In its 42 years of existence, the half-mile oval track outside Jefferson has seen its share of racing legends going door-to-door.
But with aging facilities and flagging attendance, Peach State Speedway had seen better days when the founder of an Atlanta insurance brokerage firm last year decided to take a high-stakes gamble on the old track.
Today, what was opened in 1967 as Jefco Speedway has its official unveiling as Gresham Motorsports Park. The park is named after John and Tony Gresham, father and son entrepreneurs and racing enthusiasts who poured millions into a 10-month renovation project.
"You wouldn’t recognize it as the same place," said the facility’s general manager, Dan Elliott, best known among racing fans as the older brother and former transmission builder for NASCAR star Bill Elliott. "If the airport weren’t across the road, you’d swear you’d missed the turn and found another race track."
From new grandstands and concession areas to a resurfaced and reconfigured track, officials are touting it as the finest racing facility in Georgia outside of Atlanta Motor Speedway. And the tickets are a lot cheaper.
"It’s up to us now to deliver on what we’ve put together and built," Elliott said.
A lot of asphalt got torn up and laid down since April.
A quarter-mile track was added in the infield for Legends racing, in which drivers compete in 5/8-scale replicas of cars from the 1930s and 1940s. The start-finish line and grandstands for the main track were "flipped" so that spectators wouldn’t be squinting into the mid-afternoon sun, as they often did under the old track configuration. Access to refurbished restrooms was improved.
"It’s just a lot more convenient facility," Elliott said.
Central to the Greshams’ design for the project was to not only have a racetrack, but build a multi-purpose facility that could host county fairs, car shows, markets, concerts and other events. The grandstands can seat 4,500, but Elliott said he could seat as many as 10,000 with temporary seating added.
"I can’t wait to have the first concert here," Elliott said, adding he believes Gresham Motorsports Park is the largest privately owned events center in Jackson County.
In the meantime, the roar of engines will be the main draw, with the 26th Annual World Crown 300 late model race set to christen the new asphalt on the weekend of Nov. 13-15. Track officials are looking to host USAR, CRA and Georgia Asphalt Series racing, among other series, though the full 2010 schedule won’t be firmed up until sometime after the first race is run. ARCA and NASCAR Whelen series events are also possibilities, Elliott said.
Racing fans aren’t in short supply in these parts, though competition for the entertainment dollar has never been tighter in the current economy. Now Elliott and the Greshams are eager to find out whether if they re-build it, they will come.
Elliott hopes the interest shown by fans during the renovation project will translate into ticket sales.
"If I sell as many tickets as the number of people who have come in and looked at the facility during the construction, I’ll be a happy person," he said.
Elliott said the enthusiasm for the project he’s seen in the community "is really one of the things that has kept us going during the construction."
Folks can get their first full look at the completed track today, with a free grand opening festival that will include a 3K fun run/walk in the morning and testing for Legends, Bandoleros and Thunder cars in the afternoon.
The drivers who have wheeled around the Jefferson track over the years include a who’s who of potential NASCAR Hall of Famers, including Curtis Turner, Bobby Allison, Mark Martin and Darrell Waltrip. Dan Elliott’s brother, Bill Elliott, has been a frequent visitor, and Bill’s 13-year-old son, Chase, is set to get a lot of seat time on the track.
Dan Elliott said fans can expect to see the next stars of racing honing their skills at Gresham Motorsports Park.
"We’ve got drivers coming in here now that will be NASCAR’s stars of the future," Elliott said. "It could be Bill’s son, it could be any of the young drivers in here in the late-model cars."
Elliott said the Greshams deserve credit for taking a risk in a harsh economy on a sport they love, and possibly saving a storied short track in the process.
"I would venture to bet that without them, this place would not have survived," he said.