Mark Howell · Thursday April 5, 2012
Last weekend’s controversy and excitement at Martinsville Speedway brought new attention to what is one of NASCAR’s oldest and most enduring facilities. Since 1949, when the half-mile oval hosted the sixth race in what would become today’s Sprint Cup Series, the little track in Ridgeway, Virginia has earned its place among automobile racing’s legendary locations. Wild finishes like the one we saw last Sunday are nothing unusual for the paper-clip-shaped bullring; Martinsville has enjoyed a long history of close competition punctuated by healthy aggression and mind-numbing frustration.
Just ask the folks at Hendrick Motorsports and Michael Waltrip Racing if you need detailed examples to prove my point.
Martinsville Speedway has always been one of my favorite tracks, but it wasn’t until the other day that I realized the cause for this most-recent wave of nostalgia about the place: this month marks the twentieth anniversary of my first behind-the-scenes NASCAR experience, and that first adventure involved a road trip to Martinsville. Allow me to explain…
In 1991, when this chapter of my life began, I was starting my second year of doctoral studies in American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. During a meeting with Dr. William Grant, my dissertation director to discuss possible research subjects, the topic of automobile racing came up. My initial idea was to write about stainless-steel diners and their demise given changes in socio-economic attitudes. My family frequented diners while I was growing up in the Northeast, and I had done research on them for my Master’s degree, so the topic was both familiar and relevant. I had seen many of these locally owned-and-operated businesses disappear under a wave of franchised logos, and their closings seemed – to me at least – to reflect a significant thread running through the fabric of American civilization.
When Dr. Grant yawned, I guessed I was in trouble.
“You said once that you grew up around auto racing. Ever think about writing something about NASCAR?” he asked. Up until that moment, I hadn’t, but now the idea seemed to have merit. Stock car racing had always been part of my life, so much so that it didn’t seem unusual or different; racing had always felt like, well, racing. Why study something that was so common? It would be like studying my backyard; what was there to say that people didn’t already understand? Growing up around racers, race fans, and the short track culture of the Northeast and New England seemed too “typical” to have any academic potential.
Oddly enough, the diner topic seemed to fit the same criteria.
“People may have seen NASCAR races, and maybe even read about NASCAR in the newspaper”, Dr. Grant said, “but no one’s ever explored it from a scholarly perspective. You seem to be the one who can do that.” With that, my studies – and my life – changed. I was going to try and make sense of this popular culture phenomenon called NASCAR.
I went back to my office that day and began thinking about possible research methods; how could I observe and analyze NASCAR in a way that would provide me with insight into the history, nature, and significance of the sport/business? Sure, I could read the various popular histories and journalistic essays already written about the sport, but to get a handle on how NASCAR related to American culture, I’d have to do more focused research.
Courses I’d taken in sociology introduced me to this thing called “participant observer” research, where the scholar/writer gathers necessary data by actually becoming part of the topic being studied. This immersion process would allow me to collect information while accumulating a diverse assortment of feelings, reactions, emotions, and “real life” experiences connected to the subject. Doing this would mean having to go “behind-the-scenes” at a NASCAR event.
I began writing to tracks that hosted what-was-then Winston Cup Series races. Frustration mounted early in 1992 as responses poured (slowly) into my mailbox; the letters I received questioned my motives, my overall seriousness, and even the relevance of conducting such research – why would anyone from academia care about stock car racing? People at universities didn’t need to see NASCAR from up close because it wasn’t what those kinds of people did. As the refusals continued to arrive, I began thinking that maybe the folks running the race tracks were right. I was about to give up on the project when a positive response arrived – an “okay” from Martinsville Speedway to attend the Hanes 500 in April.
Next thing I knew, I was driving to Virginia to attend the race with official media credentials. Since money was tight and I had no funding to finance my fieldwork, my insider’s entrée to NASCAR was a low-budget experience; a Coleman cooler containing cheese, peanut butter, and a box of saltines was my life-line that entire weekend. The closest lodging I could find (and afford) was at a Super 8 Motel in Roanoke, about sixty miles from the track, giving me a 120-mile daily commute that would consume a significant chunk of my available finances. Cash for food was limited, but once I became familiar with the speedway and its famous hot dogs, I was able to adjust my budget to allow for lunch there each day.
Morgan Shepherd was the person who introduced me to Martinsville’s most-famous cuisine – he suggested a hot dog my first day at the track when he noticed me studying a concession stand menu with way too much focused attention. What spurs a life-changing experience? For eating at Martinsville (or anywhere else), all it took was Shepherd saying, “Try one. You’ll never be the same.” He was right.
The same could be said for what I observed and learned during that research trip to Martinsville. Having grown up around NASCAR and experiencing the sport from various levels, being on the other side of the track showed me that the community of fans was only surpassed by the close community of competitors. A new team like Joe Gibbs Racing seemed to fit neatly within the sport alongside established operations like those of Junior Johnson, Petty Enterprises, and the Wood Brothers.
It was also interesting to watch innovations transition from team-to-team. The big idea that weekend involved changing the camber of the rear wheels so they leaned in at the top; the idea was that leaning the rear wheels in would increase the car’s “footprint” and allow for more grip in the corners. While the innovation seemed to work, it didn’t handle the extreme modifications attempted by some of the dominant teams.
