Dixie Speedway more than just about racing

During its 40 years of existence, Dixie Speedway in Woodstock has become far more than just another Saturday night dirt track. Races there have become weekly rituals — can't-miss events for generations of drivers and fans.

Even as times have changed, and the neighborhood has developed to the point there's a Home Depot and Lowe's just down Ga. 92 from the track, Dixie has remained true to its working-class roots. Just as they did decades ago, mechanics and plumbers and body-shop workers and salvage yard operators spend weeknights working on their cars so they can be a part of the Saturday night show. And it's still one that won't break the budget of the average fan. Adult tickets for a regular show are just $10, and kids 8 and under get in free.

Track owner Mickey Swims, at age 67, is plenty well-off enough to retire, but he still handles the hardest jobs himself. Any race night finds him sweaty and grimy from hours spent plowing and grading the track, watering it and then packing it down to a smooth surface, all done with equipment long cast off from a construction crew somewhere.

As Swims, the track's owner since the mid-'70s, circled the track in a '60s-era wrecker, packing the lumpy, muddy red clay into a tacky racing surface, his enthusiasm for his track and his sport was as strong as ever.

"I just love it," he said as he held the old truck's throttle to the rusty floorboard and whipped the steering wheel back and forth to negotiate the slippery surface.

The same can be said for most of the 127 drivers who showed up to race on a recent Saturday night, and for track employees like announcer Johnny Clark, who has been enthusiastically calling the races and conversing with the fans seated below him for the past 25 years.

Wayne Echols, a house framer from Cumming, has raced at Dixie nearly every Saturday night since 1977.

"I love it, just the challenge of it," he said. "I don't like spending the money, but I love doing it."

Echols, like most of his fellow racers, never had a desire to move on to NASCAR. "Dirt's more exciting, a little more out of control," he said. "And it's close to home."

Echols, 52, still has his youthful looks, but he's become one of the track's old-timers. Looking across the pit area at the Knowles cousins, Jody and Tony, he said, "I used to race against their daddies." And next to him was the No. 3 of Luther Jenkins. "I raced against his granddaddy, Luther Carter."

On the other side of the pits, 67-year-old Junior Day, who ran in the very first race at Dixie 40 years ago, was preparing to race in the fastest Late Model class despite having undergone two open-heart surgeries over the years.

"It just gets in your blood," said Day, a former auto mechanic who now drives a Fulton County school bus for a living. "I run out of breath a little quicker than I used to, and to run good, you have to go at it like you're fighting fire."

Oliver Gentry of Newnan came to Dixie on a recent Saturday night after spending the day taking his daughters to softball games on the Southside. With two laps to go in the Limited Late Model feature, Gentry, his yellow No. 3 bucking and spinning on the tacky red clay, charged to the outside of race leader Mike McConnell and grabbed his first win of the season.

But for Gentry, and for most everyone in the pits and in the grandstands, Saturday night at Dixie Speedway isn't all about winning races.

"What it's really about is good fun and good fellowship with good people," he said.

And that's exactly what track owner Mickey Swims had in mind years ago when he let other more lucrative job offers pass him by and decided to make a living as a local dirt track promoter.

"If I had it all to do over, I wouldn't change a thing," he said.