Atlanta Motor Speedway is known as one of the fastest tracks NASCAR top three series race on. Since it was reconfigured to its current quad oval layout, AMS has been considered a driver's track with speeds topping 200 m.p.h. That's fast and drivers will tell you, it's no picnic.
Until this year, AMS has hosted two Cup events - one in the spring and one in the fall. That changed when owner and racing mogul Bruton Smith gave a race to Kentucky Motor Speedway, his newest Speedway Motorsports Incorporated acquisition. Despite the loss of one event though, it's still a track NASCAR drivers love to visit. And why not? It's is one of the premier racing facilities in the country. Everything is topnotch and track president Ed Clark runs it to perfection. Like many things though, there was a time when things were vastly different.
Before Smith and SMI came along, AMS was almost an afterthought. In 1971, after 11 years of hard times, the track, then known as Atlanta International Raceway, went bankrupt. It didn't shut down though. Instead, it continued to operate under the guidance of Covington resident Stacey W. Cotton.
Cotton was appointed trustee by the courts in '71 and assumed the role of general manager in '72. Even though he didn't consider himself a diehard racing fan, he was excited for the opportunity even if others were a bit skeptical of a lawyer running the track.
"I'm sure there were some who thought, 'what in the world are they sending this guy down here for. He doesn't know anything about racing,'" Cotton said. "But at that time, we had bigger things to worry about like finding the money to put on the races."
As it often happens in a dire situation, Cotton faced adversity almost immediately. While the original owners were able to secure the prize and appearance money for drivers, the weather was always an issue. Rain always threatened to postpone races and played a role in the track's failures to that point. Just two races into his reign, Cotton had to deal with the effects of a storm that almost postponed the spring race.
The storm destroyed the concession stands and 1,400 of the best seats on the main stretch. Heavy winds blew out windows in the VIP lounges and knocked out power in the press boxes. With teams already at the track and the race just days away, volunteers from near and far converged on the track to get it back up to snuff.
"That was probably one of the most amazing experiences I ever witnessed," Cotton said. "We had people from all over the southeast calling and saying things like, 'I'm so-and-so from Kentucky. I have five men who work for me and we're on our way and we'll stay until we get everything cleaned up.' It was just astonishing what everyone did."
Volunteers worked around the clock to clean and repair all the damage. One company was able to replace 900 of the missing seats and they were able to restore power using a large slave cable off a nearby power pole. By Sunday morning, the track was ready for racing.
"Other than the missing seats and a few windows - stuff you would see, we were able to get the track cleaned up and ready," Cotton said. "Had we been able to get all the seats, I doubt anyone would have noticed."
Cotton was a casual NASCAR fan before his appointment but he learned firsthand how tight the racing community really was after the storm. The race went off without a hitch and it turned out to be the most attended of all the ones Cotton oversaw.
"The human factor - what the people did, was just the most amazing and enjoyable thing I guess I ever experienced," Cotton said. "They didn't come to get paid. They came to work to make the race happen because they were racing fans."
Cotton admits he never was a gearhead. Cars and engines and speed were never really his thing. Nevertheless he was excited at the opportunity because he was fascinated in the business of running a track.
"I'm not really a car person. If you turn the key and it starts and it drives, it's a good car. If not it's a piece of junk and that's about they way I always felt about cars," he said. "Sometimes I wish I had taken an interest in cars. But I never was interested in walking through the pits and the garage. I was interested in how the races all came together."
When Cotton took over, he leaned heavily on legendary track superintendent Alf Knight.
Knight was approached in 1958 by the original ownership group to run the track and quickly built a reputation as a driver's promoter. He made sure drivers received their appearance money before anything else and was the first to install guardrails on both sides of pit lane.
"I don't know what I would have done without Alf," Cotton said. "He could get anything done. He was so respected in the racing community. He could get people to do something that probably wouldn't have given me the time of day. He was Mr. Raceway."
By 1976, Cotton had put together a reorganization plan and was working through details to sell the track to a new ownership group. When the track was sold in 1977, Cotton's involvement ended. And while the new owner's had the capital to build upon what Cotton's firm was able to do over the six years it operated the track, the lawyer turned track president regretted how things ultimately turned out for the men who's vision made AMS one of NASCAR's original speedways.
"Very seldom do the people who create something ultimately get to see it through to the end," he said. "I know the men who originally built the track wanted it to be what it's turned out to be. They always wanted the track to be a place for NASCAR fans to ascend on and be a part of. Unfortunately they just didn't have the finances to be able to get through the hard times."
History always has a way of revealing the adversity along the way that often sets a foundation of an organization in concrete for years to come. Cotton credits Smith for realizing what the original owners couldn't. Under Smith's leadership, AMS continues to be one of NASCAR's favorite venues. Since 1960, fans from all around travel hundreds of miles to watch their favorite drivers compete. Over the years, the cars have become technological marvels and the sport has evolved into a sporting juggernaut rivaled only by the NFL.
"Bruton was good for the sport," Cotton said. "He was able to give tracks more control. Before him, NASCAR had a firm grip on everything. It takes people like him (Smith) to be able to do something like that."
Cotton visited the track in 2006 for the first time since he was trustee. He admitted he hardly recognized the place. He doesn't watch many races on TV though he said if his son and grandchildren are over on a Sunday and they put one on, he enjoys watching it with them. In the years that followed Cotton's time at AMS, he went from being a bankruptcy lawyer to a U.S. bankruptcy judge. After more than four decades in bankruptcy law, Cotton retired in 2004. Through all his experience, his time at AMS, a forgotten period in the track's long history, was one of the most memorable times of his life.
"I never imagined it would become what it is today," Cotton said. "I knew it was only going to be for a period of time. I enjoyed working with all the people and like I said, I was amazed how much people came together and cared about racing when we had that storm early on. People really loved it. It was an amazing time."