The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: A Tale of Two Tracks by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday October 29, 2009

Go to site navigation Go to article

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: A Tale of Two Tracks

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday October 29, 2009


It’s coincidental, but still notable, that the NASCAR Cup Series visits its shortest oval circuit (Martinsville) then heads off to its longest (Talladega). By chance, the two tracks are amongst the longest lasting on a circuit where a decade ago new cookie cutter tracks began popping up like dandelions on a spring lawn, replacing historic venues where the Cup racers had been doing battle for decades.

Yet as different as they are, Talladega and Martinsville remain two lands that time has all but forgotten. The winds of change erode all human edifices, but in these two far flung corners of Dixie time seems to move at a less hurried pace. Have a look at the grainy black and white newsreel photos as Big Bill France promoted his new uber-speedway back in 1968-69, and there’s no doubt which track you are looking at: Talladega. It’s the same with Martinsville. There might not be much left but black and white photos turning sepia in tone around the edges, showing skinny white guys in starched white shirts with skinny ties sitting in the grandstands watching Packards, Hudsons, Plymouths, and Oldsmobiles battle… but there’s no doubt where the race was held.

Sure, there’s other historic circuits out there. But Darlington has had some major face lifts, and it’s easy to tell current photos of the track from back in the day. Richmond and Bristol have been reconfigured countless times, no longer resembling themselves in days of yore. Rockingham, North Wilkesboro, Hickory, Hillsboro, Islip? They’re just gone, baby, gone… and they ain’t coming back. Yet somehow, Martinsville remains, still successful and still hosting two Cup races a season.

Martinsville actually predates the incorporation of NASCAR. On September 25th, 1949, the track hosted its first Cup (well that year, it was actually Strictly Stock) event won by that season’s eventual champion Red Byron. Since then, it has hosted a total of 122 races in the sport’s top division. (The track even held three events in 1961, after rain shortened an early April race well before the halfway point. Bill France declared the race official, but then rescheduled it for later in the month. Yeah, they’ve been pretty much making up the rules as they went since even back then.)

But despite all those miles of racing, the last major facelift at Martinsville occurred back in the summer of 1955, when H. Clay Earles decided to pave his pretty little oval. No less an authority than Lee Petty at the time was quoted as saying management had “ruined” a perfectly good race track. But Earles was trying to sell tickets, and took note of the fact the growing number of female fans attending his races didn’t like going home coated in dust and mud. Nor, presumably, did the females who stayed home much care for laundering the clothes of their kin who went to Martinsville races (though if you watch the black and white laundry soap ads of the
’50s, you’d note that women of that era attacked laundry chores with an almost frightening zealotry, smiling ear-to-ear like something out of the Stepford wives.

The last big redesign at Martinsville involved incorporating the SAFER barriers to the track. Unfortunately, that did away with the picturesque flower boxes along the catchfence which, while regrettable, was necessary. Speeds at Martinsville are a fraction of what they are at some other tracks, but one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers ever, multi-time modified champion Richie Evans, was killed in a practice wreck at Martinsville on October 25th, 1985. We, the people, hold these truths to be self-evident: no rock and roll can be too loud, no Mustang can be too fast, no woman can be too pretty, no beer can be too cold, and no race track can be too safe.

Martinsville’s design remains unchanged in its 60 years of hosting races, becoming the site of some of the best stock car competition NASCAR fans have ever witnessed.

Anyhow, despite Petty’s criticism the great racing at Martinsville held up on the asphalt, and it’s continued ever since for over five more decades. Throughout countless generations of racing, numerous configurations of cars, rich times and lean times, the sport’s rising and waning popularity, Martinsville has been there as part of the bedrock of stock car racing, offering up great events year after year. The legendary drivers and events at Martinsville would easily overwhelm a book… much less this column. Along the way, it’s none other than Lee Petty’s son who’s won the most at a track that is just a quick jaunt from their previous Level Cross, NC headquarters, as The King holds the all-time track record with 15.

A trip to Martinsville is a worthy pilgrimage for any true fan of stock car racing. The action is up close, personal, and relentless, while the area where the track is situated is picturesque and rich in history. The folks in those parts are also amongst the kindest and most polite you’ll encounter. They love their stock car racing and they love having you as a guest, as long as you don’t get too carried away and remember to take off your cap during the song and the prayer. I think it’s because there’s something primal in the memories of stock car racing fans — this is the way the whole sport started, and this is how it’s meant to be run on a tight little half-mile with beating, gouging, fenders banging, tires smoking, and tempers being pushed to their limit. This is stock car racing… not lawn croquet.

