It was planned to be a race to celebrate Labor Day. It ended up as one of the darkest moments in Atlanta racing history.
It occurred on September 2, 1946. Racing promoter Sam Nunis put together a 100-lap Indy car race at Atlanta’s famed Lakewood Speedway, a treacherous one-mile dirt track located on the grounds of the Lakewood Fairgrounds. The event was sanctioned by the AAA, who also sanctioned the famed Indianapolis 500, which had run its first event since the ending of World War II only a few months prior.
The winner of that first return Indy 500, an Englishman named George Robson, was set to run at Lakewood in the same car that Floyd Roberts had piloted to a win in the 1938 Indy 500.
It was also the car Roberts died in at Indy in 1939.
Also slated to start was Texas racer George Barringer. Barringer (who was billed as “Tex” Barringer by Nunis in pre-race publicity items) had also raced at Indy a few months earlier, piloting the famed rear engine “Tucker Torpedo Special.” Barringer had driven the Gulf Oil funded, Harry Miller built racer to 33 speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1940.
But the Special’s luck at Indy in 1946 wasn’t that great, as Barringer suffered mechanical failure early on in the 500.
For the Lakewood event, Barringer didn’t drive the Special. Instead, he piloted a car built by the legendary Wilbur Shaw. Shaw had won at Indianapolis with the car in 1937, followed by a second place finish at Indy in 1938.
All in all, three cars that had won the famed Indy 500 were in the field at Lakewood. It was only fitting, since Lakewood was long referred to as “The Indianapolis of the South.”
But, unlike Indy, Lakewood had some characteristics that made it treacherous and dangerous.
One of the chief problems at Lakewood was the dust. By 1946, the clay on the old speedway was worn out, and after a few miles had been run, the entire place turned into a dust bowl. Even the fans would have trouble seeing the competitors towards the end of an event.
It was this problem that led directly to the tragedy that occurred on Labor Day, 1946.
Late in the going of the 100-lap event, Kansas native Billy DeVore developed engine problems. DeVore moved his car down to the inside line of the track, and tried to salvage a finish for the best prize money he could muster.
As DeVore nursed his car along down the backstretch, the faster car of Robson came charging up behind him. With the cars kicking up dust around the speedway, Robson apparently couldn’t see DeVore’s slower moving vehicle as he went to enter the third turn.
Robson’s car plowed into DeVore’s, apparently sending Robson’s racer into the air. With more dust now being kicked up by the accident, Barringer’s car, along with that of Indiana native Bud Bardowski, slammed into the accident scene.
DeVore’s car was thrown over the fence. He would survive with a broken collarbone. Bardowski would suffer facial cuts, but no other serious injuries.
Robson and Barringer, however, were not so fortunate. Robson’s car lay upside down at the entrance to the third turn, with Barringer’s car sitting upright near by. After being removed from their cars, both were transported to Grady Hospital, where they died shortly thereafter.
Ted Horn, who would go on to win the 1946 AAA championship, saw the accident occur, and actually struck something on the track, according to later reports. He stopped, and tried to flag down the other competitors to keep them from becoming involved in the accident.
After returning to the cockpit, Horn managed to get his car going again. Horn was later declared the winner by race officials, but would lose that win under protest to George Conner weeks later.
Lakewood Speedway held it’s final automobile race in 1979. Only small portions of the famed track still exist today. A parking lot for an amphitheater now covers the spot where George Robson and George Barringer lost their lives.
But their memories and the memory of that terrible Labor Day in 1946 continues to live on.