Brandon Reed is a writer by trade, so you have to take his stories with a reasonable amount of skepticism. Our imaginations can get away from us and then linger around, gently nudging our memories into a narrative often greater, wilder and more outstanding than the sum of reality.
But Suzanne Reed, Brandon’s wife, is a reasonable person. And she has a ghost story, too.
Brandon was the public relations manager at Peach State Speedway in Jefferson, Georgia, back in the early 2000s. One day, he heard a race car going around the half-mile speedway at race speed from inside the track office.
Thinking there was a test session going on that he didn’t know about, he raced outside only to see an empty track, no car haulers, race cars or anyone else in sight.
Days later, Suzanne stopped by the track to see her husband and asked him what drivers were there that day to test.
In fact, no one was. The track was empty.
“She told me a man came around the corner wearing a white racing uniform,” Brandon told me earlier this month in the infield of the same track in question. “She said he had sandy blonde hair and a distinctive smile, and he waved at her.”
Brandon is a racing historian by passion, and he has amassed a collection of memorabilia, diecast cars, historical footage and old race programs that makes up his own motorsports museum. When the couple got home, Reed dug into his archives and showed his wife the picture of the man she had seen earlier that day. Same hair. Same smile.
It was Butch Lindley.
Lindley was a two-time NASCAR Late Model Sportsman Series champion, a winner of more than 500 short track races. He won another title in the All Pro Series, then the premier late model series in the U.S., in 1984. Six months later, he suffered head injuries in a crash at Desoto Speedway and spent the last five years of his life in a coma. He was inducted into the National Motorsports Pess Association Hall of Fame in 2006.
Lindley was a regular at the Jefferson track in the 1970s and ’80s. The lightning-fast short track just south of Jackson County Airport off of Interstate 85 opened in 1967 as Jefco Speedway with a string of NASCAR races, including a pair of Grand National (now the Cup Series) events. But late model racers – the top division at asphalt tracks across the country – made the track famous.
The track now known as Gresham Motorsports Park hosted the World Crown 300 each year, a crown jewel event for late models that drew the top short track drivers from around the Southeast and beyond. The winner was crowned “King of the Late Models.”
The list of winners is a who’s-who of some of the greatest stock car racers in America over the last 50 years. Darrell Waltrip, Dick Trickle, Mike Eddy, Gary Balough and Rich Bickle are all legends who have a World Crown win on their resume. Chase Elliott, the second-generation NASCAR champion, won the race in 2012.
But none of them may be as cool as the 2000 World Crown 300 winner, Micky Cain.
Cain began racing at what was then Georgia International Raceway in the 1980s and quickly started winning. No one has won more late model races at this track.
But Cain is more than this track’s winningest driver. He’s been its promoter, race director and technical director at different points over the past 20 years. He has been the entire C-suite and the janitor here. No one knows this place better.
That being said, Reed can give Cain a run for his money. Reed’s granddad picked cotton in the field where the track now sits. He saw his first race here.
They were both telling stories on a warm Sunday at the track earlier this month. Stories like the time former Atlanta Falcons Head Coach Jerry Glanville, who regularly raced late models at the track (and also made some NASCAR starts), got kicked square in the goods in a fight with another driver. Or when the promotion team staged a high-speed chase onto the track during pace laps, only for a Papa John’s driver to step out with a carload of pizzas for the crowd.
They were the kind of stories you tell at a good funeral.
When a race track stays quiet for longer than a few months, rumors of revival can create enough noise to inspire hope, just as rumors of redevelopment can sound an alarm every race fan on Facebook can hear.
But hope is so much better for the heart. Hope that the hometown track will roar back to life next season. Hope that a community asset’s true value will finally be realized. Hope for spending more Saturday nights at a scene that can feel like home.
Ever since Gresham Motorsports Park fell silent in 2014, there have been plenty of whispers, rumors and full-on media campaigns about the track’s reopening, about a new lease for a season, a new buyer, or one more World Crown.
On March 4, Reed texted me a Facebook post from Jim Gresham, the owner of the speedway since 2009. The race track is sold. And it will no longer be a race track.
“I’m not at liberty to say who the buyer is or what they’re going to do with the track but I’m sad to advise the facility will not be used in the future for the purpose it was designed for,” Gresham posted.
Reed and Cameron Whitehead and I walked the track one last time as a few clouds tried to create enough shade to keep the temperatures from reaching 80. It’s an early spring in Northeast Georgia. The dirt tracks that still dot towns like Lavonia, Hartwell, Toccoa and Winder are just starting another racing season.
And here sits Gresham Motorsports Park at this very moment, still the nicest, most state-of-the-art short track facility in the state, even though it hasn’t held a race in almost eight years. The whole facility looks like it’s a few hours with a power washer and weed eater away from being ready to host races this Saturday.
But that’s not going to happen. And there are plenty of reasons why.
