Houston & Peach

Byron raceway roars back to life in car ads

BYRON -- The long-closed Middle Georgia Raceway roared back to life last month, if only for a few days.

But the stands were not filled with screaming fans. The infield was not full of RVs. And there was no winning driver spinning doughnuts on the track.

In fact, the racetrack looks a little worse for wear. Weeds poke through the pavement in some places, while bushes and small trees grow between the concrete stands and the racetrack. Pine trees dot the infield.

But that neglected track off U.S. 41 was just the look the Chrysler Group was looking for to film several national Dodge commercials, some of which are being shown now.

Tim Thornton, owner of Thornton Realty Co. in Macon, and his family’s business partnership bought the 62–acre racetrack site about five years ago for a land development site. The economy soured, and that plan disappeared.

Last year, Thornton cleaned up the track a bit, painted the track walls, and this March held a vintage car show there. The property is for sale for $985,000.

Then Detroit came calling.

“About three, four weeks ago, I was contacted out of the blue by Dodge,” Thornton said. “They wanted to lease it from us for a couple of weeks to do some commercials for this new Dodge Durango that they have redesigned and reintroduced.”

Thornton had to sign a confidentially agreement that he would keep the ads a secret until the commercials were ready to air. Dodge didn’t want their competition to know what they were doing, and they didn’t want a lot of onlookers.

“They came in there and spent 11 days and supposedly $2 million,” he said. “They had 150 people and probably 50 pieces of heavy equipment ... including a rain maker. They had armed guards all the way around it. If your name wasn’t on the list, you didn’t get in.”

Frances McDaniel, executive director of the Byron Convention & Visitors Bureau, was told about the shoot, but she couldn’t talk about it either.

“I thought it was amazing,” McDaniel said.

But, of course, with that much equipment coming into Byron, people started talking, and her phone started ringing.

“They thought it was a carnival or something like that out there,” she said. “I could only tell them they were shooting an ad” but no other details.

The Dodge folks had to undo some of the freshening up that had been done last year. They not only aged the outside wall’s new paint job, but they also gave the track a new name and painted a portion of the wall with a checkerboard design. They also bought a local car for $2,000 that was driven into the wall to give the appearance of crash marks.

After production ended, Dodge agreed to repaint the walls, and Thornton asked the company to change the name to Middle Georgia Motor Speedway, “even though that’s not technically the name,” he said.

Dodge shot 18 different commercials and brought in some other models of the brand to film on the track, Thornton said.

Vincent Crothers, a racing fan who lives in Macon, saw a video of the Dodge Durango commercial on YouTube.

Back in the 1990s, Crothers took a lot of pictures of the track and had hoped then it would reopen.

“So, I knew that was the racetrack -- the pine trees in the middle and the grandstands,” he said. “I have been out there many times ... and I went to the car show in March. There are not many abandoned racetracks like that around. That’s a half-mile asphalt racetrack.”

The track has a long, varied history

While the Middle Georgia Raceway hasn’t been used for a race since the mid-1980s, it has been the site of some notable action.

The oval track was built in 1966 for $500,000. The first race -- the Speedy Morelock 200 NASCAR Grand National stock car race -- was named after the late Speedy Morelock, a top driver and mechanic of the day.

Racing king Richard Petty, just 29 at the time, who would go on to become NASCAR’s winningest driver with 200 victories, won the first race there. He led for 159 of the 200 laps, and his average speed of 82.023 mph broke the NASCAR record for half-mile tracks.

Other notable drivers who raced at the track included Bobby Allison, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison.

In its early years, the track, which is similar in size and track dimensions to Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee, was in a position to become a major race operation.

A year after the track opened, it made national news when federal agents discovered a moonshine whiskey distillery in an underground bunker near turn three.

History also was made when the racetrack was the site of the 1970 Atlanta International Pop Festival, more commonly called the Byron Pop Festival.

An estimated 300,000 people descended on Byron, which then had about 2,000 residents, to hear legendary musical acts including Jimi Hendrix and The Allman Brothers Band.

Some may remember the track as the venue for race scenes in “Greased Lightning,” a 1977 movie starring actor/comedian Richard Pryor about the early days of black stock car driver Wendell Scott.

While the site won’t be used for racing cars again, Thornton would like to bring other events there. The property is still for sale, and it can be leased, he said.

Shooting the commercials was like a movie production, with lots of producers, photographers, special effects team and artists, Thornton said. Those contacts possibly could translate into future movie opportunities, he said.

“Now I’m leveraging this,” he said. “I made some contacts with some film people who may be interested in doing a documentary. We are trying to get some other non-racing things going down there, such as concerts and outdoor events.”

McDaniel, with the CVB, would also like to see that happen, and she and Thornton have discussed the idea.

“I think (the commercial) is going to be great for the area,” she said. “We talked about doing a concert to kind of re-enact the Pop Festival -- but without the drugs. So, we might do something like that.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.