Viewed from above, the track H. Clay Earles created remains timeless. With two 800-foot straightaways, connected with two short and tight corners, the design is not unique; but it is, in fact, timeless. Somehow, their country-promoter in the post-World War II era got it just right over six decades ago, without the use of CAD-CAM design, engineering plans, or bulldozer blades guided by lasers and GPS. He built the perfect track in the perfect place, and thus Martinsville has become an enduring legend. The day they take a date from Martinsville will indeed be the day to pack your bags and leave the circus.

Turning our attention to the series’ smallest track to its largest, nobody is ever going to call Talladega picturesque or charming. Instead, it’s about as charming as a rattlesnake slithering out from beneath the pillow of your infant’s crib. “Awe inspiring” might be a legitimate term. “Frightening” is another good one. But the 2.66-mile superspeedway is the product of one man’s vision, twisted though it might have been… one William Getty France, Sr.

Buoyed by the success of the Daytona Speedway he’d opened a decade early and awash in more cash from the factory wars of the era then he could toss away at whores, handguns, and booze, Big Bill decided he was going to build him a new speedway. It was going to be the biggest, highest-banked, fastest, and baddest track anywhere in the world. It was going to make the Brickyard look like a children’s carnival ride, avenging the open-wheel types which insulted him by refusing to race at Daytona. If it happened to be built atop a Native American burial ground, so be it. Big Bill didn’t have a lot of use for dead people unless they’d punched their tickets making him money. Even then, France showed a curious lack of compassion for men killed in stock car races, even Fireball Roberts — a man he also called a close friend.

From the outset, there were problems at Talladega. The track came to be in an era where the Hemi Chryslers and Boss Fords were already overwhelming the ability of Goodyear and Firestone to keep up with the speeds on shorter, less-banked tracks. In pre-race testing, the track surface was shown to be too bumpy but even at that, too fast for the tire technology of 1969. The drivers asked for the race to be postponed, as the tire companies didn’t think they could come up with a safe and competitive tire for that first Talladega race. Even the factories were expressing some reluctance to risk their big names, giving those drivers unheralded precedent to decide whether to race or not. It seemed there was no way a safe and competitive race could be staged. But the almighty Big Bill France had built his speedway, printed the tickets, and scheduled his banquet. He expected the drivers to attend and race, even if they might end up the fatted calf on the main course.

That led to an unparalleled showdown the day before the race with France and members of the fledgling Professional Drivers Association, a union meant to protect the drivers’ interests led by none other than Richard Petty. France stared them down without blinking. He told the drivers assembled if they were too afraid to race, then they should pack up their rigs and go home. His banquet was being staged as planned, and no sissy concerns like safety were going to spoil the party. If those called and chosen weren’t worthy of the banquet, France would beat the hedgerows, alleys, and Back Streets (well that last one is Bruce, not Bible) to find enough drivers to stage his race.

Most of the big name drivers did, in fact, pack up and leave. So in defiance of all rules, Grand American cars (Mustangs, Camaros, and the like) were allowed to compete in the Grand National race to fill Sunday’s field. To assuage the disappointment of fans, France did offer ticketholders to that first Talladega Cup race a free ticket to a future Talladega or Daytona Cup event.

History will note that Richard Brickhouse went on to be flagged the winner of the first Cup race at Talladega, but that day’s big winner was Bill France, Sr. He once and forever put the drivers on notice they might be the stars… but it was his show. He ruled the sport with an iron fist… he didn’t give a damn about their opinions or safety, and if they didn’t like that, they could damn well leave. There’s been no meaningful challenge to the France family rule by the drivers since, though in open wheel racing, particularly Formula One, competitors have been treated as invaluable partners in improving the safety of the sport. You want any more reasons I find it galling that Big Bill was elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame? You could pile up dead drivers like cordwood, but as long as they didn’t cost him any money, Bill France wasn’t going to let it spoil his day.

Eventually, the tire companies caught up with Talladega’s speed. In the era of what I call “The Box Cars” (late ’70s through mid ’80s), the track did, in fact, stage some truly outstanding races. The relative horsepower of the cars versus their boxy aerodynamics allowed for some foot stomping race finishes, with huge packs of cars using the draft to decide the matter. I should hurry to note that in those days, races were held without restrictor plates.

