Atlanta: Old school cool, fast and fun

Published 10:43 pm Thursday, March 5, 2009

One of the band Little Feat’s more commercially popular songs extolled the virtues of one of the premier cities in the South thusly: “Oh, Atlanta; oh Atlanta, I say yeah, yeah, yeah Atlanta, I got to get back to you.”

Okay, so it’s not exactly Dylan, but you get the idea. Atlanta is a desirable destination for singers, shoppers and anyone in real need of a chili cheeseburger all the way and an order of onion rings from The Varsity.

All that notwithstanding, for the drivers and fans of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, The Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday is considered the first true “Southern” race of the 2009 season.


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Stock car racing was born in the Southeastern United States; there’s no disputing that. Some people still cling to the theory that NASCAR should never have left the South in the first place, as if that natural growth and expansion somehow betrayed the ancestry and roots of the sport.

Some aspects of stock car racing’s character, and its “characters,” certainly reflect the flavor, personality and folksy bonhomie of the region. But give me a break; the South isn’t the only part of America where guys hang out in the driveway or the garage, taking engines apart and putting them back together under any light they can find to work under. It isn’t the only place where families congregate around the table for Sunday lunch, saving room for lemon pie and then hurrying to finish it before it’s time for the race to start.

The South isn’t the only place where cars and their drivers line up, rev up those engines they have labored over so diligently and kick up some dirt, along with their heels, on a short track Saturday night.

North or south, east or west, fast is fast, and fun is fun. So it follows that fast is most definitely fun. Even I can do that kind of math.

Trying to keep NASCAR sequestered in the South is like raising a baby. When he’s little, he’s still figuring out how his world operates, and he needs someone to take care of him as that world begins to expand. But as he gradually grows older and larger and first finds his independence, then proceeds to exercise it with great enthusiasm, he begins to assert himself. He outgrows his bunk beds; he eats a whole lot more.

When he finally enters the workforce or the armed services or goes off to college, the nest is empty, but it’s a whole lot quieter. It smells awfully fresh all of a sudden. And where did all that extra space come from?

You’re always glad when he comes back home for a visit because you seem to appreciate him all the more now that he isn’t right there in your house every day.

NASCAR’s bantam rooster has spent the past few weeks out on the West Coast, soaking up the sunshine and the more artificial light of places like Los Angeles and Las Vegas, but now, it’s time for that big chicken to come home to roost in one of racing’s most exciting and comfortable nests, the Atlanta Motor Speedway.

They’re stocked and ready. Richie McDonald, former lead singer for the band Lonestar, will perform the national anthem on Sunday. On Friday, Ryan Newman will attempt to become the track’s all-time pole winner. A ride-along program will raise a lot of money for Speedway Children’s Charities.

And then, there will be racing. Fans and drivers love events at Atlanta because they offer up a heaping helping of what racing is really all about, when you get right down to it — speed, speed and more speed. After Goodyear conducted a tire test at AMS in January, Greg Biffle predicted the upcoming event would feature side-by-side competition all over the track, or what he termed “old school racing.”

If you don’t think old school is enjoying a new era of popularity, you haven’t looked through a magazine or walked down the streets of any respectably-sized city in a while. I could have sworn I saw a pair of my old wraparound harem pants (Don’t laugh. Do not laugh.) headed in my direction on a busy sidewalk a couple of weeks ago. Celebrating its 100th race with the running of the Kobalt Tools 500, AMS is about as retro cool as it gets.

Apparently Huey Lewis had it right; it is hip to be square. But in NASCAR terms, it’s even more hip to be oval.

Oh, Atlanta.