Race Weekend Central

Only Yesterday: That One Time the All-Star Race Was Held at Atlanta

The All-Star Race has evolved in multiple aspects over the year, including its format, but the past several years have seen the event’s venue change multiple times.

While that was the original plan for the All-Star Race when it was created back in 1985, it largely stayed at Charlotte Motor Speedway until 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic allowed NASCAR to think outside the box. That year, the All-Star Race was held at Bristol Motor Speedway, which was largely underwhelming all around (unless you’re a Chase Elliott fan).

The venue then shifted to Texas Motor Speedway in 2021 and 2022, in which both events were either lackluster or controversial, leading fans to beg for a change. In 2023, they got their wish, as North Wilkesboro Speedway was revived from the dead and set to host the All-Star Race this May.

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But did you know that the All-Star Race was held at Atlanta Motor Speedway one year?

Remember, the All-Star Race was supposed to be a rotational venue each year. In 1985, the first race was held at Charlotte. But in 1986, the race was switched to Atlanta. This was back when Atlanta was a 1.52-mile oval shaped like Homestead-Miami Speedway and when the All-Star Race was simply called The Winston.

The qualifications to make the race were similar to how they are today: race winners from the 1985 season. However, there was a minimum requirement of 10 cars for the race, and only nine drivers had won in 1985. Therefore, the last spot was awarded to the highest-finishing driver in the points standings without a win. Geoff Bodine, who finished fifth in the standings, earned the 10th and final spot.

The pole position was automatically awarded to the defending Winston Cup (now NASCAR Cup Series) champion (which was Darrell Waltrip for this race), and then the rest of the field was set by most-to-least number of wins, with 1985 points being the tiebreaker. Among other drivers in the field were Harry Gant, Cale Yarborough, Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte, Neil Bonnett and the surprise driver of the field, Greg Sacks, after his 1985 upset at Daytona International Speedway the previous July.

Before the main event, the Atlanta Invitational was held. Akin to what we know nowadays as the All-Star Open, it was a 100-lap shootout between 14 cars who were not eligible to race in The Winston. Benny Parsons won the race, which went caution-free. However, unlike nowadays, the win didn’t qualify Parsons for the 1986 Winston — it instead qualified him for the following year’s Winston, in 1987.

For some reason, the Winston had fewer laps than the Atlanta Invitational (83), but nonetheless, that race also went caution-free. Polesitter Waltrip had an ill-handling car and was passed before the first lap even ended — he led no laps and finished fourth.

Dale Earnhardt led lap one before Bill Elliott, the hometown hero, led the rest of the way. Seriously. Elliott led the final 82 laps and collected every bonus incentive for leading at certain lap markers before collecting the big $200,000 for winning. He absolutely dominated.

It only makes sense that “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” won that race, and not just because the race was held at Atlanta. In 1985, Elliott had his most dominant season, winning 11 races, including the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 and the Winston 500. This made him the first-ever driver to win the Winston Million prize offered to any driver that could win three out of the four crown jewel races (the World 600 — now the Coca-Cola 600 — was the other eligible race). This earned him his second nickname, “Million Dollar Bill.”

So it was fitting that Elliott turned around and dominated the race that celebrated the winners of the 1985 season. The only reason he didn’t start from pole is because he was too inconsistent to take home the 1985 championship, so he had to settle for a second-place starting spot.

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After this race, the event was moved back to Charlotte for the next three decades. But why?

Well, the attendance at Atlanta was so dismal that NASCAR decided to move it back to Charlotte. Good thing, too, because the very next year, the “Pass in the Grass” took place, coincidentally also involving Earnhardt and Elliott, who finished inverse of where they did at Atlanta in 1986. If the race was on a rotating basis, we may have never seen the Pass in the Grass happen or any other big moments the All-Star Race has provided, such as “One Hot Night” in 1992.

It took 34 years for NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports to begin rotating the race again, and so far, the three iterations of the race since leaving Charlotte have left a lot to be desired. Maybe bringing back North Wilkesboro will be the kick the All-Star Race needs to be exciting again.

About the author

Anthony Damcott joined Frontstretch in March 2022. Currently, he is an editor and co-authors Fire on Fridays (Fridays); he is also the primary Truck Series reporter/writer. A proud West Virginia Wesleyan College alum from Akron, Ohio, Anthony is now a grad student. He is a theatre actor and fight-choreographer-in-training in his free time. He is a loyal fan of the Cincinnati Reds and Carolina Panthers, still hopeful for a championship at some point in his lifetime.

You can keep up with Anthony by following @AnthonyDamcott on Twitter.

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Duane

You might want to do some homework. If I remember correctly the 1986 Winston was held on Mothers Day. That was one of the two days during the season that Nascar would never hold a race. Times have changed, but back then a race wasn’t held on Mothers Day because you don’t mess with Mama. And the attendance showed. It had nothing to do with the track. The former Atlanta was a great track. Better than what it turned into and 10 times better than the screw up it is now.

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