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NASCAR?s best comes to town
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In what is billed as “one of biggest events ever” at the Oglethorpe Speedway Park, some of NASCAR’s biggest names will be in town this weekend as part of the Nextel Cup Race of Champions.

“This is one of the biggest things ever to happen at this facility,” says OSP’s general manager Ted Austad. “In the number of drivers, the caliber of drivers, the notoriety and the celebrity.”

Race fans seem to agree.

“We’re selling tickets as far away as Arkansas and as far north as Pennsylvania,” Austad says. “It’s really turned into more than I ever expected it would.”

Luminaries that will visit the speedway this Saturday include Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin, Harry Gant, Kerry Earnhardt, Jimmy Spencer, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Dave Blaney.

The drivers will compete in a pair of ten-lap races using donated Street Stock cars.

“It’s like two mini-Nextel Cup races on the dirt,” says Austad. “Our drivers have been kind enough to donate their race cars allowing these champions to race for the Savannah area fans.”

Austad says Ellliott is likely the strongest draw for Savannah fans.

“Bill Elliott is a local Georgia boy. He won a national championship and won quite a few races,” he says. “He was voted most popular racer for nine straight years. He’s a real personable guy.”

Sterling Marlin, says Austad, “is a good old Tennessee boy. He won the Daytona 500, and is a well-known driver, very well liked.”

Jimmy Spencer is “Mr. Excitement,” Austad says. “He’s a little flamboyant, not afraid to speak his mind. Sometimes his words get him into trouble.”

Kerry Earnhardt is “brother of the hottest guy on the circuit, Dale Earnhardt Junior.”

Harry Gant, the “Skoal Bandit,” was “one of the most popular drivers of the ‘80s,” Austad says. “He set the record for the most NASCAR wins in a row in the early ‘90s.”

Of that crowd, Austad says as far as he knows only Martin and Earnhardt have visited a Savannah speedway before.

“Sterling Marlin came about six years ago,” Austad says. “Kerry Earnhardt came as a child with his father, but didn’t race, of course.”

All in all, the event will be the perfect highlight in what has been an outstanding year for westside’s Oglethorpe Speedway.

“This is the best season so far since I came here in April 2000,” Austad says. “In fact, it’s the best year the speedway’s had since the mid ‘80s, when NASCAR at the short track level was very popular.”

Besides Austad’s own hard work, the key to organizing the event was the partnership with Adventure Radio, which broadcasts NASCAR events locally.

“We needed some kind of partner to pull this thing off,” he says. “So we approached Adventure, the NASCAR affiliate for this market. They said, ‘You know, this sounds good.’ With this many drivers coming in, it works very well on the promotion side.”

Austad also gives credit to the Stone family, who have owned OSP since 1976.

“What they’ve put into this facility, what with losses in their family and just stickin’ with it, is probably the biggest thing,” Austad says. “It was already a great facility when I got here. It just needed a little elbow grease.”

Given OSP’s large size, it’s doubtful that any race fans will be turned away on Saturday.

“But maybe there will be a lot of people standing,” says Austad.

The Nextel Cup Race of Champions happens this Saturday, May 29, at Oglethorpe Speedway Park. Gates open at noon. Local bands will entertain. Drivers will arrive around 5 p.m. Autograph session will begin around 6 p.m. and the Race of Champions begins at 8 p.m.