by: PattyKay Lilley
(Author’s note: This article, written with love, first appeared in print in October of 2003 and is presented in that time frame as living proof that the good times weren’t all that long ago. A lot has changed in nine short years. See addendum below…)
Just a bit north of Greensboro, North Carolina and nestled at the foot of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, one can find Martinsville Virginia, home of the sweetest little short track on the Winston Cup circuit. Martinsville Speedway is rich in racing history, being one of the original hosts of the first NASCAR racing series, “Modifieds” and “Strictly Stock” which later became the “Grand National” series and finally the “Winston Cup” series as we know it today. (Soon to be Nextel)
The track was built by H. Clay Earles in 1947, and debuted as a dirt track, which was all there was back then. “Dirt’s for racin’; asphalt’s for gettin’ you there.” Building Martinsville wasn’t the easy task that Mr. Earles had envisioned, since the $10 thousand he anticipated spending turned out to be $60 thousand before it was ready to race on, but he persisted and on September 7, 1947, the first cars rolled onto the brand new track. Red Byron won the race and pocketed the winner’s share of the $2000.00 purse, $500.00. I wonder what Red would say about the purses being handed out today?
Originally, the track had a seating capacity of 5000 fans, though at that first race only 750 seats were even in place. By 1949, when NASCAR was a full-fledged racing entity, Martinsville was up and running and hosted the sixth race of what would later become known as Winston Cup racing, September 25, 1949. (Byron won that one too) On July 4 of the previous year, NASCAR sanctioned Modified stock cars raced there, and it was Fonty Flock taking home the honors that day.
In 1955, Mr. Earles modernized his little Jewel by adding pavement to her. Some folks might tell you that the same stuff is still there, but that’s not true. (At least I don’t think it is.) We’ll talk more about her pavement in a minute.
Martinsville has a unique shape, especially for a short track. It’s a long narrow oval, described by many as being the shape of a paperclip. It has some banking in the corners (12º), but the straightaways are pancake flat, creating a situation where a driver must accelerate hard on the front and back stretches then brake equally hard before going into the hairpin turns at either end. Brakes are at a premium and even with all the technological advances of today, Martinsville is the equal of the best and always manages to park a few hapless drivers who have overused or burned out those brakes.
Passing on this track is a trick of its own, since it is notoriously a one-groove racetrack and that groove is tight to the bottom. A pass on the outside is a rarity and a pass on the inside is difficult if the car ahead can hold the bottom. The secret of course is to move the car away from the bottom, which can sometimes be accomplished by getting him a little “aero-loose”, but more often than not it’s done by applying the “chrome horn” to the rear bumper. That usually works, though it may not garner many friends.
Another interesting facet is that pavement I mentioned a while ago. It seems the transition areas between the flat straights and the banked turns didn’t hold pavement very well. Mr. Earles devised a way of making it stay put that like so many things is unique to Martinsville. The flats are asphalt but the turns are concrete, a combination sure to upset the handling of the best of cars.
Over the years, some drivers seemed to develop a knack for handling this tricky little half-mile (.526 mile to be exact), while others continue to struggle. The overall champ would be Richard Petty with 15 wins, followed by Darrell Waltrip (11), Dale Earnhardt (6), Rusty Wallace (6) and Cale Yarborough (6). Of those, only Wallace remains an active driver. Seems the good ol’ boys might have known something the youngsters don’t. Whatever the trick is to winning there, one thing is certain. It involves good brakes, a lot of patience and at least a mildly aggressive nature, though none of those drivers I just mentioned could be described as “mild.” Saying, “Excuse me” doesn’t get it done.
I first discovered this little jewel sometime in the 1980′s and I fell in love with it immediately. It had grown considerably from its 5000 original seats, and housed over 20,000 fans at that time. I understand that number has now swelled to about 90,000 and still increasing yearly. Back then, the first thing that greeted you as you entered the grounds was a huge free-roaming flock of ducks and geese that made their home around a pretty lake situated just outside the track. They were friendly as can be and would follow you anywhere with the slightest encouragement, like a piece of popcorn or a potato chip. Unfortunately, they are gone now, sacrificed in the name of progress. No one ever said exactly why the birds were removed, but I’ve always suspected that some NASCAR higher-up or an influential sponsor stepped in something and fell in it. I hope it stained his suit.
