Cover Story: Dirt trackin' goes back to the basics

An oasis of noise and mud

NASCAR has its roots in moonshine running. The first NASCAR race was held on the beach in Daytona. But in the last quarter-century, NASCAR has become as corporate as the NFL and NBA. If you want to get back to the real roots of car racing, dirt track racing is the closest you can get.

About 80 miles north on I-75, 14 miles down the Trail of Tears Highway, past a golf course, a gas station, a couple of revivalist churches and not a whole heck of a lot else, you'll find the North Georgia Speedway, home of "dirt trackin' at its best."

The track is an oasis of noise and mud in the otherwise serene part of the world. Locals gather there in the summer on Saturday afternoons to drink Cokes, eat hot dogs and watch the cars roar around the sloped track.

As the cars slide into their turns, their front tires lift inches off the ground and their back tires spin, spraying chunks of dirt onto the spectators. Michael Young, a tufting machine mechanic who is standing up against the fence that surrounds the track, throws his hands in front of his face as he's pelted with clay.

"I got it stuck in my hair like chewing gum!" Young exclaims, laughing as he picks a piece of red Georgia clay out of his short, brown hair.

Today, Young is watching the action with his best friend, Nelson, and his daughter, Pamela. Young's brother, Mickey, has a car that is going to race in the "hobby division." His 16-year-old daughter, Laura, usually attends the races with him but tonight she's on a date. "I wish she was down here with me," Young says. "Big time. But you gotta give them their space."

Young says he started coming to dirt track racing on a regular basis when he was trying to quit drinking. The track doesn't permit alcohol, so that made it easy to stay clean. "I figured better to spend $12 a week going to the races than spend $50 a day drinking," he says.

Young decided to embrace dirt track racing over Chatsworth's other limited recreational activities. "There's a go kart track across the street, and the North Georgia Mini Speedway is down the road," Young says. "But this here is the most exciting thing. Plus, those go karts are pretty dangerous."

Young, who has been coming to the races for 23 years, sits as close as he can get. He pays for a reserved spot where he parks his truck, only a few feet from the metal fence that wraps around the track. Other spectators sit in the bleachers that line the hill that leads to the track.

At the top of the hill is the snack bar, which offers the usual sporting event fare. In the top left-hand corner of a board above the grill, the items for sale are listed: hamburgers, $2.75; hot dogs, $2; corndogs, $1.50; and nachos, $2.50. Below the food items, a few other necessities are listed: Rolaids, Advil and earplugs that all cost $1 each.

Billboards around the track advertise Pit Stop Portables, Hicks Specialty Welding, Kevco Graphics Custom Racing Decals, Dalton Pressure Washer and the Dalton Army Recruitment Center.

The North Georgia Speedway opens to the public at 5 p.m. on Saturdays and races start at 7. In between, drivers tinker with their cars' engines and take practice laps around the track in order to get a feel for the condition of the dirt.

Most fans show up early and sit in the back of their pickup trucks drinking Coca-Cola and talking with neighbors they haven't seen since the last race. They talk about cars, the weather, or share stories about growing up in Chatsworth.

The fans of dirt track racing are not the wild breed who attend NASCAR races. You won't see any women walking around in bikinis, or men hooting and hollering for their favorite car. The people at the North Georgia Speedway are more laid-back. They sit and watch, occasionally engaging in conversation with a neighbor, but rarely showing too much emotion or excitement. Even when a car slides out of control into the cement wall, there are no gasps or shouts.

Before the races start, a male voice comes over the loud speaker and instructs spectators to stand and remove their hats. "Here at the motor speedway, it's customary to take a moment to thank the Lord," the voice says. "We ask those competing to show us what sportsmanship really means and to help us all be better sportsmen."

Then there's the national anthem, followed by the words everyone is longing to hear: "All right, fans, let's get ready for some racin'!"

There are six different racing divisions: the super late model, limited late model, sportsman, hobby, mini stock and street stock. The hobby cars are the smallest, the sportsman cars the biggest, loudest and fastest. The hobby cars start first. The No. 10 car, a small black and white Ford Mustang, wins the first race, leading all the way.

As the day turns to night, the lights around the track come on and make the mud look smooth. Young, who used to own a race car but had to sell it when money got tight, says he's excited for his brother's car race.

"Our dad raced one or two times in his life, but then he passed away when I was 13," he says. "I think if Mickey could win tonight, he would quit. He just wants to win once."

But tonight isn't Mickey's night. His car catches fire before it can finish the race. Nobody is hurt, but he'll need a new engine.

As the night wears on, the air becomes thick with dust. Young smacks his lips.

"I need a cheeseburger, boy," he says. "I'm tasting that dirt."

Dirt track racing in Georgia

Want to get a taste of racing on the dirt? Here are other tracks across the state to check out:

Dixie Speedway, 150 Dixie Drive, Woodstock, 770-926-5315, www.dixiespeedway.com

Oglethorpe Speedway Park, 200 Jesup Road, Pooler, 912-964-7223, www.ospracing.net

Cochran Motor Speedway, Jim Wimberly Road, Cochran, 478-934-4470, www.cochranmotorspeedway.com

Lavonia Speedway, Highway 77, Lavonia, 706-356-2220, www.lavoniaspeedway.com

Swainsboro Raceway, 586 Modoc Road, Swainsboro, 478-252-1300, www.swainsbororaceway.com