BRASELTON — Donnie Clack thinks that it’s only fitting that this weekend's farewell to Saturday night races at Lanier National Speedway should be a celebration for drivers. After all, they are the people who Clack, the owner of the South Hall short track, has thought of as one big family since he bought the nearly 30-year-old track in 2003.
Due to a number of factors, not the least of which is a poor economy, Lanier National will no longer serve as a hub for asphalt, short-track enthusiasts. Lanier National still has two races scheduled after Saturday, including the Ice Cold Shriners Bowl and SpeedFest in early 2012, but after that track will close down for racing under Clack’s watch. He has already put it up for sale.
“The thing I’ll miss most is all the nice people we’ve met over the years,” Clack said. “You start to treat them like family eventually.”
To make this otherwise somber ending of an era as festive as possible, Clack and his wife Donna got started Thursday in the track’s kitchen whipping up enough Brunswick stew and fed drivers Friday night as a token of their appreciation for their loyalty to the track. After that, they took time to talk about all the great memories that racing at the track provided for so many people since it opened under original owner Bud Lunsford in 1982.
“I’ve tried to program my brain to make this a happy ending for everyone,” Clack said. “There’s no reason to try to paint things as doom and gloom.
“We want this to be a time to come out and reminisce about all the fun and good times here.”
Racing Saturday includes seven divisions and starts at 7 p.m. Beforehand, there will be an autograph session. Between races there will be other attractions, including a tug-of-war between members of the Jackson County High football team, according to Clack.
“We expect to have a good field of cars out here,” Clack added.
Lunsford believes that Clack did everything in his power to keep the track profitable, but forces outside of his control made it impossible.
“It’s kind of a sad moment for me,” said Lunsford, who said the track drew up to 4,000 spectators for races during its heyday. “I know Donnie worked mighty hard to try and make things work out.”
Clack says that the track has been on the market since earlier this year, but no serious offers have been put on the table. He said if a buyer puts up the cash for the track and thinks they can make racing work, that’s up to them.
Clack and Lunsford both get a sense of nostalgia thinking about the old days of Lanier National Speedway. Some of NASCAR’s greats past and present like Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and David Ragan all drew fans to the tracks grandstands for races. Lanier National Speedway was routinely the destination for Busch Grand National races, which is now known as the Nationwide Series.
“We had all the superstars race here,” Lunsford said. “If you name them, they’ve raced here.”
However, Clack said the main lure for Lanier National over the years was that it was the venue for local drivers to become hometown heroes. Drivers like Jackie Daniels were a staple at races and had legions of fans following them with their working-man appeal.
However, a downturn in the nation’s economy impacted Clack’s base of drivers and fans drastically. He said that most of his drivers work in some form of the construction industry, and without enough work, it cuts into their entertainment dollars.
It’s not cheap to run a race car. Lunsford says that the average Late Model car costs north of $80,000, plus gas that goes for $8.50 per gallon. That’s money most people don’t have these days.
Clack said that NASCAR has also had a negative effect on his short-track business. More and more, Sprint Cup races are run under the lights on Saturday night for premier television exposure. When faced with the option, racing fans opted for staying at home and watching the superstars run for free on TV, rather than pay the price of admission and sit out at a sweltering hot track.
He said eventually, NASCAR will be hurt by not fostering a proper feeder system.
“Think of it like having a pantry that’s full of food, but you don’t plant a garden,” Clack said. “When the pantry empties, where’s your food going to come from?”