The Frontstretch: Selling Memories by Amy Henderson -- Monday March 27, 2006

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Selling Memories

That's History! NASCAR's Checkered (Flag) Past, One Story At a Time · Amy Henderson · Monday March 27, 2006


Cars came quietly in 1910 to Henry County, Virginia. Or at least, quietly compared to the way they come today: full throttle and angry. Cars came to Henry County on the then brand-new National Highway, part of a promotional tour meant to show that the automobile could be a long-distance conveyance. The road passed right through the small tobacco farming communities, and so did the cars. One of them, in fact, carried none other than Henry Ford himself. The National Highway passed though the town of Martinsville like water on a journey to somewhere far away.

Eventually, the town had to impose a speed limit-twelve miles per hour, and put some basic traffic regulations in place to preserve the safety of its denizens. If you wanted to drive through Martinsville at night, you had to attach a lantern to the front of the car, and a red one on the rear. The road brought changes to Henry County, and, nearly a half-century later, one man decided to capitalize on its success.

H. Clay Earles built a dirt racetrack in Martinsville, with a fair 750 seats. For the first race in 1947, there were more than eight times that many paying customers. The day was capped with a 50-lap feature for what are now known as Modifieds, and the winner’s share of the purse was a then-generous $500. Red Byron took it home.

A year later, a new organization called the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing was formed, and the schedule included Martinsville. The Top 5 in that first race in 1949 were Fonty Flock, Pee Wee Martin, Buck Baker, Bill Blair, and Fonty’s brother, Tim Flock. Cars had once again come to Henry County on a brand new highway.

NASCAR’s oldest racetrack – the only one on the schedule every year that the sanctioning body has existed – has flourished in a day when many of NASCAR’s historic tracks have fallen by the wayside. As the years went by, Earles made sure that the racing remained memorable, and the facility kept its place among the best in the sport despite its small-town roots. Martinsville was only the second track to have a race broadcast on the radio (Darlington beat them by a matter of weeks), from atop a stack of soft drink crates on the roof of the concession stand in 1952. Later, the newly formed Motor Racing Network, now MRN Radio, broadcast its first race from Martinsville in 1973, the same year that Hollywood arrived.

The moviemakers came that year to film "The Last American Hero," about the life of racing legend Junior Johnson. Both live race action and staged scenes were filmed at the speedway, no longer a dirt track anymore (it was, in fact, paved in 1955). The pavement proved problematic over the years, so in 1976, Earles made the track the only one on the circuit with two distinct racing surfaces-the straightaways remained asphalt, but the turns were paved with more durable concrete. That same year, Earles made more waves by offering the richest short track purse in NASCAR: $100,000.

Martinsville also took care of the media, providing the first enclosed, air-conditioned press box. When that was eventually replaced with a larger facility, the old press box became the first enclosed, air-conditioned scorers’ stand. The speedway increased seating to accomodate 10,000 fans in 1949, and has continued to grow steadily. Today it holds 65,000 people. Its hot dogs are famous the racing world over…pink hot dogs loaded with chili and coleslaw that have become one of racing’s favorite traditions. Attempts to change the hot dogs a couple of years back did not go over well…at all. The originals were brought back post haste.

More than a half-century after the dirt track with 750 seats opened, the cars still roar into Henry County. Oh, things have changed, but not everything. H. Clay Earles once said, "The secret to success in our business is giving the customer what he wants. When a man plunks down his money, he deserves the best. You try to make him comfortable, give him a great show and make sure he gets his money’s worth. And we’ve always tried to do just that."

ISC owns Martinsville these days, but even NASCAR’s sister organization has learned not to tamper with things too much…unless it’s an improvement. They learned the hard way already a few years ago with those hot dogs. The fans will keep coming to Martinsville twice a year for the product-tight, aggressive racing that has flourished here since before most of these drivers were born, racing that has been peppered with the flavor of every driver to ever race for a championship in NASCAR’s top series. "Your customers are your greatest assets," Earles said. "You actually sell the customer a memory as much as a race. If their memories are good, they’ll keep coming back." Such is history.

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Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

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