Imagine a Fourth of July in Atlanta without the AJC Peachtree Road Race. Or, in other words, New Year’s Day in Pasadena without rose petals. A dry St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah. Mardi without the Gras in New Orleans.
What is now an indispensable part of a holiday celebration in Atlanta — every bit as central to the Fourth as blowing up stuff with firecrackers — actually wasn’t always such a big deal.
There was a time in the awkward childhood of the race when love was in critically short supply.
The year was 1976. A Georgia governor/peanut farmer was mounting a successful run for the presidency. Rocky Balboa bled all over the big screen. The two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, booted up Apple. And a little road race in Atlanta was orphaned, left without a sponsor.
Beer had fueled the Peachtree, the Carling Brewery having signed on as benefactor. But it was edging away in 1975, and in full retreat by the next year.
So, it was with headband in hand that race organizers went looking for support. They found a sympathetic ear within the offices of Cox Enterprises in Jim Cox Kennedy, who was learning various aspects of the family business at the time at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“We weren’t five minutes into our pitch when he said, ‘I get it. And here’s what we can do.’ He saw (the potential) right away,” remembered one of the Peachtree’s founding fathers — and its first winner — Jeff Galloway.
Having sampled a couple of Peachtrees by that time, Kennedy first worked the business community but found no one willing to make even a minimal investment in a July Fourth run through Atlanta (Carling’s cost of sponsorship in 1974, for instance, was only $2,875). That left only one other option: Bring the newspaper on board.
“I think I was the assistant business manager at the paper then, so I had absolutely no authority,” said Kennedy, who would go on to have great authority as CEO and Chairman of Cox Enterprises. He currently is Cox’s Chairman.
“But I was pretty in tune with the budget. I thought our promotion department had some room.”
He went to Jack Tarver, then publisher of the AJC, with this new venture. Tarver was described as a rather large, hard-bitten fellow who did not suffer the frivolous.
“How would you feel about us sponsoring the road race?” Kennedy asked him.
“I don’t like car races,” the newspaper guy snorted.
Informed that, no, this was a race in its most primal, original form — on foot — Tarver just may have discovered something he liked even less than auto racing.
“He said what are you talking about?” Kennedy recalled.
“I told him it’s kind of this new thing. People are running down Peachtree on the Fourth of July. It’s six miles. Seems pretty darn cool.”
Tarver wondered, “Do we have it in the budget?”
“I said yes, of course,” Kennedy said. “But I had no clue.”
Skeptics were not long a part of the Peachtree conversation. When Kennedy took this act of faith, he admittedly had no idea the Peachtree would grow to 800-pound gorilla status in this the year of its 50th running.
He had felt the personal excitement and sense of accomplishment as a thousand other people those early races. He witnessed the growing number of sidewalk onlookers, who got their workout by standing in one place and cheering loudly. But, in truth, he couldn’t wrap his imagination around the mass spectacle the Peachtree would become.
“I thought it was really cool. Running in it, there were quite a few people cheering along the sides, but only a couple hundred people were running it then. I thought this was just a neat event to take place right in the middle of Atlanta,” Kennedy said.
“I didn’t see the potential being 60,000 (runners), but I thought it might be a really fun event for the city on the Fourth of July.”
From the year before, the number of entries doubled in ’76, to 2,250, signaling a period of almost geometric growth. The race got more and more ambitious, attracting world-class runners at the front of the field and more and more everyday participants trailing them.
“You bring in the world-class athletes, and no other road race of this caliber had done that,” Galloway said. “Then the AJC with its media platform could promote this as a real race, a better road race than anywhere in the world. And there are indeed people coming in from all over the world. The AJC had the platform to promote the health and fitness for average people.
“We were off and running.”
“The timing was just right,” Kennedy said. “People were getting more aware of physical fitness and their own physical well-being. The race taking place right down Peachtree was a big draw. And at that time, the power of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution really publicized it.”
Then there was the great treasure waiting at the end for all the finishers, one that gained nearly heirloom status. “The AJC blew up the ‘earning your T-shirt thing,’ ” Galloway said.
Would this race have faded away had this one sponsor, one so plugged into the community, one with a voice capable of so greatly amplifying the experience, not stepped up?
Galloway likes to think the Peachtree would have survived, and grown, only much more gradually.
Kennedy, whose knees eventually told him to quit running, can’t be sure of what the future of the Peachtree would have been had the AJC not appended its name to the race. He’s simply pleased to witness the spectacular success of this tandem arrangement.
“I take a great deal of pride in being part of the group that got it to be where it is today – a small part,” he said. “I was at the right place at the right time and saw that it had potential to be saved, not just let it die for lack of sponsorship.”
We’ll never know what if the AJC and the Peachtree hadn’t married. That’s an almost unthinkable hypothetical now.
So, here’s to 50 more.
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