Matt McLaughlin · Thursday March 25, 2010
The two Cup dates at tiny Martinsville are circled on my calendar as “must see” events. The racing there isn’t always spectacular, but the ratio of classics to clunkers is about as good as it gets anywhere on the circuit. And as two of just six short track races left on a schedule once dominated by dates on the bullrings, racing at Martinsville is a welcome throwback to the good ol’ days. In fact, this oval is the only one that’s held Cup races since the inaugural 1949 Strictly Stock season – and that alone awards it legendary status.
Yet this Spring, there are ugly rumors Martinsville might lose one if not both dates in the interest of expediency and larger markets on next year’s schedule. Such a move would have once been thought unthinkable, but given the fate of North Wilkesboro, Rockingham, and the Labor Day event at Darlington it’s not unprecedented. Let’s put it this way: I don’t trust the black-hearted bastards that are the barons of our sport today to keep their greedy little fingers off tradition, no matter how cherished or important it might be.
On a purely practical and soulless level of thinking, it’s easy to see why Martinsville is on the Endangered Species list. The neighboring town the track is named for (population: 15,416) is one of the smallest that still hosts a Cup date. To the marketers behind the sponsors who splatter their colors across today’s Cup clown cars, rural, western Virginia is barely a blip on the radar. Grandstand capacity is also amongst the smallest on the circuit (around 67,000), though in fact track management has managed to post a pretty good ratio of butts to seats compared to some of the grand palaces of speed added to the circuit in the last decade. Others argue that in this era of 900 horsepower funny cars posing as “stock” cars, the equipment has simply outgrown the tiny little half-mile track.
Balderdash. (And that’s not my first choice of words.)
A valid argument could be made that racing at Martinsville and reining in those 900 horsepower monsters on the relatively narrow tires our series features takes more driver talent than just about any race left on the circuit. Horsepower is great on the straightaways, but the two at Martinsville pass in little more than the blink of an eye. That makes managing the brakes and tire wear the keys to winning there. For even if a driver has the fastest car that particular Sunday afternoon, he is quickly faced with the challenge of lapping slower cars shortly after each restart. With this paperclip largely a one-groove track, passing opportunities come few and far between – even for someone that is markedly faster than his intended victims. Patience is at a premium, too, and sometimes it quickly erodes away. With no place for slow cars to turn, the easiest way to pass at Martinsville is to lay a front bumper to the rear of the car that’s holding a driver up and move him out of the way.
The “bump and run” is part and parcel of racing at Martinsville. As the pay window begins to open towards the end of a race, those competing for the lead often suffer severe lapses in manners. Some newer fans find this sort of racing barbaric, but for old school purists the bent fenders, smoking tires, and frayed tempers are racing the way it ought to be done.
That contact isn’t always unintentional, either. For decades, drivers have used this place as a means of revenge, paying back others for incidents where they were the innocent victim on one of the series’ faster circuits. Turning the tables is easy to do here; and with beating and banging so much a part of racing at Martinsville, it’s difficult to determine whether contact was intentional or inadvertent. As an added bonus, speeds are low enough it’s possible to send a clear message to another driver off your front bumper without risking crippling him, like Carl Edwards’ moment of indiscretion at Atlanta did with Brad Keselowski. No less a driver than Bobby Allison, one of the sport’s iron men, purportedly used to tape a note with the car numbers of his intended victims on the dash prior to each Martinsville race.
Worn tires, a soft brake pedal, vengeful competitors, paperclip corners, and engine abuse can make for a long afternoon out on this half-mile. And it is in the blast furnace of short track racing that legends are forged forever. Richard Petty won a record 15 times at Martinsville, Darrell Waltrip won eleven times, and Jeff Gordon has won here seven times. Cale Yarborough won half-a-dozen, and most recently, Jimmie Johnson won five of six consecutive Martinsville Cup races between the fall of 2006 and last spring’s event. Just how good is Johnson at Martinsville? He hasn’t missed the top 10 there since the spring race of 2002. He caps a list of drivers that have won a ton of championships and races, but my guess is that they look at the Grandfather clocks — the coolest trophy on the circuit — they earned at Martinsville with special affection and pride.
