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Column: Hall County’s Bud Lunsford was a racing legend
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

Georgia lost one of the best athletes in its history in early December, and he wasn’t a football, basketball, baseball player or golfer, though he probably could have excelled at any of them if he wanted to.

Instead, Bud Lunsford was a race car driver who set records down through the years, built his own cars and owned his own race tracks.

When he quit racing in 1981 after 25 years, the Hall County boy had seen the checkered flag 1,139 times.

Mike Bell, a racing historian, said Lunsford actually raced again in 1989, a special race for him. In the meantime, he owned three race tracks at separate times, including Lanier Raceway across from Road Atlanta on Ga. 53, the Gainesville-Winder highway.

Lunsford taught himself the basics of mechanics, starting around nine years old, learning from his father and by hanging around car garages. His love for racing bloomed at the old Looper’s Speedway, now under Lake Lanier at the end of Laurel Park. A local mechanic and race car driver, Willard Talley, let him take a run in his car. That lit the fuse, and he began running races at age 21 in 1956 at Toccoa Speedway, a track he dominated for many years. It wasn’t unusual for him to win more than 60 races a year.

The first car he built himself was a 1939 Ford coupe.

Bell said Lunsford was so successful because he was the best prepared driver on the track. 

“He would get to the race track with no tools or parts,” he said. 

That was because he’d done all the work beforehand. 

In an interview several years ago with writer Phil Hudgins, Lunsford said, “I towed the car, worked on the car, built the engine. I never did have but one sponsor.”

He became known throughout the Southeast and even got some national recognition as a race car driver. Besides area tracks such as Toccoa, Banks County, the Peach Bowl, Rome, Woodstock and those in Forsyth County, he would win at Greenwood and Anderson, South Carolina, in Alabama and Florida.

Of the hundreds of races he was in, he had only one serious accident. That was when he went over the wall at Canton, overturned his car and had to stay in the hospital for three days. He was back racing the next Friday night.

Lunsford is in the National Dirt Track Racing Association Hall of Fame and the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame. He won one of short-track racing’s biggest money prizes at the time, $15,000, in one of the association’s prestigious races. He was named Racing Promoter of the Year in 1987.

Dirt tracks were his sweet spot. That’s why when he built Lanier Raceway in 1982, it was dirt at first. As popular as Lunsford was, one of his toughest times came before he built the racetrack. Residents in the area protested its location, and the case went all the way to the state Supreme Court before it was settled in Lunsford’s favor.

Time and expense in maintaining the track caused him to pave it eventually. Bell said Lunsford was working on the track five days a week, grading, grooming, watering it down and other preparations.

When he got tired of that, he paved it, said Bell. “He made asphalt racing in North Georgia with Lanier Raceway.” But operating a racetrack wore him out, and he eventually sold it.

Lunsford’s next career was owning the Gainesville Bowling Center on Browns Bridge Road. He loved bowling almost as much as racing. He and wife LaQuita and daughter Debbie Love ran it together until they sold it. The Lunsfords were a team when Bud was racing, too. Debbie was his crew chief, and she ran races for a time herself.

Bud was an outstanding bowler himself. He bowled most every day with the same skill and competitive spirit as he had on the racetrack. He bowled numerous perfect games, all strikes.

He probably could have played basketball at the college level. Bud starred at Lyman Hall High School and after graduation stood out in industrial leagues.

Bud died at age 86. Many friends wrote condolences when his obituary appeared on the internet. They reinforced his “good guy” image and declared him a racing legend, which he certainly was.


Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or johnnyvardeman@gmail.com. His column publishes weekly.