But on May 3rd, 1987, it all almost went terribly wrong at Talladega. On lap 46, Bobby Allison’s Miller Buick blew a tire and went airborne into the catchfence. Thanks be to a loving and provident God, the fence held and Allison’s car didn’t make it into the grandstands; otherwise, the amount of lives lost would have been catastrophic. Several spectators were injured, but none to a degree where it was life-threatening. In response to the near miss, restrictor plates were added to the cars at Talladega and Daytona to rein in the speeds. Of course, those plates were added as a “temporary” measure until NASCAR could find a better way to control the speeds and keep cars on the track and out of the fan seating areas. 22 years later, we’re still waiting for that better solution. (I’ll say here that if in 22 years, nobody at NASCAR can come up with a better deal than the plates, we have to argue whether they are dumber than a sack of hammers or truly equally dumb as an acre of mud.)

The changes haven’t been a fix all, as there have been other close calls since at Talladega. In 1993, Neil Bonnett’s upside down Chevy (with its requisite restrictor plate firmly in place) tore down a hundred yards of the catchfence during a Talladega race and injured some fans. In the same race, Jimmy Horton flew his car straight out of the park and dropped several stories into the parking lot. (In one of the all-time great post-crash lines, Horton noted, “When the first person to reach you after the wreck is carrying a beer, you know you’re in trouble.”) Also in that same event, Stanley Smith suffered life-threatening head injuries that he’s never fully recovered from.

Then, on April 26th of this year, the sport once again smoked a major bullet. On the final lap of the Talladega race, Carl Edwards was trying to defend his line as the leader on the last lap — but Brad Keselowski was refusing to yield. The two hit, Edward’s Ford got upside down, and hit the catchfence with incredible violence. I invite you to go back and review the pictures of that last lap wreck. This site has some beauties. Look again and stare in bewilderment at how close we came to incalculable tragedy. Several fans were injured, among them a young lady with a broken jaw.

Talladega has responded by raising the height of the catchfence. I’m sorry, that’s another crutch, not a cure. Given the powers that be’s fundamental reluctance to address the key issue at Talladega — the plates — by redesigning the track itself to allow unrestricted, but safe racing, I’ll go on record as saying eventually a car is going to land in the grandstands with catastrophic loss of life. It might even happen this weekend. It ain’t that it ain’t happened — it just ain’t happened yet.

Like Martinsville, Talladega remains unchanged in essence from its original design. But in this case, it’s not because of the fundamental purity and perfection of the joint that Talladega looks the same. It’s because the track was designed by a megalomaniac, and his family maintains their founder’s vision that dead drivers and even spectators are an acceptable cost of doing business when opposed to spending the money to fix the place.

It’s going to happen, folks. It’s going to happen soon, though I pray to the Lord I’ll be proven wrong again this weekend. And I’ve never wanted to be proven wrong as badly as I do about this.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

The Frontstretch Newsletter, back in 2014 gives you more of the daily news, commentary, and racing features from your favorite writers you know and love. Don’t waste another minute – click here to sign up now. We’re here to make sure you stay informed … so make sure you jump on for the ride!

Today on the Frontstretch:
Racing to the Point: NASCAR Has Its Own Heartbreak Kid
Beyond the Cockpit: Brittany Force, the Fastest Force
Voices from the Cheap Seats: Advertising for Dummies
Who’s Hot / Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: Off Week-Richmond Edition
Couch Potato Tuesday: Picking The Best IndyCar On-Air Personalities


©2000 - 2008 Matt McLaughlin and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

Carl D.
10/29/2009 06:18 AM

My two trips to Martinsville are some great memories. And how many people can say they were there when an Andretti won a Nascar race in the Petty #43?

Although I never attended a race at Talledega, my brother spent two race weekends there in the infield. He would kill me if I shared any of those stories online.

10/29/2009 07:25 AM

It wouldn’t bother me one bit if Talladega was removed from the circuit. It always amazes me to see cars crashing in the promos for Dega races.

“They might not survive this one! Check it out on ABC!”

Great piece as always Matt.

The Turnip!
10/29/2009 07:42 AM

It is a sad day in hell when an old time, long time, stock car racing fan, in this case, myself, simply wants to see a massive 25 car pileup at the Dega!

It is about the only excitement and anticipation one can hope for since the introduction of 1. THE PLATE! 2. THE POS!

