JEFFERSON — Despite the number of years that Dan Elliott has been involved in racing, he’d never before seen what caught his eye Thursday as he drove through the infield of Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson.
Elliott, the track’s general manager, looked out of his truck window to the right only to see drag racer John Coughlin taking advantage of the warm spring weather by riding his skateboard down the bottom of the straightaway.
Coughlin was on hand as his teenage son, Cody, was testing at the track.
“I’ve never seen that before,” Elliott said with a smile. “I’ve got to get my daughter to come down here and get a picture of this.”
With all the hard work that Elliott’s put into the overhaul at the 45-year-old facility of Gresham Motorsports Park, formerly known as the Peach State Speedway, he’s not going to neglect the lighter moments that came along with such a comprehensive project.
“The work’s tough enough,” Elliott added. “If you can’t have fun along the way, it’s going to be a short life.”
And now that the nearby Lanier National Speedway, in Braselton, has ceased racing under current ownership, Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson is the only show in town for racing fans in Northeast Georgia.
And Elliott hopes that fans can enjoy the racing product that Gresham produces, including the season-opening Beau Slocumb Memorial 208 that took place Saturday night, the first of eight events planned before the season schedule wraps on Oct. 13.
The long hours and never-ending projects are the trade-off for staying so closely involved on a day-to-day basis in racing for Elliott, whose brother Bill Elliott is a former Winston Cup Series champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner.
“I know I’m truly blessed to have a job in a sport that I love so much,” Elliott said. “When I look at this, I’m just reminded how awesome God is.”
Drivers appreciate not only the attention to detail that has been put into the track, but also that the 1/2-mile track is also known among drivers as one of the fastest. However, speed also comes with the danger of more damaging collisions to vehicles, says Elliott.
“It’s pretty prestigious racing at Gresham Motorsports Park since everything is all so new,” said Russell Fleeman, a Late Model driver from Dacula that frequents the venue. “They took a facility that was nice and made it top notch.”
Upon purchase of the facility by the track’s namesakes, Jim and Tony Gresham, a father-and-son pair with deep roots in the racing community, Elliott steered a nearly year-long renovation that cost millions to upgrade facilities before it reopened under its new name in the fall of 2009. Elliott says that all renovations were centered around making it as fan-friendly as possible, and eventually a premier destination for ARCA and Camping World Truck Series events.
Some of the major projects that went into restoring the track included purchasing new grandstands and flipping them to the opposite side of the track from where they previously stood — as to avoid the glare of the late-afternoon sun — re-inforcing the bottom of the track to support the cars, trackside parking, lowering the infield by 6 1/2 feet, and placing large billboards opposite the grandstands to promote sponsors.
They also got as detailed in the renovations as to have a pristine restroom facility in the infield. Now, Gresham Motorsports Park can accommodate seating for 6,000 fans in the grandstands, trackside and infield all combined.
“We want this to be as fan-friendly as possible and a place people will want to bring the entire family,” Elliott said.
However, no amount of planning can guarantee that such a massive overhaul to the aesthetics and an equally financially steep project on a seasoned track can guarantee success.
“It’s the ultimate gamble,” Elliott said. “We’ll know we’ve been successful when we’re at full capacity for every single race.”
Of course, having the Elliott family name attached to the track has helped. Some of the biggest names in NASCAR have all tested at the track since Elliott took over as general manager in 2009. Ryan Newman, Jimmy Johnson, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick, Ken Schrader, Bobby Labonte, and even comedian Ron White have all run laps at the track.
To remember visits from NASCAR drivers and celebrities, alike, a wall in the pit-row tech building has slowly evolved with all their autographs acquired during trips to the track.
Now the million-dollar question is whether this track, that is lauded by drivers, will continue to thrive. Elliott knows that the timing of the track’s rejuvenation in 2009 couldn’t have been worse. The economy was in the tank at the time.
Most of those in the construction industry, which is the heart of the racing drivers and fanbase, were lacking disposable income to spend on the weekend at the track.
Now, they hope any upswing in the economy and a couple years of a proven track record of performance under their belts will lead to a successful summer of 2012. Location also works into Gresham’s favor with a track set just one mile off Interstate 85 and about a 30-minute drive from Gainesville and Athens, and only about 45 minutes from Atlanta.
“I feel like this track has about a 100-mile radius that it’s convenient for people to come visit,” Elliott said.