The story of Gresham Motorsports Park is not uncommon. A race track is built on the edge of town, only to be sold and redeveloped once the town grows out to it and the land becomes too valuable to hold onto.
Take a few minutes to peruse the pages of GeorgiaRacingHistory.com, and you’ll find plenty of race tracks that have been lost in Northeast Georgia. Just 10 miles away, Atlanta Dragway held the NHRA’s Southern Nationals annually and weekly drag racing until 2021 when the track was sold for $9.4 million to developers to support a nearby battery factory.
Asphalt short track racing in particular barely survived the last decade in Georgia. Senoia Raceway replaced its asphalt surface with clay, as did South Georgia Motorsports Park – which has gotten out of circle-track racing altogether. Lanier National Raceway, once the healthiest asphalt short track in the state just 20 miles west of Gresham, has changed hands a few times and is now used for go karts and drifting.
Today, Crisp Motorsports Park in Cordele is the only operating asphalt short track in the entire state.
When there are fewer tracks to race at, there are fewer race cars around. While Northeast Georgia alone has enough dirt track racers in the area to support five weekly racing tracks, the regulars that used to race at Lanier and Peach State Speedway had dwindled in numbers about a decade ago when both tracks were trying to stay open.
Granted, for years the track didn’t host weekly races, instead relying on a calendar filled with special events and traveling series. The Southern All Stars, Hooters Pro Cup and Late Model Series, American Speed Association (ASA) and All Pro Series all made regular stops in Jefferson.
All of those racing series are also defunct now.
So, what happened?
“This shit doesn’t pay purses,” said Whitehead, gesturing to the surface below. He then grabbed a hand of clay behind us. “This shit pays purses. Dirt pays purses.”
Whitehead’s family owned the speedway in the 1990s, bringing in marquee events as well as weekly racing divisions. Even then he could remember that on most Sundays after a night of racing, he and his dad would count the money, “and it would be bitch, bitch, bitch about the money we lost,” he said.
Look at the racing landscape around us, and Whitehead’s statement about purse money and race track success checks out. The prize purses at dirt tracks for national series have continued to rise over the last several years. There are still 17 active dirt tracks in Georgia.
Maybe Jefco was never supposed to survive this long, though the story could be much different. The track was NASCAR-sanctioned when it opened – named for its location between Jefferson and Commerce – and its first few NASCAR races were so successful that NASCAR President and founder Bill France wanted even more involvement.
France approached the track’s owners, Hansel Wilson and Quentin Freeman, with a proposal, Reed explained. France would bring all of NASCAR’s premier series to the track every year in exchange for an ownership stake.
“Freeman and Wilson looked Bill France right in the eye and said no deal,” Reed said.
The track never held another Cup race.
For the next 47 years, the track changed hands and names several times – as you know if you’ve read this far. There were several years in between when the track stayed closed.
When business insurance magnate Jim Gresham bought the track in 2009, there was plenty of reason to believe the track was on solid ground. He invested more than $7 million to raze and rebuild the entire facility and repave the track.
New grandstands arrived from Lakeland, Florida, where they once lined the frontstretch of the state-of-the-art USA International Speedway that was sold for redevelopment in 2009. New concession stands, restrooms and infield garages looked ready to host a NASCAR race.
Optimism faded with the crowd sizes after the first year. Even while track promoter Dan Elliott struggled getting fans in the stands, the speedway enjoyed a steady stream of income – the going rate was $5,000 per day, according to Cain – from NASCAR teams renting the facility to test their short track cars. But then NASCAR banned private testing in 2014.
By then, the track had lost too much money to continue. Gresham threw in the towel and listed the track for sale, but he had made the property so valuable that the asking price was much more than the profit margins of running such a race track could cover.
Reed blames a steady stream of track promoters that never found the right formula for getting cars in the pits and fans in the stands – opportunists who saw crowds getting bigger and bigger at NASCAR races and thought they could duplicate that success at the local level.
“You had too many people come in here that thought they could simply open the gates and just make money,” Reed said. “They all found out quickly that wasn’t the case. You have to get into this business understanding you’re not going to make a nickel in the first five years – if you can make a nickel.”
“There are people who live in Jefferson who don’t know this track exists,” Whitehead said. “I’m talking about people who’ve lived here for 30 years who don’t know about this place.”
“You have to get out and promote, promote, promote,” Reed added. “It’s hard work. You have to have a promoter who is savvy.
“And the last savvy promoter this track had was Micky Cain.”
Micky Cain is, as far as I can tell, the coolest race car driver I’ve ever met.
Granted, I never met Dick Trickle or Dale Earnhardt or Harry Gant, but Cain could hold court with those guys. He’s a straight shooter with a southern swagger and charm, and he tells a story you want to pay attention to.
On the east wall of the infield garage building Cain has been clearing out, each cinderblock in the wall is signed by drivers who had tested here.
“Man have we got some names here,” Cain said. “You ever heard of Kimi Raikkonen?”