And please do not think poorly of me for hoping to not only see “the big one”, but the GIGANTIC ONE, once and for all!

(after all, the POS is so safe, so says NA$CRAP, that one should NEVER be afraid of seeing THE GIGANTIC ONE!)

May this Sunday see the hugest, largest, wildest,GIGANTIC ONE that will provide yet more advertising fodder for NA$CRAP themselves! After all, they NA$CRAP, use these “big ones” as advertising to sell more tickets!

So while I “publicly” want to see the gigantic one, NA$CRAP “secretly” also wants to see one!

TICKETS! It’s all about TICKETS, and TV ratings!

Lets go for it boys!

I’m waiting.

(oh by the way, I have been to the Dega dozens of times, including 1987 when Bobby took flight)

Bill B
10/29/2009 07:48 AM

Excellent historical overview and perspective on both tracks and the evil empire we call NASCAR. Give me Martinsville over Talladega anyday.

The Turnip!
10/29/2009 07:49 AM

Hey Carl D., I’ll give you a hint of what goes on, or used to anyway at Dega, and this was in the parking lot outside the track, not the infield, one year it had rained pretty steady leading up to race weekend, the ground was simply so much red mud!

well, the entertainement this day, was down the road a mud path was created, slippery red mud, and the game was to see how far you could get a naked lady to slide down the road! So the gals would either just run and then slide, or two guys would grab onto the naked ladies and launch them down the “runway”!

MMMM, come to think of it, almost missed the start of the race that year!

Wonder why?

As the Marx Brothers said! “A day at the races”!

10/29/2009 08:27 AM

been to ‘dega and what i’ve seen in infield makes me cringe. in the past few years they’ve “cleaned it up”. i’ll never forget first time i went to dega, was surprised about “race track jail”—al state police “jail” by the entrance. and such a huge police presence all over the track. cops everywhere, and not “rent-a-cops”…real cops. crazy. ‘dega definitely has a unique party atmosphere. but the drivers best be careful when they visit the infield party land. i know jr was there a few years ago. he was so afraid someone was going to take a pic of him. the group he was with was just happy to have him partying.

might be a bit muddy there this weekend. right now rain is forecasted for saturday. of course weather will change multiple times before saturday.

i did read on na$ where the track had a “medicine man”/baptist preacher visit the track this week to “bless it” and try to get it back in karma balance.

usually they don’t empty the infield out after the race until the following morning. guess it gives them time to sober up.

if you’re going to ‘dega…watch your speed…cops will be living on i-20 west from douglasville, ga til you get to the track. it’s speeding ticket revenue weekend in ga!

10/29/2009 09:06 AM

When visiting 1/4 mile or 1/2 mile tracks over the years i often wonder if the owners know ( or care ) about the Martinsville legacy . Everything painted and manicured . Great amenities for the fans . If you owned a short track in America , why would you think you could survive if your track didn’t look exactly like Martinsville . How long has Martinsville been around vs how many times per year does the average short track change hands or go under . Theres a message here for short track owners . Get out the paint , and the landscape crew , and give the fans a reason to come to your track .
Fixing the catch fences at the super speedways only makes sense if you work for NASCAR . And there are only so many things you can do to the fence before you restrict the fans view of the races to the intolerable point . Truth is , the stands need to be mover further back from the racing surface and raised a bit . Where would the money come from for that ? Well , if the France family were to each invest 1% of their personal fortune , it would be done in no time . And now that i think about it , that idiotic HOF they built in Charlotte could have been delayed a few years and the money be used for safety initiatives . Doesn’t matter how its paid for , it just needs to happen . Sadly , some of the future inductees into that dumb HOF will probably be posthumous . Hopefully not because NASCAR failed to act to keep them alive .

10/29/2009 09:08 AM

The solution could be using Aerodymanics to slow the car down instead. CART used the Hansford Device, which created a lot of drag. Some people feel that the racing was safer than the pack racing of today in IRL, which has some similarities with RP racing, although it’s also quite different.

10/29/2009 09:08 AM

Plate racing is not racing. Period. It’s a total crap shoot, luck of the draw.

This sports NEEDS more short tracks. NOW! And if that means nascar opens up their own bank accounts to fund it then so be it.

10/29/2009 09:19 AM

I’m 60 years old, lifetime race fan. I like Martinsville because it’s what racing is about. Getting your car to accelerate, brake, and turn.Plate races, I hate. Huge packs of cars wide open, and crashes which I hate. When Michael Waltrip can win plate races that should tell you all you need to know about plate races. Not real racing, I watch but wish there was an alternative to the plates.

