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Remembering the First Great American Truck Race, When Semis Hit the Speedway 45 Years Ago

While the truckers battled each other on-track, they were really standing together against rules and limitations placed on the hauling industry in the '70s.
V8Lenny via YouTube

I love big trucks and I love racing, so it only makes sense that I love big racing trucks. They exist in many different forms these days, but the road course semis and Class 8 Pikes Peak hill climbers owe a lot to the movement that started back in 1979. That’s when the first Great American Truck Race was run at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and 45 years on, it’s still fun to reminisce about Peterbilts and Kenworths competing door-to-door on those steeply banked turns.

If you’ve ever watched Smokey and the Bandit II, these pictures and videos may seem familiar. That’s because the movie’s opening scene features footage from the inaugural big rig race at Atlanta. Cledus Snow didn’t really win the race despite the P.A. voiceover in this clip, but I promise, the race really did happen.

It was put together and promoted by a man named Jim Donahoe out of Nashville. He was the visionary who not only saw the entertainment value of a big rig race but also the potential for nationwide coverage. See, the Great American Truck Race ran right on the heels of the 1970s oil crisis and plenty of people had objections to thirsty, 1,000-horsepower diesel trucks blowing black smoke for sport. Meanwhile, truckers saw this as a way to protest the 55-mile-per-hour speed limits that were set by President Richard Nixon in response to the fuel shortages.

To put it briefly: this race was divisive. People tried stopping it before it ever got started, but they couldn’t. Brian Lohnes of the Dork-O-Motive Podcast gives a spectacular oral history of the event here. He includes audio recordings from folks involved in the race, along with tons of background that really paints a full picture. It’s worth listening to in full when you have an hour and 45 minutes to spare.

Despite all the controversy, this race that took place on June 17, 1979, sparked an entire series that soldiered on for about 20 years. Semi-truck racing has taken several shapes since then with people like Gale Banks building a turbocharged and supercharged Freightliner for Pikes Peak, as well as a European series that hosts cabover competitions at tracks like Hockenheim in Germany. The Bandit Big Rig Series carried the proverbial torch for semi trucks on oval tracks until recently, though it seems that outfit has been put on hold for the time being.

It’s a fascinating tale, even after all these years. I would have loved to witness it in person, but alas, I wasn’t born yet. Instead, I’ll keep getting my fix from random Facebook and Instagram shares that show the trucks in-period lighting up the track.

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