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SPEED READING: Bodine recalls record, returns for more

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Ryan McGee

 
   
 
Bruton force: Track owner's Atlanta makeover brought Bodine up to speed
I was not there on that windswept sand dune at Kill Devil Hills in 1903 when the Wright brothers first took to the skies.

I also was not there on that still, dusty afternoon in 1947 when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier high above the California desert.

Nor was I in attendance in 1969 when the 365-foot Saturn 5 rocket rattled the entire east coast of Florida as it muscled its way skyward toward the moon.

But I was in the house for one of the most amazing phenomenons of speed and power that mankind has ever witnessed.

November 15, 1997. The day that qualified at 718 miles per hour at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.

"Was it that fast?" asks Bodine. "I don't think that's exactly right."

OK, OK, it was actually 197.478 miles per hour. But you have to admit, that's still damn fast for a little ol' 1.54-mile tri-oval.

"Yeah, it was plenty fast," says the man who barreled his way into the record books. "And it felt even faster. It felt more like that 700 mile per hour number."

Since that day, no track on the Nextel Cup schedule has been anywhere near Atlanta's zip code when it comes to raw speed. Not Daytona, not Talladega, not even Michigan or California. Last season, won the Atlanta October pole at 194.295 mph, easily the fastest of any track on the schedule. Since the moment that Bodine crossed the start-finish line to grab his pole in '97, AMS has been the king daddy all-encompassing grand poohbah of hauling the mail.

"There are only a couple of spots on a couple of tracks where you think to yourself, man, this is scary," says , who owns eight top-10 finishes in 19 Georgia starts. "But at Atlanta, especially during qualifying, you think that pretty much all the time."

"Every time you blink, you've gone a football field," adds , looking to make his 47th Atlanta start. "Sneeze and you've missed the backstretch. Everything just happens so fast there."

Looking back, there was a sort of harmonic convergence that happened that November day in the Peach State. Since its grand opening in 1960, the Atlanta Motor Speedway hadn't changed much. It was a very plain, perfectly symmetrical oval with considerable banking in what looked like the longest, broadest turns on the planet. Think Dover super-sized. But AMS now belonged to Bruton Smith, the man who had transformed the tracks at Charlotte and Bristol into palaces of speed. The Texas Motor Speedway was already under construction and Sears Point was soon to be bought.

Smith looked at his perfect oval in Atlanta and decided it needed more personality (not to mention more seats). So he bulldozed the backstretch and inserted a Charlotte-style double dogleg. Some said it was for better racing, but the truth was he could install more seats -- 37,000 more. Then he flip-flopped the entire layout, turning the frontstretch into the back and the back into the front. But the 24-degree banking stayed put, even as it spilled out onto a very flat straight leading to the new start-finish line. To cap it off, a brand new layer of hot-off-the-presses blacktop was laid down like icing on a cake, complete with some super-black sealer to add a little weatherproofing.

When a handful of teams arrived to test the new configuration two weeks prior to the first race, word traveled up I-85 to the Charlotte raceshops like it was delivered by the Pony Express.

This new Atlanta Motor Speedway was fast. Bad fast.

"During practice that first morning, people were just looking at each other like, what is going on here?" recalls , who had won the last race on the old layout that March. "To be honest, a lot of us were mad. We liked the old track to begin with, and we weren't real sure that we could do any racing at those wide-open speeds. And there was so much grip in that new surface that the tires could barely handle it."

had won the pole in March with a speed just under 187 miles per hour. But morning practice speeds shot past 190 in a hurry. And as air temperatures began to cool in the November afternoon, everyone began to hold their breath as qualifying time approached.

When Geoff Bodine rolled his QVC Ford Thunderbird onto the track, everyone stopped to watch. He had been quick during practice and had always been a killer qualifier. But no one expected what came next.

When that black Ford came rolling off of Turn 4 and headed down through the tri-oval past pit road, it was like someone had sucked all the air out of the track. Those of us standing on pit road let out an unconscious "Woooooo" as he went by. As he disappeared off into the new Turn 2, all eyes followed him away and then tilted up to see what number would pop up on the top of the scoring pylon.

"Whoa!" cried normally calm Ned Jarrett from the ESPN2 TV booth, seeing the speed nanoseconds before the rest of the world.

"I heard the crowd gasp," Bodine said immediately after climbing from his car, "and then I just smiled before they even radioed the speed to me. I knew I had the pole, I just wondered how fast it really was."

197.478 miles per hour. The number immediately sparked a heated debate about how fast was too fast. Some drivers asked about employing restrictor plates for the race, causing others to question their manhood.

"If you don't want to go fast, then quit racing and go do something else," declared Dale Earnhardt. "And you might want to get some kerosene rags and tie them around your ankles. That'll keep the bugs from crawling up your legs and eating your candy ass."

Bodine's lap happened six-and-a-half years ago, which for those of us who were there is a little hard to believe. No one has gone as fast since, but no one has gone as slow as they once did, either.


Ryan McGee is the managing editor of and on Fox Sports Net. He can be reached at his e-mail address: rmcgee@foxsports.com.
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  • Busch Beat
    will spend his off-weekend trying to come up with some extra cash. Sauter was fined $10,000 and 25 points for using a bad word during his post-race interview at Las Vegas.

    Mike Helton went out of his way to remind drivers in Busch and Cup about foul language, particularly in light of new indecency sensitivities after the Super Bowl fiasco.

    How costly was the fine? The loss of 25 points dropped Sauter from second to fourth in series points. Keep in mind that the difference between 1st and 2nd in last year's championship was only 14 points.

    Truck Stop
    The trucks finally return to action this weekend after a full month off, and a familiar face will be back on the track at Atlanta -- Cup qualifying record holder .

    Bodine finished 10th at Daytona in the number 03 Team EJP Chevy. Bodine has made 18 career NCTS starts but is still looking for his first victory with the trucks. He's been close, finishing second three times and in the top 10 nine times.

    Editor's note: If Bodine wins Saturday's truck race at 1 p.m. ET on SPEED, he would become the eighth NASCAR driver to win a race in all three premier national series, joining Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick, Bobby Hamilton, Terry Labonte, Mark Martin, Ken Schrader and Jimmy Spencer.

    The Why We Call Richard Petty "The King" Fact of the Week
    As Sports Illustrated continues its state-by-state look at sports in the USA, they have picked one person per state to write an essay representing sports in their native land.

    When SI got to North Carolina, they didn't ask Michael Jordan, Marion Jones or even Sugar Ray Leonard or Meadowlark Lemon. They asked The King. You can read his comments in the March 15th issue.

    Editor's note: What would have happened to NASCAR if Richard Petty had stayed on his North Carolina farm and hadn't followed his father into stock car racing? .

    Totally NASCAR Who's Hot, Who's Not
    : That champagne cork you heard popping in the Las Vegas media center... it was over at my laptop. After one year of picking on Mears, he finally came through with his first career top-10 finish! Somebody help that kid get that monkey of his back!
    .: Folks, I've been covering this sport for a long time, and I have never seen a more disastrous effort than the 8 car last weekend: 35th, 71 laps down, without hitting anything, breaking anything or even spinning. They were just bad.
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