis, Indiana, he saw an opportunity to bring a similar racetrack to Atlanta. And of course, the throngs of spectators drawn to the track on warm Atlanta days, would buy lots Coca Cola.

Candler bought up 287 acres of flat land south of Atlanta for $77,000. Construction of a 2 mile oval began in early 1909. The racing surface was sand and gravel mixed with an asphalt binder.   He spent another $400,000 building the racetrack and grandstands, which brought the final price tag of the track close to half a million dollars.
The new Atlanta Speedway, was built primarily for automobile racing. The opening weeks races, were held in conjunction with the Atlanta Car Show in downtown Atlanta. 

Atlanta Constitution
November 10, 1909

The opening weeks races drew some of the best racing drivers in the country, and huge crowds filled the grandstands to see the races.

 Many Atlanta businesses closed at noon each day so their customers and employees could watch the races.

On Thursday, November 11, 1909, the Atlanta Speedway hosted the City's first professional motorcycle races. The two day event featured separate races for amateurs, known as "trade riders", and professional riders were held that day. There were only five competitors in the professional race. They were R.W. Gayle, Gail Joyce, and Bob Stubbs, who all rode Indians. Russell Walthour rode his Merkel, and V. Moss rode a Reading Standard. The most experienced riders were Walthour, Joyce, and Stubbs, who all came from Birmingham.
Walthour had made a name for himself, as an accomplished bicycle racer, at Jack Prince's Atlanta Velodrome. Russell's famous brother, Bobby Walthour, was a World Champion cyclist.
Atlanta Constitution
July 1897

Bob Stubbs, had made a name for himself racing Indian motorcycles at the Alabama State Fairgrounds in Birmingham. He become one of the top riders winning races throughout the south.

In March, 1909, Stubbs was part of the Indian Motorcycle Company's Factory Racing Team that competed in the motorcycle classes of the Daytona Beach Speed Trials. On the first day, Stubbs Indian teammate. Walter Georke set a new record for the one mile run. The following day, Stubbs broke Georke's record. 

Russell Walthour and Bob Stubbs dominated the August 1909 races at Waco, Texas. 

Russell Walthour (left), Robert Stubbs (right)
Chris Price Collection

The six mile race was won by Bob Stubbs, and Russell Walthour  finished second. In the ten lap race Walthour and Stubbs flipped spots, with Walthour winning and Stubbs finishing second. 

Atlanta Speedway - November 1909
Detroit Public Library Collection

Courtesy of Isabelle Bracquemond

Motorcycle Illustrated - November 15, 1909

Atlanta Speedway - November 1909
Detroit Public Library Collection

Courtesy of Chris Price at Georgia Motorcycle History
This photo shows the starting line for one of the professional races. The riders are believed to be, left to right: V. Moss on a Reading Standard, Russell Walthour on a Flying Merkel, Robert Stubbs on an Indian, Gail Joyce on an Indian, and Richard Gayle on an Indian.

Charlotte, NC. Evening Chronicle - November 11, 1909

In the final twenty mile race, Bob Stubbs jumped out to a commanding lead. At the 14 mile mark, Stubbs broke an exhaust valve, which put him out of the race. Walthour battled for the lead, with Joyce, and Moss for the last three laps of the race. In the end, Walthour finished first, with Joyce in second, and Moss in third. A complete account of the twenty mile race later appeared in the Automobile Journal.

When the dust settled on the weeks racing, Asa Candler realized he had just broken even. The weeks receipts, were just enough to cover the costs incurred in holding the event.

Atlanta Speedway Coca Cola Ad
Atlanta Constitution - November 1909
There was no profit to pay down the half million dollar cost of building the track. candler continued to run automobile, and motorcycle races, along with other events at the speedway, but the crowds dwindled.

Atlanta Constitution - May 7, 1911
On May 20, 1911, both the amateur, and professional riders returned to the Atlanta Speedway for the Southern Championship Races sponsored by the Atlanta Motorcycle Club.  The first four races were run before, rain forced a postponement.

Atlanta Constitution - May 21, 1911
The final six races were run the following Saturday, with claiming the Atlanta Dealer's Trophy and the title as Southern Champion.

Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review - May 27, 1911

Atlanta Constitution

In November 1911, a motorcycle race featuring Police Officers from the City of Atlanta, and Fulton County Motorcycle Units competed in a race at the Speedway. 
Atlanta Constitution - November 9, 1911
The police motorcycle races took place as part of the three day Military Day festivities at the Speedway, featuring military maneuvers, and mock bombing by military aircraft, and were sponsored by the Atlanta Police Benevolent  Association.
Atlanta Constitution - November 12, 1911
The City of Atlanta Officers claimed top honors in the 10 Mile races, with wins by Officers J.W. McWilliams, and R.B Haney, both riding Indian Motorcycles.
Atlanta Constitution - November 17, 1911

For the next few years, the Speedway was primarily used for air shows, and air races. On Labor Day 1913, the first known motorcycle race for black riders was held at the Speedway. The races was part of events  by the "Atlanta Colored Labor day Association." The race was won by John Sims, on an Indian. This appears to have been the final motorcycle race run at the Atlanta Speedway.

Atlanta Constitution - August 31, 1913
Crowds at the Speedway never matched the 1909 opening week crowds, and the site was abandoned in the mid teens.
Atlanta Speedway - 1919
 In 1925, the City of Atlanta was looking to build a badly needed airport. Candler's son, who now controlled the family business, saw an opportunity to get rid of the property. He leased it rent free to the city for five years. The new Atlanta airport was named Candler Field.  It is now part of the Hartsfield - Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

With the closing of The Atlanta Speedway, the first chapter of motorcycle racing in Atlanta came to an end. It would soon return, with the building of City's first purpose built motorcycle racing track, the Atlanta Motordrome.

Stay tuned for the next part of the series: The Atlanta Motordrome.


Atlanta Constitution

Charlotte, N.C. Evening Chronicle

Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review

Motorcycle Illustrated


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