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A NASCAR track is providing a home for Hurricane Irma evacuees

HENRY COUNTY – Cassandra Hendon couldn’t help but laugh when her 12-year-old daughter declared the family would make Atlanta Motor Speedway their new home.

It’s not that her daughter is a NASCAR fan. Despite Hendon, 35, growing up as a Jeff Gordon fan and even naming her cat after the California driver’s longtime primary sponsor, Dupont, the family from Vero Beach, Florida had never been to a race.

Hendon’s daughter wanted to stay camped out at the speedway not because of fast cars, but because Chick-Fil-A and Starbucks delivered free treats to her family and other Florida evacuees Saturday morning.

“That’s my kind of food,” she said as her mother chuckled.

The Hendon family – Cassandra, her four kids and a dog – left their rental house in Vero Beach, Florida earlier this week and, with a few hundred other Floridians, have made the campgrounds of Atlanta Motor Speedway their temporary home in an attempt to escape the wrath of Hurricane Irma.

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Hendon has lived in Florida for 13 years and never before left the state to dodge the destruction of a hurricane, but Irma, she says, is different.

“This one – just the size of it, and the experts not knowing what it was doing and where it was going,” Hendon said. “It’s tough. Most of us don’t have financial planning for something random like this, so it was good to find somewhere free to come, like the speedway. And the community here has been incredible.”

After stopping in Tallahassee first, Hendon, her dog and children – ages 12, 11, 7 and 5 – arrived at the track on Friday where former United States President Jimmy Carter once worked as a ticket taker.

Many at the track came in campers or RV’s, but Hendon loaded her kids and belongings into a grey Honda Odyssey minivan and pitched a tent at the campgrounds that is big enough to sleep several people.

“We figured hotels would be all booked up, and at the very least we could find campgrounds,” Hendon said.

As her kids play nearby, Cassandra Hendon (left) checks her phone near her family's campsite near Atlanta Motor Speedway. The Hendon's left their Vero Beach home to escape Hurricane Irma. (MITCHELL NORTHAM/AJC)

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Atlanta Motor Speedway opened it campgrounds in Hampton on Wednesday to Hurricane Irma evacuees. As the news of their hospitality began to spread, RV’s, campers, cars, trucks and other mobile homes started to trickle in.

The speedway was built in 1960, and this isn’t its first time transforming into a shelter for displaced folks. For Ed Clark, the speedway’s president, he remembers evacuees wanting to come to the campground in 2004, when Floridians were looking to escape Hurricane Frances.

“We did it that time,” Clark remembers. “And going forward, anytime there’s been a storm, folks will call us and it’s an automatic yes. It’s easy for us to do. We got 843 acres.”

Clark said he talked to some evacuees who had come to the campground to escape a hurricane once or twice before. Jack Marques and Jim Jones were not two of those folks.

Both veterans of the United States Navy, Marques and Jones have each lived in Florida for more than three decades. Like Hendon, this was the first time they had ever fled the state to escape a storm.

“This is a scary one,” said Marques, 68 of Kissimmee. “This one was like, ‘You need to get out.’ When they said the storm was wider that the state of Florida, there was nowhere to go. And so, we boarded up and we left.”

Said Jones, 74 of Orlando: “With winds up to 185 mph, that got my attention.”

Both men came the speedway with their wives in RV’s, and Jones brought his dog, but both had family members stay behind in Florida.

Jones said the trip up Interstate 75 was “an absolute nightmare.”

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Caterers from Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q prepare food for Hurricane Irma evacuees at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (MITCHELL NORTHAM/AJC)

Marques said it took him 12 hours to make the trip, and he split it up by sleeping overnight in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Marques said all of the rest stops were “clogged up” and the nearby big-box store was the only one with a large parking lot where he could park for the night.

Both men also said that the people at the speedway and the locals in Henry County have been great to them. In addition to drop-ins from Chick-Fil-A and Starbucks, groups from local churches brought supplies, and a few volunteers took some evacuees to a local high school football game to get their mind of the storm.

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Saturday afternoon, Marques noticed the smell of low-and-slow cooked pork hanging in the air. Employees from Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q’s in metro Atlanta had teamed up to feed evacuees free lunch. Owners Joe Cunningham and Jeremy Chambers said they brought enough food to feed 1,000 people.

“We figured the best thing we could do is come out here and feed folks and make it so they didn’t have to worry about a meal for a day,” Cunningham said. “These folks have a lot of uncertainty about their lives right now, so we’re just trying to provide some southern hospitality.”

The speedway did its best to provide a distraction too.

With the “Legends and Bandolero” cars in town for a series of quarter-mile races, track officials opened the grandstand, free of charge, to anyone who wanted to watch the old fashion automobiles speed around.

“This is a situation where we always know what we can do,” Clark said. “It’s a community effort. If we can take away a little bit of stress off these people, then it’s a good thing.”

Hendon said she planned on taking her kids into the speedway for their first race.

“We might turn them into some NASCAR fans,” Hendon said. “It’s a very stressful time right now. You take what you need to live, not necessarily what you can save. I’m trying to stay in the moment. Staying in the ‘what if?’ is a bad place to be.”

Still, for most Floridians and many other Southerners, the thought of uncertainty lingers as Hurricane Irma approaches.

“After Tuesday, we’re going to head back,” Marques said. “But what are we heading back to?”

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