Yeah, the 2007 Formula One champion from Finland who spent two decades racing at racing’s highest level. Raikkonen turned his first laps in a stock car at Gresham,
“He came here with a chiropractor,” Cain remembered. “Brought a massage table with him.”
Danica Patrick drove a NASCAR stock car here for the first time here. The same goes for Chase Elliott.
Jimmie Johnson, Ken Schrader, Travis Pastrana, Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric (in a USF2000 Indy car), the late, great Jason Leffler. Their autographs are Sharpied all over the wall in this garage that may very well be reduced to rubble soon.
Cain has a story for every signature, and he knows he took many of these drivers around in the track’s pace car to learn the fastest line. He knows his record here.
“I can tell you who won more late model races here than anybody,” he said, and then he winked at me.
“I suspect I’m in his presence,” I replied.
Cain drove the last laps on the old surface and the first laps on the repaved track in 2009 after Gresham rebuilt the property. Fortunately, the track was still as he remembered it, just faster.
“(The track) drove identical after the repave,” he said. “The only difference was when you got in the car before, you could pump one nut up. After the repave, you’d better pump both nuts up, because I’m telling you, you are hauling it around here.”
Not that the speed was anything new to Cain. The track’s corners were still bordered by guardrails when Cain started racing here.
“The year they put the wall around the whole track I made my first lap and it scared me to death because you went down the back straightaway and there was no noise,” he said. “You come off turn 2 and you didn’t get no sound back in the car.
“They put that damn wall in, son, and you come by that back gate – and there’s a bump right there at the back gate – God almighty, you knew when you were hooked up coming by there. You’d hear ‘RaaaaaawwwAAAAAAH!’
“You could damn hear it spin the tires.”
Much like Trickle, Cain always had his cigarettes and a lighter handy in his race car. He would spark one during the caution periods and use the waning dart to his advantage on restarts.
“I would sit there puffing my cigarette until there was one lap to go (until the green flag),” Cain said. “I’d go down the back straightaway cleaning my tires. We’d get to the middle of (turns) 3 and 4 where the restart zone’s at.”
He flicked his fingers.
“And the guy running second sees the cigarette fly out my window. About the time that cigarette went out the window my ass was gone. I’d have five car lengths on the guy by the time I got to the start-finish line.”
Reed brought souvenirs from his collection, including a program from the first race held at JeffCo Speedway, to show me on this solemn day.
He has a signed photo of NASCAR King Richard Petty and his grandfather, with Reed himself and Kyle Petty in the background. The Pettys were in town to see Adam Petty – Kyle’s son, Richard’s grandson and Lee’s great-grandson – run his first race and become the first-ever fourth-generation athlete in America.
In a thick sheet of protective glass, Reed keeps tickets from the race his granddad took him to in 1994 and wrote a note on the back: “Boys night out – had a blast.”
Reed and his grandfather shared a love for racing, and particularly the track down the street from Maysville. In the final days of his grandfather’s life, Reed was driving him back to the VA clinic but made a last-second decision and turn. Soon, they were on the speedway property and saw a few cars testing at the track.
Reed called Cain and asked if the race teams had a break coming up. Perhaps Reed could take his granddad around the track one more time.
A few minutes later, the half-mile was all theirs. “Take all the laps you want, hero,” Cain told him.
As they made a few laps in his grandfather’s truck, Reed behind the wheel, he asked his granddad if he knew where he was.
“Jefco! Georgia International! Peach State! Gresham!” his grandad exclaimed. “I’m at my race track!”
It was the one more trip to the track, and it was perfect.
After his grandfather passed, Reed never felt closer to him than when he was at this race track, working up in the press box or chasing down a race winner’s interview in victory lane. It seems Butch Lindley isn’t the only ghost that hangs around here.
Where are they going to go when this place is no more? Reed can barely bear the thought.
“When Fireball Roberts [one of NASCAR’s first superstars] died in 1964, there was a sportswriter in Charlotte who wrote that Fireball’s death was like this,” Reed said. “Imagine waking up every morning and looking out your window, and there’s a great big mountain there. And you wake up one morning and the mountain is gone.
“I thought about that when my grandfather died, and I thought about it again when I got the news here. This place has always been here. And it’s crazy because there’s been so many times before when it almost wasn’t here.”
For years, Reed was fearful someone would bulldoze the track and put in warehouses or a corporate headquarters here. Its location next to the airport and interstate make this a perfect spot for such a project.
Those fears subsided when Gresham bought and sank more than $7 million into the track. Reed believed the improvements would help secure the future of the track for generations to come.
In the end, the near-inevitability for this race track is happening, even if Reed or Whitehead or Cain or the rest of what once was a big racing scene still can’t believe it.
“This one hurts,” Reed told me just before we left to head home, knowing we would never be back. “The notion of this place being plowed up is like losing my grandfather all over again.”