Augusta International Raceway enjoyed a spectacular but brief heyday from 1963 to 1969, never quite fulfilling its potential before falling into disuse and decay. Despite this, much of the original layout remains, with part incorporated into a new public park and recreation ground, helping keep its sporting heritage alive.
The fast, sweeping 3.0 mile road course was part of a much larger facility, billed at the time as the largest motorsport venue in the world. Set in 1,041 acres, the Augusta International Speedway complex, as it was known as a whole, boasted a separate drag strip, half-mile dirt oval, state-of-the-art karting track, a 1/8 mile track for micro midgets and also a motorcycle scramble track.
Had the project been fully completed, it would also have included a two-mile high-banked tri-oval superspeedway, golf course, a boat lake for hydroplane racing and also horse racing facilities, alongside the road racing course. The massive facility covered such a large area it would be possible to fit the entire Daytona International Speedway in the infield!
The project first saw the light of day in July 1959 when stockholders voted to buy the plot of land near Hephzibah, around 15 miles south west of Augusta, for $115,000. Among the leading lights behind the project were Bob Bersin, Marshall Spray, and NASCAR driver Glenn 'Fireball' Roberts, who were keen to bring stock car racing to Georgia. A five-mile road course was envisaged alongside the high-banked tri-oval, as well as the many other amenities.
In the spring of 1960 the first facilities opened with a unique four-race showpiece event, featuring the first running on the quarter-mile drag strip, races for micro midgets and go-karters on the 1/8 mile course and motorcycle fans catered for at the dirt scramble course. Some 13,000 fans turned out to watch, buoying the confidence of the investors.
By 1962, the half-mile dirt oval had been completed and in June welcomed the NASCAR Grand National Division (forerunner to today's Cup Series) for the first time, Joe Weatherly taking the spoils. He would repeat the victory when the series returned for a second time in July.
Momentum was continuing and the same year the Spirit Creek Country Club was incorporated to run the other sporting facilities on the site, with construction beginning on an 18-hole golf course soon afterwards, though this was never in fact fully completed.
Oval plans abandoned as road course emerges
Groundworks had also begun for the two-mile superspeedway, with earth-moving to create the banking for the first turn well under way when the project's backers had a change of mind. After visiting multiple other racing venues across the country and seeing the success of California's Riverside Raceway, it was decided to abandon the superspeedway altogether and put all efforts into a redesigned road course.
Legend has it that the layout for the new track was honed on foot by Fireball Roberts and Marshall Spray, keeping themselves 'fully hydrated' all the while with a bottle of Jack Daniels... While some of this may be some historical embellishment, there is clearly some truth behind the claims, with Speedway President Harold Peden confirming much of the detail to the Greenville News in 1963. He recalled: "Fireball and Spray began walking along where Roberts thought the track should go and I was driving a bulldozer behind them, gouging out a path."
While the course outline itself may have been organically crafted, there was little else in the project that was left to chance. The whole development cost a reputed $2.5 million dollars and featured impressive grandstand seating areas, located directly in front of the pit lane for maximum viewing opportunity, as well as a covered garage area to the side, which was state-of-the art in its time.
The completed course was fast and flowing, aided by even the sharpest of the corners having considerable banking added to them, allowing for higher speeds to be maintained. It featured good elevation change too, rising up to the first corner before plunging downhill towards the lakes around which it would wind before completing the lap. Unusually, the front stretch was a long curving section, which deviated quite a distance from the pit lane, requiring a dedicated flag stand in the centre.
Considerable thought had also been spent on where to place the guardrails, with plenty of run-off area inserted to ensure that errant race cars would rarely need to call on their services.
Racing begins with Fireball Roberts the winner
The new road course opened to much fanfare on November 17, 1963, with a 510 mile race for the NASCAR Grand National Series providing the second event of the 1964 series (the schedule in those days overlapping from one year to the next, somewhat confusingly). The slightly odd length was simply an effort to make the race distance easier to calculate as it translated to 170 laps rather than the 167 that a traditional 500 mile race would have been.
Organisers had hoped up to 40,000 spectators would turn out to watch NASCAR stars such as Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett, Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough, Fred Lorenzen and, of course, Fireball Roberts. In the end, only 15,000 turned out to watch something of a race of attrition, with only 16 of the 36 starters still running at the end. The race actually covered just 417 miles (671 km) because of the track's 5pm curfew but, appropriately, it was Roberts who took his Hulman-Moody Ford to victory by a lap over his team mate Dave MacDonald, who in turn had a lap over the third place finisher, Billy Wade.
That proved to be the road circuit's high point, as NASCAR switched the following season back to the half-mile oval - which at this point had been paved. The road course continued on, hosting two 150-mile races as part of the United States Road Racing Championship in 1964. Dave MacDonald took the first win in a King Cobra, while team-mate Ken Miles won the second race, ahead of MacDonald.
A sad footnote was that the two major races marked the last victories for both Roberts and MacDonald; both were killed just months apart in fiery crashes during 1964, Roberts from complications of his injuries during a crash at the World 600 at Charlotte, MacDonald in a horrific multi-car accident during the Indy 500.
Decline was swift but public park emerges
Perhaps the death of Roberts, as one of the major stockholders and champions, lost the track some of its impetus and it never really seemed to recover. More likely was the continued poor attendance; while NASCAR soldiered on for several years on the half-mile oval, the largest ever crowd was 14,000 and the gate receipts just could not cover the cost of upkeep of the massive facility.
After the final few events of 1969, the entire facility was shuttered and then abandoned, but not before efforts had been made to gouge the track surface of the road course to prevent any unauthorised usage. It was a sad end to what had been an ambitious dream; the irony is that had the tri-oval been built as originally planned rather than the road course, it may well have been able to continue longer and really benefit from NASCAR's rise to pre-eminence.
It wasn't the final call for the old circuit, however. In 1996 the land was purchased by the City of Augusta, with plans to turn it back into a multi-use sports complex. Diamond Lakes Regional Park opened on November 11, 1999, boasting a five-field baseball and softball complex, fully stocked fishing ponds and a sand volleyball court. The old circuit has largely been turned into either access roads or walking and cycling trails.
This is a historic circuit which is no longer in operation.
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Augusta International Raceway was located at Hephzibah, near Augustia, Georgia, USA. Today, most of the old racing surface of the road course still remains within the grounds of the Diamond Lakes Regional Park, though the section from Turn One up to the pit exit and Turn Two has been truncated from the rest of the original road, which has been re-shaped as part of the park's access roads.
Also gone is the former dirt/paved oval, now largely underneath a housing development, as is the site of the original earthworks for the uncompleted tri-oval. The surface of the former drag strip also remains, towards the rear of Diamond Lakes Elementary School.
In 2003 a non-profit group was formed to document the former Augusta International Speedway complex and work with local officials as they develop the park. A large stone memorial was officially opened in 2017, documenting the historical significance of the raceway and its various winning drivers. This can be found next to the Library and Community Centre.