Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Saturday March 31, 2012
Author’s note: As a journalist, I long ago gave up rooting for one driver, but I will openly admit my favoritism for Martinsville Speedway. It’s easily my favorite track on the circuit. It may not be glamorous, and it doesn’t have the reputation that Bristol does, but if you like old-fashioned racing at its finest-beating and banging without having to resort to outright wrecking (and even if you do, t doesn’t necessarily end anyone’s day)-then you just can’t beat Martinsville. I wrote this column a year ago, and everything I said still applies. Martinsville, for all it’s antiquated quirks, feels like home. This is as close to the NASCAR of yesteryear as it gets. Twice a year, NASCAR comes home.
It’s a little like looking at Fenway Park and the now (thankfully) defunct Astrodome side by side on a calendar of ballparks. One wonders how the same game can be played at two places with so little in common they might as well be on different planets. Sure, they both have a diamond in there somewhere, but that’s where the similarity ends. One represented the game they way the nostalgic want to remember it; the other represented progress and expansion to new frontiers.
Yeah, it’s kinda like that.
When a schedule change put Martinsville Speedway on the Sprint Cup schedule just a week after Auto Club Speedway, it threw into the spotlight the contrast between two vastly different NASCARs: The watered-down, market-before-product brand that has marked the Brian France era to a T, and the old guard, boys-have-at-it way of life that the sport cut its teeth on. Auto Club Speedway, the modern behemoth which was sanctioned to bring the sport to a media market, juxtaposed with Martinsville, the tiny, antiquated short track located in Smalltown, USA.
Hollywood vs. Mayberry.
When the then-California Speedway was added to the schedule in 1997, it filled a certain need-a West Coast race after the loss of the road course at Riverside to developers. The race was nothing to write home about, really. Jeff Gordon beat Terry Labonte by just over a second, the California native winning in his home state, if not at his home track (Gordon grew up much closer to Infineon Raceway). The track, a dual-purpose facility built by Roger Penske to host multiple racing series, was big and fast and modern. It wasn’t the best track in NASCAR by any estimation, but the sport was reaching a new level of cool as fans poured in in droves to see what the excitement was about. The late 90’s was, for NASCAR, an all-time high.
California Speedway was, in essence, the symbol of NASCAR’s popularity, and as the numbers grew, so did the greed. At first, they got a race date as part of an expanded schedule. Then the track asked for, and eventually got, a second date, at the expense of North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, and what had once been an understandable if not brilliant move to the West Coast became akin to a hostile takeover in many old-school fans’ eyes. Not only was Rockingham long a staple of old Southern NASCAR, it regularly produced close, exciting racing while California was shaping up to be the opposite. The move was the final harbinger of the “new” NASCAR-Rockingham would soon lose its other date to Texas Motor Speedway. Then came the ultimate insult.
Eager to enamor the California Market with stock car racing, NASCAR moved the Labor Day weekend race to Fontana, stunning and angering the old guard fans. That weekend had played host to NASCAR’s oldest race, the Southern 500 at Darlington. Adding insult to injury, Darlington had been the site of some of NASCAR’s most memorable moments and was now relegated to a less-than-desirable spring date. That race was eventually named the Southern 500, more in remembrance than anything, but the old fans knew better.
While the new fans clamored to get on the NASCAR bandwagon in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, NASCAR bent over backwards to accommodate them. There was the new television package with more Hollywood and less of the faces fans had grown to love and expect. Then there was the new schedule, which meant to move races from the over-saturated Southeast to other, more untapped markets so that more of the new fans could experience the races in person. The problem was that the tracks that lost races were different from the new tracks and from each other. They raced differently and they raced well. Rockingham and North Wilkesboro were essentially short tracks, though the Rock was a mile oval. Darlington was NASCAR’s original Superspeedway and the Southern 500 was its original race-once one of the most coveted races on the schedule for drivers.
And as the old fans, some of whom had been fans for half a century, watched, that all went away in favor of fast talk and fast tracks with no character. Those fans felt suddenly alienated, unwanted as NASCAR fell head over heels for the new fans-an upscale set who didn’t often bother to learn about the sport’s history-the drivers who the old guard had rooted for in homemade t-shirts before the days of souvenir trailers or the tracks where they had raced door-to-door for a cheap trophy and a few hundred bucks. There they had been, loyal for all those years and this was the thanks they got. And so, one by one, they slowly turned and left, with not much but a sad glance over their collective shoulder at what once had been their world.
What’s left of that world can be found at Martinsville Speedway, NASCAR’s oldest track and its shortest, most frustrating, most maddening. While Auto Club Speedway sits in a concrete jungle, Martinsville sits nestled in a small Virginia town that doesn’t look like it’s changed all that much since the engines first roared on Sunday afternoons. The Blue Ridge Mountains rise to the west, while to the south and east, the North Carolina piedmont falls away to the coastal plain. On the way to the track fans pass a few small businesses, a public school, frame houses where it’s not hard to imagine generations settin’ on the porch and watching the cars go by: Fords and Chevy, Mercurys, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs; everything from the Fabulous Hudson Hornet to the Toyota Camry, on the track and on the street. Even with the newish divided highway to the racetrack, the town, like the speedway, retains the ambiance that has long since been stripped from the bigger towns, one by one, until everything is concrete and generic.
Sitting in the stands at Martinsville, fans can practically see the great drivers of the past, ghosts dipping in and out of traffic like part of the field. That doesn’t happen in the concrete jungle, for the greats of the past never raced there, though the great ones of today do them proud with toughness and smoothness and guts. But it’s really not the same. Martinsville was built for those drivers; today’s haulers barely fit in the infield, and the backmarkers in points actually have to park outside. Tires are everywhere, and there are no frills anywhere-walk between the haulers from the garage and you’re on pit road, just like that. Nobody, not even the drivers, camps in this infield. It stands silent at night, or nearly so, for the echoes of days past are strong.
Not much has changed at Martinsville, though it was originally a dirt track, later paved to accommodate a growing NASCAR. Racing is hard-passing takes a certain combination of patience and aggression, and if that recipe is altered the merest pinch either way, well, better settle for second. Success at Martinsville takes a bulldog mentality and a strong bumper. Horsepower and handling will only get you so far, and then…well, then you have to take the rest-take it by brute force and prowess all rolled into one.
If Martinsville represents NASCAR’s past in every way, then what of the sport’s future? It was rumored a year ago that the little track would lose one of its Sprint Cup dates this year in favor of Kansas Speedway-one of the sterile new breed of tracks. But it didn’t. That date came from the track that was not too long ago touted and derided as the symbol of the new NASCAR-Auto Club Speedway. As it should have.
It’s strangely fitting that these two racetracks, different in every way, find themselves side-by-side on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule. The two represent a microcosm of the sport as a whole-the new next to the old, a glaring example of what has come to be and what once was. A once-shining future next to a still-glorious past. Hollywood next to Mayberry. And as Andy Griffith will surely tell you, Hollywood’s okay, if you like that kind of thing-but Mayberry is home.
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