Race Week in Daytona fittingly concludes on Valentine's Day because fans have had a longtime love affair with auto racing in its various forms.
Indy driver Danica Patrick's entry into the Nationwide series added another level of Daytona racing lore. North Georgia eyes, too, will be on Bill Elliott, the Dawsonville native who has more than 40 victories, including two in the Daytona 500, and who ran fourth in qualifying for today's race.
The start of racing season stirs memories for millions of when race cars kicked up dust among the many dirt ovals around the state from Looper's in Gainesville to Lakewood in Atlanta.
Brandon Reed operates the Web site GeorgiaRacingHistory.com, which features stories of Georgia's racing past, along with occasional updates and commentary on current racing events, everything from dirt track to Road Atlanta to Indy cars.
The Commerce sports writer acquired his interest in racing from his grandfather, Robert Marlow, a car mechanic who took Reed to his first race in Jefferson and whose ambition at one time was to work with a racing team.
Marlow had become friends with Paul McDuffie, legendary mechanic for such famed drivers as Fireball Roberts. He wanted to help the McDuffie pit crew, and McDuffie finally asked him to go with them to the Darlington 500 Labor Day weekend 1960. But Marlow's wife didn't want him to because she thought auto racing didn't have the best reputation in those days, Reed said. Marlow stayed home and listened to the race on the radio.
What he heard was frightening. McDuffie and his mechanics had just finished working on their driver's car when two cars crashed horrifically on the race track, sending debris flying into the pit area. McDuffie, another mechanic and an inspector died; three others were injured.
Had Marlow gone to Darlington, he might have been alongside McDuffie and the other victims. The accident affirmed Marlow and his wife's decision for him not to be a race car mechanic. He continued to work on cars, but also became a minister.
That's just a sample of the stories Reed posts on his Web site. Other writers contribute, including Mike Bell, chief operating officer of the Georgia Auto Racing Hall of Fame in Dawsonville, Eddie Samples, racing historian, son of former driver Ed Samples, and Rick Minter, Atlanta sports writer covering NASCAR.
One of Bell's stories involves Pete Craig, born in Gainesville in 1902 to a family prominent in local, state and national journalism circles. His father, W.H. (Harvey) Craig, was a longtime colorful editor of the Gainesville Eagle. His brother, Britt, was a World War I pilot who wrote for the Eagle, the Atlanta Constitution and New York Sun. While in Atlanta, Britt broke the story of the Leo Frank case. He died at age 23 in 1919 and is buried along with his father in Alta Vista Cemetery .
Britt's brother Pete started racing Indy-type cars in 1922. In 1930 he held the 100-mile speed record at Daytona Beach before stock cars started racing there.
Pete worked for the Atlanta Journal at one time and fought with the U.S. Army in the Mexican border wars before getting into World War I in France. He was reported to be the youngest soldier, either at age 14 or 15, and because he was so small had to wear a Boy Scout uniform until they could find him a standard Army uniform that fit.
Pete Craig became prominent in Atlanta racing circles and ran often at Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta. World War II also called him into the Army, but apparently never fought because of health reasons. He died in 1968.
Reed's site features other stories from racing's rich past. Some drivers involved in moonshine runs who later drove legitimately on race tracks tell their stories. Others relive memories of legendary drivers, including Hall County's Bud Lunsford, or owners such as Raymond Parks, who is credited as being instrumental in the formation of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.
The site features photos of cars, drivers, races and racetracks. Bell is trying to track down all of the state's more than 150 tracks past and present. One of those was the old fairgrounds in Gainesville, where horses and cars once raced.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays.