The Frontstretch: If You Watch Or Attend One Event This Year… by Kurt Smith -- Thursday October 14, 2010

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If You Watch Or Attend One Event This Year…

Kurt Smith · Thursday October 14, 2010


Everyone has their theories, with varying degrees of validity, regarding the bottom falling out of NASCAR ratings. Judging from the ratings and attendance in 2010, a growing number of people either just aren’t interested or are outright punishing NASCAR for indefensible transgressions.

It’s obvious to this observer when reading the responses to any columns critical of NASCAR that there remains a large contingent of folks who are unhappy but hanging on, or who refuse to watch anymore, or who may watch but won’t spend the money and deal with the hassle. If that’s you, I’m going to be a Samaritan here and make a case for one race you can still attend, or watch on television if your level of boycott only extends to spending money. That is the upcoming race at Martinsville Speedway a week from Sunday.

My first trip to Martinsville was my third NASCAR race. Previously I had gone to Michigan and Pocono, two tracks two or more miles in length, so it was quite the shock to sit down in the Richard Petty Tower and view a track so small that the cars were actually parked sideways on the track before the event. You can’t grasp how tiny this place is on television. When a Martinsville race begins, the drivers in the last row are already half a lap down.

At Martinsville the cars scream down the straightaway and then slam on the brakes to get into turns with almost no banking. They are silent through the turns and then the engine roars back to life as drivers get back into the gas. Everywhere on the track there are battles going on.

Photos can’t do justice to the flat corners and high speeds of Martinsville Speedway, Sprint Cup’s tightest bullring.

Especially if you are present for a Martinsville event, you absolutely cannot believe how 43 cars manage to reach 100 MPH speeds inside this tiny arena.

As the race unfolds—and no Martinsville race of any kind should be less than 500 laps—you will see several drivers make their bid for a win…that day Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman among others all made their statements before Jimmie Johnson took the checkered flag. All memorable stuff, right down to Rusty going to the outside on the final restart and getting shuffled back to finish 10th, behind Jeff Gordon, after Newman refused to let Rusty back in line. It was a flashpoint example of a feud that still hasn’t been resolved.

That was also the day of the tragic plane crash that took the lives of Rick Hendrick’s brother, son, twin nieces, head engine builder and two pilots. I will never forget the No. 48 car not going to victory lane after its burnout directly in front of me, or the blaring headlines in the newspapers the next day. The race was on October 24, as is this year’s. Six years to the day. And for six years the Hendrick team almost seems like they brush the whole tragedy off when they whip nearly everyone’s ass at the place. Talk about being able to take a punch.

If you want to make a point that Martinsville should always and forever have two dates on the NASCAR schedule…and I am completely in that camp…you should bite the bullet and spend money on the organization that brainstormed the Chase. If Martinsville races consistently sell out and NASCAR still moves an event to a relatively dull venue like Kentucky, yes, you will be within your rights to scream from the rooftops about NASCAR’s relentless trashing of tradition. Happy Hour will fully support you.

It’s an intangible to suggest that an overabundance of aero-dependent tracks on the NASCAR schedule create the impression that the racing isn’t as good as it once was. However true that may be, it is difficult to quantify through numbers that would convince NASCAR to stay in southwestern Virginia. I’m of the opinion that if the Paper Clip sold no tickets, it would still be worth having on the schedule just to watch on TV. But the reality is that NASCAR isn’t going to stay where it isn’t supported. Sometimes it won’t even stay where it is supported, if an offer elsewhere is bigger.

It would be one thing if Martinsville doubled the ratings numbers for its events, but it doesn’t. And that is a reason to watch the event on TV if you do not plan to go. Despite the fact that several years of declining ratings and attendance, and the shrinking revenue that goes along with it, has not convinced NASCAR to do much more than double down on the things that fans dislike the most, we could at least send the message: if NASCAR does not want things to get worse, Martinsville needs to stay.

Bristol seems to get all of the accolades for the show it once put on before many folks were turned off by the repaving, and Thunder Valley is great in its own way. Less recognized is the bullring that is Martinsville Speedway. Unlike most tracks that have to do some digging through their archives to find their classics, at Martinsville there have been some knock-down drag out fights very recently.

Denny Hamlin’s victory in this spring’s rain-delayed event was one of the best finishes seen at any level of racing in recent memory.

If you missed the spring event this season—and since it was rained out and took place on a Monday many people did—you missed one of the best finishes in the sport’s recent history. Or Tony Stewart’s pulling away from Jeff Gordon in 2005’s kitty litter incident. Or you could go back to Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson’s final laps in the spring race of 2007, which provided strong evidence that when a race win is to be had, teammates aren’t going to give it to one another. Pull up Youtube and type in “Martinsville,” and you will have a slew of great finishes, incidents, and on-track battles to re-live.

As the world around NASCAR changes, and usually not for the better, Martinsville still produces what many fans miss the most: short-tempered drivers fighting for extra inches of real estate, all over the track, all through the race. Martinsville, even more than Bristol as of the 2007 resurfacing, is the one track where more than anywhere else, fans can say, “That was like a race I saw in 1985.”

