A decade ago, exit 403 off I-85 in Commerce, Georgia, was a lot quieter and much more simple. While Atlanta Dragway has lived here since 1975, there wasn’t much development beyond a few families living in the sparsely-laid-out country homes. Over just the past few years this area has grown into a booming town with outlet malls, countless hotels, restaurants, and small businesses. What was once a track in the middle of nowhere is now one of the best-catered tracks in the country. After a long day of drag racing, your hotel is close by and you have an assortment of dining options to cater to the most particular foodies in your group.
I arrived at our hotel located about 1-minute and 34-seconds from the track late on Wednesday night. Of all the stops on the NMRA and NMCA schedule, Atlanta Dragway holds a special place in my heart. Not because of the food and hotel options, but because of the fond memories. On my first trip to this race, I—along with my friend Mary Lendzion—helped save the life of a small puppy that was abandoned outside Longhorn Steakhouse. This involved a midnight roadtrip to a 24-hour vet clinic in the neighboring city of Gainesville and a happy ending. I am very happy to report that the vet technician on staff that night adopted the adorable puppers and she entered a loving family.
This track has also hosted some of my best photoshoots, contributed to some hilarious dining experiences, and some of the longest working days of my life. I never know what I’m going to get when I come here for the NMRA/NMCA All-Star Nationals, but I sure as hell hope I never find another shivering pup in a parking lot again.
Thursday is a slower day, reserved for racers parking their trailers and getting in a few test hits. This year, the routine test session came to an early end when a very scary event unfolded in the first series of Pro Mod passes. I was the only photographer on track at the time and SpeedVideo had not set up its online live feed. In a freak accident, Robert Abbott’s left rear two-piece wheel on his Pro Mod sheared apart at the bolts and allowed the wheel to become disconnected from the car. This sent Robert hard into the left lane at over 180mph—to which there was no correction. As the car spun around its aerodynamics took over and sent the yellow Camaro into the air. As it fell from the sky it flipped onto its roof, barely missing what would have been a devastating impact with the wall onto the windshield. The car slid down the track on the roof; amazingly, he managed to get himself out unharmed beyond some bumps and bruises. It was a very scary situation for everyone as his team and friends looked on, so everyone was relieved to hear that he wasn’t hurt. We actually used my images to determine the cause of the incident which I thought was very cool.
With Thursday’s excitement behind us, we knew that a bit of precipitation was going to be in our future on Friday. The forecast wasn’t very promising and every weather update we could find was throwing anything and everything against the wall to see what would stick. I didn’t need AccuWeather to confirm the morning view outside my hotel window — it was a wet one. The radar just showed a blob of green, yellow, and orange looming over Atlanta Dragway and it was an incredibly demoralizing way to start the day. The rain settled in for most of the morning and finally blew away around lunchtime. The incredible crew at the NMRA/NMCA were able to get the track surface dry and were sending cars down around 4:30pm. We lost a lot of time to weather, and with this being a combined NMRA/NMCA event there were a lot of cars to get down the track that afternoon if the event schedule was to be completed for the day, and not disrupt the schedule for Saturday. It became a true marathon run to the end of the day.
As the sun slipped below the horizon, I was standing trackside as the crew began its slick tire prep for the final rounds of heads-up qualifiers. After spraying the track, it’s customary to drag each lane and send the tire rotator out, which helps to activate the traction compound. Typically, the dragging process creates a loud screech similar to that of a chalkboard. That’s the sound of friction. The air at night had become so nasty and damp that there was no sound coming from either the dragger or the tire rotator. You wouldn’t be foolish in assuming that the track was gone and traction was going to be shoddy for the night.
Not to be deterred, Factory Stock racer, John Leslie Jr. said the metaphorical “hold my beer and watch this” as he embarked on a total rocket launch attempt for the moon. His silver Fox body went straight onto the bumper and carried the wheels far out, past the 330 mark where he came crashing down to earth hard—kissing the wall nicely in the process. The impact broke the front left spindle and probably didn’t feel too good on his teeth either. His bruised up Ford was taken off the track, and in spite of the falling dew, the surface remained unexpectedly tight all the way to the finish of round one of qualifying.
You couldn’t have asked for better weather for the third day. I woke up the next morning to absolutely beautiful weather, the scent of fresh cut grass, and birds chirpin’. It was a delightful contrast to the previous day’s draw of the curtains. Saturday had nothing but sun and even a slight chill in the air. Our weather apps basically told us to go outside and play, so we did. The next two rounds of qualifying were set to go and the fans piled into the grandstands. This was one of the largest crowds this event has seen in its history, and the racers were there to put on a show for them. The always-impressive sleek blue S550 Mustang Pro Mod of Daniel Pharris was running the quickest passes on the property. However, the 2018 VP Racing Fuels Pro Mod runner-up, Don Walsh Jr., was determined to keep the Ford in check as they traded blows in qualifying, with Daniel coming out as top qualifier in the end.
In addition to the familiar assortment of classes, the All-Star Nationals also caters to a few interesting sub-races. During qualifying the Street Outlaw drivers passes were being recorded in a heads-up fashion that contributed toward a win in the All-Star shootout for their category and an extra paycheck to the victor. There were also side competitions for the sealed crate engine classes that pitted Ford versus Chevy, and really got the crowd going as they watched a modern classic battle of Coyote versus LS-powered race action. Finally, the Eaton Corporation sponsored a battle royale race it called the TVS Throwdown to help showcase the potential of its TVS Twin Vortices Series superchargers in street cars.
The magnificent weather wasn’t going to last all weekend, however, as Sunday was claiming late day showers, but I don’t think any of us expected to be woken up from bed by the monstrous rain pouring from the sky. I had several photoshoots scheduled in the morning that had to be delayed and/or postponed. The track crew got there at 6 am to begin their efforts of drying the track and the first pair of cars finally went down the track around 11am. We were behind the eight ball again, but the staff did everything it could to get every car down the track safely. You would think that the rain would have dissuaded fans from returning for the final day of racing, but they were back again and filling the stands, walking the midway and car show areas.
Every single round of eliminations in Pro Mod saw at least one victory based on a hole shot. In all my years of covering racing, this event offered some of the best side-by-side races I’ve witnessed with these these high horsepower beasts. Once all of the racers had the data they needed to find the track, it was nothing but awesome heads-up action. Oh, and Walsh ultimately prevailed over Pharris in the Pro Mod final with a 3.725 at 213 mph in the final round. This would have been the new class record if he could have claimed it and backed it up, but I think the Walsh Motorsports team intends to keep a few tricks up their sleeve as the 2019 season matures.
Not every race goes according to plan. You can post a daily schedule all you want, but sometimes Mother Nature has other plans. This past weekend at Georgia’s House of Speed, I watched a dedicated race staff pull off the impossible: an uncompromised race with two extensive rain delays and an arduous effort from all involved, to present the fans with a great weekend of racing. The 2019 NMRA/NMCA All-Star Nationals has quickly grown into one of the best races of the year, while showcasing an unrivaled variety of vehicles. The Georgia locals appear to have taken notice.