Lately, NASCAR has been talking a good game about winning back disenchanted, longtime fans who have been leaving the sport in droves over the last five seasons. Well, taking a Martinsville race date away would prove that talk has been nothing but lip service. Fans come from near and wide to attend Martinsville Cup races, but the locals are particularly loyal to the track. There are third and fourth generation fans who sit in the same seats their grandfathers did back when the race cars had tailfins.
The pundits would have you believe that the current economic downturn is the first and worst such event in recorded U.S. history, but we’ve been through lean times before. And every year, those same loyal fans kept flocking back to Martinsville, managing to scrape together the money for their tickets. I recall in days of yore, the backstretch seats used to go on sale early Sunday morning at reasonable prices for blue collar fans, and the dash to get in resembled the Oklahoma Land Rush. Fans might head to Daytona or Charlotte like sheep following the herd, but for truly devoted and knowledgeable race fans, the trip to Martinsville was like a pilgrimage to see “real” stock car racing – not high speed acrobatics.
Martinsville’s founder, the late H. Clay Earles, was always appreciative and accommodating towards his fans. In 1955, Mr. Earles decided to pave his then-dirt track. He’d found that fans like to make a family event of the races at Martinsville, but the ladyfolk weren’t fond of going home with their hair and clothes coated in dust. A lot of drivers of that era felt Earles was ruining a perfectly good race track by paving it, but the intervening 55 years’ worth of races have shown that daring experiment has worked out pretty well.
The magic of Martinsville is that it is the land time has forgotten. Improvements have been made to accommodate the fans, but the track surface itself looks a lot like it did five decades ago. Messing with tradition there is dangerous business. When ISC took over the track, they tried altering the Martinsville hot dog, perhaps the circuit’s greatest (questionable) cuisine — and even that simple move caused more outrage than the Edwards/Keselowski incident at Atlanta. ISC wisely backed down almost immediately, returning those beloved dogs to the original recipe enjoyed by traditionalists with cast iron stomachs.
Finally, sponsors had better wise up. It doesn’t matter if the races are held in sunny and populated Los Angeles or bucolic and southern Martinsville, the majority of fans taking in the event, watching the rolling billboards that are today’s race cars and watching the commercials during a Cup broadcast are scattered coast-to-coast. The true NASCAR loyalists, the ones who make purchasing decisions based largely on brands affiliated with racing, remain centered in the small towns of the Southeast. They’ve been washing with Tide, drinking Bud and Pepsi, and dining at McDonald’s for decades. For all NASCAR’s attempts to take on the Bright Lights and Big Cities, this sport remains a product of small town America. Sitting in the stands are the guys and gals that ride out on the pumpers with volunteer fire departments when the sirens sound late at night, who get misty-eyed during the playing of taps after the Memorial Day parade, and who wrench on their own American-made cars in the driveway most Saturday mornings.
Despite the hype of the ads of late, those people are the heart and soul of NASCAR, the blue collar folks who lace up their boots and head to work at a different kind of “office” Monday morning. They head to the bank to cash their paychecks on Friday afternoon, and spend Saturdays fishing or working on a buddy’s local dirt track car. When focusing on other major markets, sponsors risk alienating these folks who spend their hard-earned dollars, often still earned in what they term “dollars per hour,” at their own risk. Sure, a race at Vegas or L.A. might be more appealing to the corporate clients they can get into a luxury suite at the track, but those aren’t the folks who make up the backbone of the economy unless we’re talking about imported luxury cars, high-end speedboats, and sand castles along the coast.
So Martinsville not only deserves its two race dates annually, but it probably deserves a third. And while that’s never going to happen, it’s time to declare “hands off” when it comes to the oval’s two existing dates. As the sole remaining track left that held an event in NASCAR’s inaugural season — and given the loyalty of the Earles family towards Bill France, Jr. — the original Martinsville has got to be grandfathered against future schedule shifts.
Now, more than ever, it’s important for NASCAR officials, fans, drivers, team owners, and crew members to take these two journeys a year back to Martinsville to remember where this sport was born – in the hard scrabble, rocky soil of the Southeast beating and banging on short tracks on a Sunday afternoon.
From small things, Mama, big things sometimes come. But even the mightiest Hickory tree is doomed if it loses hold of its roots, and for Cup racing, Martinsville remains the taproot.
Take a date from Martinsville? Brother, you might as well bury a dagger in the heart of stock car racing.
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