10/29/2009 11:23 AM

Bill France and now his family may have been the head honchos but now the fans are slowly bringing nascrap down!! They can scream, yell, beg whatever but slowly we are shutting the “show” down as it is no longer a sport. It will remain, but only as a likeness of the WWE. As a 67 year old lifetime fan, I no longer care or watch. I just come here to read the articles and am satisfied I made the right decision!!

10/29/2009 11:24 AM

For the guy who talked about the “amenities” at Martinsville. Don’t get me wrong, it’s one of my favorite tracks on the circuit, but we stopped going there about 4 years ago (along with all NA$CAR tracks). Part of my reason was the fact that the track never increased the number of restrooms when they increased the number of seats. It was absurd! You had to wait in a line for 30 minutes BEFORE the race started! Needless to say, I didn’t drink anything during the race so I wouldn’t miss 50 laps while waiting inthe ridiculously long lines. So when people speak of amenities at Martinsville, I guess it hits a nerve because restrooms are the most basic amenity in my book. I don’t care about fan zones, souvenirs, updated seats, VIP boxes, etc.

10/29/2009 11:29 AM

More T-Dega whining? I thought we were over that! Plate racing is what it is and it generates exciting side by side racing. this safety thing is completely overblown. You bring up wrecks over the last 20-ish years, give me a break, you could do that at any track. You are safer on any Nascar track than on the highway on your way home! The safety-crats will ruin everythign if we let them. Sorry but some things are a little dangerous otherwise we would be watching tennis! let em race!

10/29/2009 11:52 AM

Glenn, with how people drive here in Georgia, particulary Atlanta, any race track is safer than highway even without all the safety features of the cars. I’ve lived in GA 11 yrs and I have never seen more people that can’t drive. I’m convienced they don’t know what YIELD means. 3 days this week I’ve had my right-a-way taken away from me cause idiots didn’t yeild to my lane of traffic.

Hum, tennis….Andre Aggassi used meth!

Ford Fan
10/29/2009 12:20 PM

“We, the people, hold these truths to be self-evident: no rock and roll can be too loud, no Mustang can be too fast, no woman can be too pretty, no beer can be too cold, and no race track can be too safe.” Amen to that brother. Great article that makes me want to see a race there some day.

Jim Moncsko
10/29/2009 12:35 PM

God bless you for mentioning Islip NY. Went there as a kid with my folks in the ’60s. Now live in NC, went to the Rock before Nascar closed it and now go to Martinsville. Great article as always Matt.

Bill B
10/29/2009 12:35 PM

I just wear my pee-pants to the race. LOL

Bad Wolf
10/29/2009 12:55 PM

Iowa Speedway, back to the future.

Take a race from California and give it to Rusty after we put a bullit in the COT.

10/29/2009 08:45 PM

Stuff I have pondered since the inception of plates…

Maybe “The Turnip” can chime in.

1) All teams have special “Plate” engines. Why not knock down the cubes to around 300 or less at Daytona and ‘Dega?

2) Dunno what carb size they are running – 1000, 750, 850? Whatever it is – go to a way smaller carb (350-400 cfm) without the plate.

One or both of the above would get speeds down but keep the one thing that is lacking (resulting in the packs) actual throttle response!

I know the smartest engine builders would eventually wring more HP out of the above but I think having an engine that you don’t need to keep wound up all the time will keep people a little further back from each other.

Maybe a different gear? There has got to be a way!

10/29/2009 09:50 PM

Thanks for reminding me of Horton’s classic quote. One of the best ever.
NA$CAR brought in the “medicine man” for one reason only, to remove the Juju for JJ and his quest for four. All hail the Anointed One.

Kevin in SoCal
10/31/2009 04:10 AM

Wingcars, I’m not sure if you’ll see this, but those experiments have been done. I remember reading that NASCAR did try 390cfm carbs and they did little to slow down the race cars. They still got up over 200 MPH. And a month or so ago, Chevy High Performance magazine did a dyno test between a 302, 327, and 350 small block Chevy engines. They used similar heads and camshafts. They all made within 5 horsepower of each other, but the bigger engines made more torque. I’m no expert, but with them making the same horsepower, that means the top speeds will still be the same. Smaller engines will probably not help, either.