The chances of victory for Ernie Irvan, Dale Earnhardt, and Alan Kulwicki all ended as their cars experienced broken rear ends. Mark Martin won the race that afternoon in his Roush Racing Valvoline Ford by taking a more conservative approach to the question of cambering – running about half the angle used by the other, less-than-successful teams. He and Sterling Marlin were the only two drivers of the 32 starters to finish on the lead lap, with Martin taking the checkered flag by twelve seconds.
Sunday afternoon wasn’t the only time Mark Martin played a role in my trip to Martinsville that year. On Saturday evening, as I walked across turn four to exit the gate there, I was welcomed with shouts of “Hey, Mark! Over here, Mark!” I wondered who was calling for me, and how they knew I was at the track that week. To my surprise, the greetings were for the man walking beside me…. the driver of the No. 6 Ford. I looked at Martin, he looked at me and grinned, and the two of us plunged into the crowd waiting there. Mark Martin stopped to sign autographs; I made my way to my truck for the drive back to Roanoke.
Martin wasn’t the only Cup driver to offer me a glimpse into the NASCAR community. During an early practice session, while I was taking some notes, someone near me asked if I noticed the impressive number of people present in the grandstands for a workday. I looked in the direction of the voice, and here was Wally Dallenbach, Jr. – driver of the no. 16 Keystone Beer Ford for Roush Racing – waiting for my response. I told Dallenbach that I agreed with him, but I had no relevant point of reference since it was my first trip to the track. His reply: that I was in for a great weekend at Martinsville Speedway. Like Morgan Shepherd, Wally Dallenbach, Jr. was right, too.
Another driver who made me feel welcome was Bill Elliott, who was driving the No. 11 Budweiser Ford for Junior Johnson back then. Elliott had already won four races by the time the Cup series made it to Martinsville. As qualifying took place, I found myself standing next to “Awesome Bill” along pit road. Elliott was using a stopwatch to time laps, and he’d lean over to show me the times of each driver as they ran against the clock. Never once did I ask to share Elliott’s watch; his offer seemed to be simply out of kindness. My impression of Bill Elliott that afternoon was a highly positive one (regardless of what some critics have insinuated), which thrilled my mother to no end because Elliott was always her favorite driver. My experience that afternoon at Martinsville simply confirmed her loyalty.
The beauty of Martinsville Speedway in April of 1992 was, as it is now, its sense of intimacy – the small size of the facility prompted a “small town” atmosphere. Such a feeling can be fairly common in the garage area at many tracks – race teams working in confined quarters need to be civil and social – but moving within the limited space of Martinsville seemed to make personal interaction more spontaneous and natural.
The quaint qualities of a place like Martinsville can too often be lost in today’s mile-and-a-half world of intermediate-sized tracks. To see Martinsville fall victim to the fates of other legendary facilities, like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham, would be a tragedy. Rockingham is seeing new life with its upcoming truck race, but it’s by no means a guaranteed resurrection; if there isn’t a sufficient number of fans in the stands, hopes for “The Rock’s” bright future will dim considerably. To see a similar fate befall Martinsville Speedway would signal another lost connection to NASCAR’s storied past.
Some of my nostalgia about this 1992 trip to Martinsville may stem from the fact that the race was on my birthday. I even saved enough money to treat myself to a celebratory supper at a Waffle House near my motel on Saturday night. This might sound wildly odd, but – looking back at the event – eating this simple meal alone on the night before the Hanes 500 stands out as perhaps one of the best birthday “parties” I’ve ever had. It doesn’t say very much about my social activities (or the selectivity of my palate), but it speaks volumes about the role NASCAR has played during my life so far. A long day at a place like Martinsville Speedway is better than pretty much any shorter day anywhere else.
After the race ended and the traffic cleared, I started the long drive home from Martinsville. By the time I arrived, it was almost sunrise on Monday morning. I was scheduled to see Dr. Grant at 8:00am, so I collapsed into bed, got a couple hours of much-needed sleep, and awoke just in time to make my appointment. Dr. Grant looked up from his desk and found me leaning against the doorway of his office. I was unshaven, grimy from spending Sunday on pit road, and looking absolutely worn out. My ears were ringing, my eyes were little more than deep, dark pits, and my voice was hoarse to the point of being inaudible.
Dr. Grant gave me the once-over and said, “You look like s**t.”
“I feel like s**t….” I mumbled.
“Yeah, but you also look happy,” Dr. Grant said with a smile. And I was. The trip to Martinsville Speedway was worth all the effort and all the expense. No amount of time in a library could have provided me with the information and insight that I gathered from my weekend at the Hanes 500.
All of my experiences at Martinsville went on to shape the basis of my research project. Meeting drivers, crew chiefs, crew members, race officials, journalists, and fans from all over the country gave me the chance to think about NASCAR racing differently than I’d been considering it previously. What I learned about NASCAR Nation during that April weekend at Martinsville Speedway eventually led to more research trips to races, to fieldwork at race shops throughout North Carolina, and to the completion of my dissertation. The completed dissertation led to an award-winning book that was touted as the first “scholarly” exploration of NASCAR ever published. My life and career have revolved around the sport of stock car racing ever since.
Looking back from the perspective of today, it’s difficult to fathom all that’s happened since that research trip two decades ago this month. What’s simple to understand is just how memorable that weekend at the Hanes 500 was. It’s been twenty years, but the experience feels alive in my mind. All those memories came from a letter, an acceptance, and a road trip to the paved “paper-clip” we know and revere as Martinsville Speedway.
And now, on to the next twenty…
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