FLORENCE – A souped-up Camaro with a fiberglass body sped down a Georgia drag strip at a speed of over two hundred miles an hour. About 250 yards from the finish line it went out of control, hit an embankment, went over a wire fence and mowed down a line of spectators crowded there for the finish.
Pandemonium ensued. There were reports of people dying instantly after being hit by debris.
A hysterical crowd milled around the death scene preventing the orderly transport of the dead and injured to mortuaries and hospitals. They were taken to every area hospital near the town which is located about 30 miles southeast of Atlanta.
This recent tragedy at the Yellow River Drag Strip gave racing in general a black eye and drag racing specifically caught the brunt of the criticism.
Gov. Lester G. Maddox called for immediate legislation to “prevent accidents that result from racing on drag strips or otherwise from involving spectators.”
Witness to the accident reported that an announcer had warned spectators to move away from the finish line, but they remained there.
In Florence a group of Jaycees are continuing with their plans to build a high speed drag strip in spite of the adverse publicity following the Georgia incident.
Their purpose, however, is to prevent another tragedy like the one in Georgia as well as to bring revenue into the area.
The Jaycees plan to build the track near here just as soon as negotiations for the land are completed. It will cost somewhere between $40,000 and $60,000 and will probably be located near the intersection of Interstate Highways 20 and 95.
It would have the sanction of the National Hot Rod Association and Laurence N. Heiden, a Florence dentist who heads the Jaycee committee for the strip, says this is the big selling point.
Heiden has presented the proposal to several civic clubs and the response has been surprisingly good in view of the recent wreck.
Heiden’s presentation includes the fact that drag racing is currently going on on city streets and a strip would provide a sanctioned outlet for racing. Dragsters caught for speeding by police on public streets would be barred from racing at the strip.
Some sort of barricade or ditch would be required to separate the racing cars from the spectators and no spectators would be allowed at the finish line. At Strips built on flat ground, spectators would be required to stand 150 feet from the track.
“There are a number of tracks within a 70 mile radius of here that are not sanctioned,” he said. “They have had accidents but nobody has been killed so they are still open.
“I was at a strip in North Carolina recently and saw an 11-year-old-boy race his father’s car and another fellow race with passengers in the car.
“I can’t guarantee there won’t be any accidents here, but we can eliminate this sort of thing and prevent the sort of thing that happened in Georgia.”
Heiden added that the strip would not be run by a bunch of “shady characters,” but would be run strictly by the Jaycees who would also run the concession. “We will be sanctioned and we will go first class,” he commented.
Interest in drag racing nationally and locally is on the increase. From 1955 to 1967 spectators at drag races increased 773 per cent. Over 28 million have attended races at sanctioned tracks in the last 20 years.
Most racing fans from the Pee Dee go to the sanctioned strip at Blaney or to unsanctioned strips in the area. Heiden said 400 employes at a Florence paper mill handed him a petition requesting that a strip be opened here as soon as possible.
“People tell me they are tired of driving to Columbia to see the races,” he said. “Interest is a a high now. There is enough local competition to make this thing go.”
The Jaycees, however, hope to be able to offer a purse and attract the country’s fastest cars, the kind that go over 200 miles in a quarter mile. They also hope to eventually get on the grand National Circuit.