For the race fan, Martinsville is an amazing place. There is scarcely a seat around the entire track from which you can’t see every inch of the action. A few at track level on the backstretch have a limited sight range, but are also very cheap. The fans that buy those usually go and stand up on the hill by the railroad track to watch the race. Heck, folks never sit down at a race anyway, do they? The railroad track that I mentioned is situated up the hill, just behind the backstretch and just in front of the campgrounds. At least once or more during every race, a train will come through and usually blow its whistle just to say “Hi.” There is talk now of moving the track back behind the campground to provide room for more seating. I guess that if it keeps little Martinsville on the Winston Cup schedule, then I can live with that.
Beyond that, there is the subject most dear to the hearts of race fans with ever-shrinking wallets, the cost of attending a race. I figured this out many years ago, but someone actually made it official last year. “The best all-around bargain in the sport, hands down, is Martinsville Speedway,” says Art Weinstein, staff writer for Winston Cup Scene, in a 2002 issue of that august publication. WCS did a price survey of all 23 tracks currently on the Winston Cup circuit, and came up with some very interesting observations.
Tickets at Martinsville range from $40 to $75, and parking is free. Soft drinks are $1 and hotdogs $2. Camping costs only $40 for the entire stay, no matter if it’s one night or the entire weekend. Would anyone care to weigh those numbers against any of the other tracks, like the new cookie-cutters? For the price of a hot dog and a Pepsi at Martinsville, you’d be extremely lucky to get a bottle of water elsewhere. Oh yes, and you don’t have to buy a “package” that includes 4 to 6 races you have no interest in either.
Current president of Martinsville, Clay Campbell, says,” This is something we have always worked hard to do. My grandfather (H. Clay Earles) always believed that the fans came first and we have kept that legacy alive. People say this is a sponsor-driven sport or a TV driven sport, but it’s still fans who make the sport go around, and we want to keep the sport affordable for fans.” Campbell continued, “We will always strive to keep prices as low as possible. We want our fans to be happy and that’s the best way we know to do it.”
Something else unique about Martinsville is the winner’s trophy they hand out twice a year. Instead of awarding the race winners another pretty shelf decoration, Martinsville gives them full-sized Grandfather clocks. I have no idea what started that tradition, but it is singular to this track every bit as much as her shape and her pavement. The drivers all seem to think it’s a “Grand” idea. Note to self: Find out where King Richard keeps fifteen of those.
Well, let’s see! We have here one of the oldest tracks on the circuit, which has managed to survive where others failed. It’s located in one of the most beautiful parts of this great country. It offers spectacular racing with no obstacles to viewing, and it does all this cheaper than anyone else does, by far. I’m not sure what the fans of today are looking for, but for this writer’s money, Martinsville has it all. She’s been my absolute favorite from the first day I set foot on her grounds and continues to be so today.
Since this article was written, R.J. Reynolds’ Winston brand is gone as Series sponsor, having given way to Nextel which soon became Sprint and is apparently about to change another time within the coming year, possibly to “New Sprint.”
During those intervening years, the cars themselves have changed radically, no longer bearing the slightest resemblance to anything “stock”, and almost an entire new generation of drivers pilot the new “cars of tomorrow.”
Today, the railroad that used to be right behind the Martinsville track has been moved far back and can no longer be seen from the grandstand. The astoundingly beautiful azaleas that used to decorate the turns outside the track are all gone, supposedly victims of the SAFER barriers. It was my understanding that they were to have been replaced, but that hasn’t happened. The pretty lake where the ducks and geese once swam is now gone as well, and in its stead is one of the TV stages.
The beautiful little lady finally did get a new dress a few years back, after she puked a chunk of concrete through the grille and radiator of the #24 rainbow car, but even NASCAR knew that they couldn’t better the best, so the corners remain concrete, connecting the two asphalt drag strips.
The three-way tie for third-most wins @ 6 has given way to a tie @ 7 between now retired Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon, with Jimmie Johnson joining those with 6 wins and Denny Hamlin making noises with 4 wins and counting.
Controlling interest in my little jewel is now held by ISC (International Speedway Corporation), which is lawyer speak for the Family France. I’m quite sure that the prices quoted in this article from 2003 no longer bear any resemblance to the truth. Remember, it’s all in the name of progress.
But no matter the owner or the year, with or without the lovely lake or the birds that called it home, even with no beautiful azaleas to be seen or no train to be heard, may she live long and prosper, for she truly remains to this day the crown jewel of stock car racing…Pretty Little Martinsville.
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!
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