‘The King’ set to visit Byron track

sports@macon.comAugust 19, 2013 

SPORTS CAR-NASCAR 18 KC

Richard Petty attends the NASCAR STP 400 race at Kansas Speedway on April 21 in Kansas City, Kan.

DAVID EULITT — MCT

When Richard Petty makes an appearance Aug. 31 at the third annual Middle Georgia Racers Reunion Festival at the Middle Georgia Raceway in Byron, he will be no stranger to the track.

“King” Richard counts four of his record-setting 200 NASCAR wins at the track, which hosted races in the 1960s and early 1970s.

He won the first race at the half-mile oval in 1966, taking the checkered flag at the inaugural Speedy Morelock 200 in June of that year. He also won at Byron in three of the next four years, taking the Macon 300 in 1967 and the Georgia 500 in 1968 and 1970. Among his 200 wins were 101 in the 1960s, 89 in the 1970s and 10 in the 1980s. He won seven NASCAR championships and seven Daytona 500 titles.

Petty, who drove Plymouths, Dodges, Fords, Pontiacs, Buicks and Oldsmobiles during his career, established a record in 1967 that likely never will be broken when he won 10 straight races as part of a 27-win year. That stands right up there with Byron Nelson’s 11 straight wins in golf in 1945. Nelson won a total of 18 times that year.

In addition to his 200 victories, Petty recorded 555 top-fives and 712 top-10s in the 1,185 races in which he competed. He was in the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s first class in 2010.

Petty was not the only big-name NASCAR legend to compete and win at Middle Georgia. Bobby Allison won three times there, taking the Middle Georgia 500 in 1967, 1969 and 1971 (The 1971 race was the final NASCAR event at Byron), while David Person won the Macon 300 in 1968 and Bobby Issac took the Macon 500 later that same year.

The Byron track has been dormant for almost three decades, with no plans to hold another race there. It is in a sad state of repair, with vegetation growing throughout the 62-acre property.

The Middle Georgia Raceway has had an interesting history outside of racing. The year after it opened, federal agents discovered a moonshine still beneath one of its ticket booths on the third turn.

In 1970, more than 300,000 people flocked to the track for the Atlanta International Pop Festival, also known as the Byron Pop Festival, which featured more than 30 acts, including the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Rare Earth, the Allman Brothers and John Sebastian of the Loving Spoonful. It was the largest crowd that Hendrix ever performed for in his short career. The highlight was his unique take on the Star-Spangled Banner which he performed at midnight on July 4. Marijuana was found growing for months after the Pop Festival’s conclusion. I was right in the middle of that Pop Festival, operating a concession stand off the ramp at the Byron exit off Interstate 75.

The track was featured in “Greased Lighting,” the story of NASCAR driver Wendell Scott as portrayed by actor Richard Pryor, in 1977. The real Scott was in the field for the first race at Byron in 1966, finishing 15th and picking up $100 for his efforts. Petty took home the top money of $1,000.

The most recent use of the track came just two years ago when the Chrysler Corporation rented the raceway to produce 18 television commercials for Dodge.

While racing hasn’t taken place in years at the track, it remains a Middle Georgia legend.

Petty is expected to arrive at the reunion around mid-morning on the 31st and remain through mid-afternoon.

Bobby Pope is the executive director of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. Email him at bobbypope428@gmail.com

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