The race is just over a week away. You still have time, tickets are still available, and they aren’t terribly expensive. Bristol and Darlington are among the revered venues in NASCAR among the nostalgic crowd, but Martinsville deserves every bit of that reverence as well. A ticket to Martinsville is a ticket to an event that you aren’t going to forget. Even watching on TV, it’s still a race that we can all look forward to, at a time when fewer and fewer of us live our entire lives waiting for Sunday afternoon. I get not wanting to spend money or time on NASCAR anymore, but none of the common reasons for fan disenchantment are the fault of this great track.

It isn’t perfect. It’s very difficult to get to. Hotels are less available than at most tracks, necessitating an ungodly early emergence out of one’s bed in the morning. The town isn’t built to handle the traffic overload on race weekends. Not even close. You’ll probably pay to park on grass.

So the place wouldn’t sell any tickets at all if it wasn’t worth all of that hassle, would it?

Kurt’s Shorts

  • So long as David Pearson was easily inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame, I really had no truck with the other inductees. I was watching Darrell Waltrip on Speed show a little disappointment at his being passed over this time around. His career numbers give him a good argument. I hope no one was evaluating him as a broadcaster.
  • There are columnists and NASCAR pundits actually suggesting that NASCAR’s ratings drop in the Chase may be due to their moving race start times back to 1:00. Yes, that’s why people are turned off to NASCAR…consistent start times. I’m going to need a helmet soon if I keep beating my head against the wall.
  • Somebody tell Jeremy Mayfield to stop digging.
  • From everything I’ve read, Shane Hmiel is making great progress after his terrible crash in Terre Haute, and I’ve read too much praise for him as a person to think that it is phony flattery in the wake of a near-lethal accident. We all wish him Godspeed and a speedy recovery. If you have time, please visit the “Shane Hmiel – Road To Recovery” page on Facebook and wish him well.

Contact Kurt Smith

Friday on the Frontstretch:
Take a Bow, Brad and Carl: NNS Blood Is On Your Hands
Driver or Crew Chief? Chemistry Not Just For Science Class Anymore
Scott Speed Diary: Guys Day Out With Dinger, Football and Amanda in a Go-Kart!
Driven to the Past: Thanks for the Comments…

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


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10/15/2010 06:09 AM

The first Nascar race I attended was at Martinsville. It still has the ‘old school’ feel of the early days of racing. It’s in the middle of a neighborhood of homes without all the superfluous bells and whistles many of the new tracks think are necessary. You can see every inch of the track without needing to use binoculors. It is a wonderful place to watch a race. And seeing that coal train go past the track behind the back stretch still makes me smile. Go to Martinsville to see what Nascar used to be. And many of us wish it still was.

Bill B
10/15/2010 07:21 AM

If NASCAR wants to further alienate their core fanbase then they should take a race from Martinsville. That would be the last straw for a lot of fans.

10/15/2010 09:01 AM

Kurt, Martinsville has always, and will always be revered by the die-hards.
You can’t expect the ADD crowd to love it as much. When they sit in the stands, they can’t really tell if the battle is for position or of different laps. They aren’t catered to as the pampered pets that they wish they are. It is where NASCAR was born, and NOT what na$car has become.
But it is hard to ask the die-hards to come out and support even this historic venue, as we become more and more invested in watching brian france’s catastrophe bankrupt itself.

10/15/2010 09:42 AM

PARK ON THE GRASS. Say it right, park on the side of a mountain is more like. The year I went they were having to pull cars out of the HANDICAPPED PARKING with a wrecker at $100 a pop. Racing was great but the parking is so horrible that I will never go back, but will watch it on TV. Give me Richmond any day. Great facility and the nicest people working there in the world. It should be in the chase.

10/15/2010 09:56 AM

To me Martinsville is superb for this reason: It is not a whole lot different from my kinda local (in terms of distance away) short track where I and some friends cart our old beater once in awhile to run. I love Martinsville because it is like that and I can actually imagine driving there with the pros. It is fantasy I know, but I CAN imagine it.

10/15/2010 09:57 AM

One of the best places to watch a race from is high up between turns one and two at Martinsville. You can see the whole track and not move your head hardly at all. It’s just like being at Pinecrest under the stands between turns three and four. And the racing is awesome if it isn’t the Cup’s Car of Terror. There were many weekends camping at the Cardinal 500 in October after going to an ASA race the weekend before.

Carl D.
10/15/2010 10:41 AM

My two trips over the years to Martinsville were great. Yeah, it’s old school… the amenities ain’t like those at Charlotte, to put it mildly, but that’s part of the experience. The racing makes it worth it. Just do your innards a favor and avoid those Martinsville hotdogs. They might be famous, but keep in mind there may be a line at the port-a-john when you can’t afford the wait.

Vancouver Olympian
10/15/2010 11:11 AM

The only reason fans like Martinsville is because Jimmy and Jeff dominate the track. What a bunch of Hendrick suck ups. Pick a track where other drivers have a chance.

Michael in SoCal
10/15/2010 11:51 AM

Uh, Vancouver… Denny Hamlin won the last two Martinsville races, and he won there in 2008.

Bill B
10/15/2010 12:22 PM

I like it because it forces beating and banging and racing side by side to get ahead. And yet, because of those managable speeds and the lack of aero-dependence, you can still win the race (or at least finish well) with a banged up car. That means that just because your car has been damaged, if you are a good driver, you can still win.

10/17/2010 08:54 PM

Went to my first spring Martinsville race seven years ago and have not missed one since. If they would only move the dates in a few weeks to give them better weather to work with. Love the feel of the place.

Contact Kurt Smith