What Did The Win Pay At Atomic Speedway? [Fact Checked!]

Atomic Speedway, located in New York, was the site of one of the most exciting NASCAR races of all time—the 1969 Grand National Championship. It was a battle between the top two drivers in the standings, Richard Petty and Bobby Allison, and the tension was palpable as the hometown boy (Allison) and the country boy (Petty) went head-to-head for the title.

With just a few laps to go, Allison was leading the race. As he approached the turn three wall, a brushfire withstood the on-coming cars and debris from the burning tires literally exploded onto the track. Moments later, a fiery explosion marred the end of an exciting and well-fought race. Fortunately, no one was injured.

The final outcome was bittersweet. Allison had won the race and the championship, but tragedy struck just as he was about to be presented with his prize. A plane flying overhead caught fire and crashed into the football stadium. Those in attendance at the race that day probably still remember the tragic events of that day as they sit and watch the 2019 season.

While many may think of racing when they hear the word “Atomic,” it stands for so much more than just motor vehicles. During the height of the Cold War, the city of New York, and the nation as a whole, were deeply affected by the race track’s place in pop culture. It was the location of some of the most exciting and iconic moments in American history—including the tragedy described above.

The Track Was A National Monument

Even before the first race was held at the speedway in June of 1964, there was already great excitement surrounding the new location. Opened as a result of the Sports Arena being deemed “unsafe” by the federal government, the track’s design was meant to provide a safe replacement. When viewed from the air, the five-eighths of a mile of asphalt are clear enough to make out the white stripes laid down during the day’s racing.

The designers of the track worked hard to give it a futuristic look. The straights were meant to evoke sleek, streamlined airplanes and the turns the track’s design team likened to a “bullfighter’s costume.” The result was something completely new and different. According to the New York Times, the track was “an instant success” as the first race drew 74,000 fans—setting a new record for New York City.

The Race Was A National Holiday

On that celebratory Sunday afternoon in June, the country came together to rejoice in the city’s new and improved sports arena. The New York Times called the afternoon a “Memorial Day” and attributed the large crowd to “the fact that this was a national holiday.”

The Grand National Championship was the culmination of the sports arena’s first full season. The race drew a crowd of 73,000 people—breaking the previous record of 70,000 fans that had been set when the New York Philharmonic played there a few months previously. Everyone seemed to have lost interest in the Philharmonic and turned out to cheer on their favorite drivers as they took the track.

The National Anthem Was Sung Live

The occasion was marked by an emotional speech by Richard Petty, the winner of the race and the championship. The New York Times described his victory dance as a “striptease for the ages” and he was followed by Bobby Allison, who had come in second, and Marvin Panch, who had finished third.

As he climbed on the podium, Allison expressed joy at winning his first race and thanked the fans for their support. Moments later, when they reached the national anthem, the crowd interrupted the performance with a standing ovation and some even began shouting “Give ‘em hell, Dixie!”—the name given to Alabama’s counterpoint to the “Star Spangled Banner.”

The Aftermath

The tragedy that ensued in the wee hours of that Sunday morning was described by the Associated Press as “one of the darkest days in New York sports history.” Twelve people died that day, including three who were killed by the plane that crashed into the stadium. Another person on the ground also died from injuries sustained in the crash. The New York Times reported that 400 injured fans were taken to five area hospitals. Many of the injured suffered serious burns. The paper also reported that the death toll could have been higher had it not been for the work of first responders, particularly firefighters and paramedics, who saved many lives. The incident also prompted a shift in how sporting events are viewed and how they are policed. From that day forward, the FAA imposed new security measures including, among other things, having armed guards at all times during the event and checking the ID of attendees.

Atomic: So Much More Than Just Racing

The track and its events have been the subject of books, documentaries, and even movies. The city of New York and its venues, such as the sports arena, have been the subject of numerous books and films, including The Untouchables, The Fighter, and Grand Prix. The track was also featured in an episode of The Untouchables where the movie’s protagonist, Burt Bacharach, wrote a song about the race that is still performed and recorded today.

The events of that day were also the inspiration for the 2004 film 25th Hour, starring Dennis Quaid and Forest Whitaker. The two-time Oscar-nominated drama was produced by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and tells the story of an ordinary man who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances after being hit by a car while crossing the street at night. The accident leaves him paralyzed and forces him to reassess his life and the people around him.

So, what did the win pay at Atomic Speedway? A lot, actually. Just one year prior to the tragedy at the track, the city had hosted another important sporting event that had drawn massive crowds—the World’s Fair, which was the precursor to the modern-day Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The event had been held at the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens and had featured numerous world class athletes and a variety of world class performers. According to the New York Times, the parade was “one of the world’s great sporting events.” Not only did it mark the unofficial start of the summer season in New York City, but it also served as a demonstration of how far the city had come since the “unsafe” sports arena had been constructed. The newspaper went on to say that the competition had been so fierce that many had nicknamed the event the “Battle of New York.”

Where Is The Track Now?

Today, the track is almost 51 years later and has changed quite a bit, but much of what made it special back in 1969 still stands. The land that the stadium was built on is now part of Queens campus of the City University of New York, and the stadium’s design is a major part of the school’s architecture curriculum. In fact, a class trip there is part of the high school students’ senior trip this year, according to the New York Times.

The five-eighths mile oval still hosts some of the city’s major sporting events, including the New York Yankees and the New York Giants’ home games. The year 2019 will mark the 51st anniversary of that tragic day at the track, and many are expected to attend the anniversary festivities, including Richard Petty and Bobby Allison. The track will also be the location of the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony this year, where they will honor the sport’s most accomplished individuals. If the crowds are any indication, the ceremonies should be very exciting.

In the coming months, we’ll explore the rich history surrounding the track and its place in American culture.

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