A Northeast Georgia lawmaker who proposes a change in the law that would allow for road racing events on public streets believes some people are getting the wrong idea.
“People have misunderstood this as some kind of advocation for street racing,” said Jim Butterworth, R-Cornelia, whose bill passed the Georgia State Senate 41-9 last week and awaits a hearing in the House Public Safety Committee. “This bill says streets would be closed if sanctioned by a city or county. What I’m advocating for is a local government to be able to have a road race, if they so desire.”
Road races on public streets are held in some major cities in the U.S., including Miami and Detroit, and they aren’t unprecedented in Georgia.
In the early 1950s, the Pickens County town of Jasper was host to the “Burnt Mountain Hill Climb,” where sports car drivers took turns making one-mile time trials up the mountain.
Gerry Nechvatal, community economic development coordinator for the Pickens County Chamber of Commerce, said a year ago the Sports Car Club of America approached local officials about reviving the event. Pickens County officials were enthused about the economic boost it could bring, he said.
“During the course of trying to see how we could put on the event, it was discovered that the law today will not allow this type of race as it was back in the old days,” Nechvatal said.
Pickens officials approached State Sen. Chip Pearson, who represents Pickens and Dawson County, which has a little racing history of its own. Pearson in turn got the support of other lawmakers, including Butterworth.
“Right now in our current economic climate we really need new ways to generate economic activity, especially using resources we already have, because money is so tight,” Nechvatal said. “We’re not trying to create something that allows a bunch of guys to just get together and terrorize the town every Friday night.”
Butterworth stresses that without sanctioning from a local government, the races could not be held. He also said that the necessary safety precautions and insurance would be required to put on an event.
“I’m not advocating anything less than the highest level of safety for spectators and participants,” Butterworth said.
The legislation met with opposition from some lawmakers who said it ran counter to public safety.
Jim Shuler, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, last week said the agency’s director, Bob Dallas, had not yet had a chance to study the legislation and was not ready to offer an opinion.
Rick Darby, the police chief for Butterworth’s hometown of Cornelia, said he spoke with the lawmaker about the bill last week.
“While his intent appears to be honorable, we are not necessarily in total agreement on it,” Darby said.
Darby allowed that government-sanctioned, public road racing events could “create enormous amounts of revenue” for a community.
“My concern would be places that were more interested in the revenue than the safety of its citizens,” Darby said. “Even though racing on the streets without sanctioning is illegal, what message are we sending?
“Under the right circumstances, this could be a very exciting and creative approach to stimulating tourism and economic growth. In the wrong hands it could be disastrous.”
Butterworth said he feels good about his bill’s chances, as long as he can get the message across about what it is and what it’s not.
“When you first bring it up, people are taken aback that you would propose racing on the road,” Butterworth said.
Once it is explained, “then they say this would be interesting,” Butterworth said.