It’s a beautiful summer Saturday – hot and steamy as Southern summers are wont to be. I’m driving to Martinsville Speedway for the weekend’s event and the beauty of this drive strikes me. Martinsville is nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, encircled protectively by green hills and fields and trees, and everything about the speedway reflects an area that, at least by appearances, is trapped in time – a softer, easier time when you didn’t have to worry so much and if you worked hard, you could be successful and even prosperous.
Martinsville is, in effect, a microcosm of the two series racing at the famed track over the weekend: the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and the K&N Pro Series East. The modifieds are, in fact, NASCAR’s oldest division. The little open-wheeled cars have not seen as many of the drastic changes over the years that their full-bodied NASCAR cousins have, and that’s part of the charm. It’s not a development series in that way other regional series are; instead, it’s a means to its own end. Drivers race a career here, and the veterans can still take the young guns to school every race. The strategy is different in the series’ shorter events, in part because the cars are different: tracks like New Hampshire are their superspeedways, and they use the draft as effectively as any Sprint Cup driver at Daytona or Talladega. There are enough aggressive drivers to keep everyone on their toes, and the competition is as exciting a mix as any other division in the sport.
The K&N Pro Series is, in some ways, its complete opposite. As it has evolved from two separate regional series to the current format, it’s become a natural driver development haven for NASCAR’s top levels, and the Cup money is seeping in as team owners like Michael Waltrip, Joe Gibbs, Richard Childress and Red Bull all have up-and-comers in the series being groomed for Nationwide or Truck rides down the road. There are still a few veterans in the mix: former Cup stars like Steve Park, along with guys like Eddie MacDonald and Matt Kobyluck who have raced here since its previous incarnation as Busch North. Kobyluck is an old school racer who doesn’t cut the young drivers much slack; and so they learn to race, not ride when competing. The series is still small enough and affordable enough that the independent teams can – and do – compete with the bigger ones, although that is slowly changing, too. But until it does completely, the competition remains filled with honest, hard-working drivers trying to make it, believing that if they work long enough and hard enough, the next step will open up for them – or in some cases, open back up a second time.
Walk through the garage this weekend, and you’ll still see the trappings of money: quarter-million dollar haulers, teams in matching uniforms, cars splashed with sponsor logos from national companies. Racing is expensive, and those who have it spend it. They don’t necessarily flaunt it, because it’s not quite the guarantee of success that it is in Cup or Nationwide; but at its core, those images remain a constant reminder of money’s constant influence in the sport. Yet next to those quarter-million dollar haulers (many purchased from Nationwide or Cup teams looking for an upgrade) are bare-bones ones along with smaller, enclosed trailers. Next to the teams in the matching uniforms are ones in jeans, wearing the same t-shirts they sell to their fans. Next to the national sponsors, there are local car dealers and other businesses proudly displayed as blue collar and white collar come together to compete.
That’s the most beautiful thing about this garage stroll: in both of these series, the smaller teams have a shot at competing with the big ones. The larger teams have an advantage, of course, but the line between the haves and have-nots is blurred considerably. Winning, perhaps, takes money, but top-five and top-10 finishes are available to all takers. While we would all like to think that’s the case at the higher levels, it’s simply not anymore. Once upon a time it was, but those days are gone – except here.
And, like Martinsville Speedway itself, NASCAR cannot afford to lose these series. As talk of the speedway losing a Sprint Cup event (the track’s real moneymaker) runs rampant through the garage, purses in these two events are hardly enough to keep a race team going. Without sponsors, they don’t race. There is no start and park; a three-figure, last-place payout doesn’t pay for the one set of Goodyear tires they’d need to start the race on. A local sponsor is enough to pay the bills, but there aren’t even enough of those to go around. The Cup companion races fare a little better – there are more fans in the seats and more media attention, and the local sponsors can be had for those events. But so many teams need them to run the whole season. So many dreams hum through these engines. If they can just get that top-10 finish, surely a sponsor will take notice…
There are probably a decent number of fans in the stands at Martinsville, on the frontstretch and in turns 1-2, but it’s not the number these series will see in three weeks as they head to Loudon and a companion event with Sprint Cup and Nationwide teams. Perhaps this is something NASCAR needs to consider, racing these cars together more often. But for now, they have their own show at Martinsville, and they don’t disappoint, putting on a fantastic competition in both series.
The area surrounding Martinsville Speedway reminds you of the track itself: maybe a little worse for the wear, but beautiful nonetheless. Still, there are signs of the times – a few closed businesses, a few empty storefronts. They’re waiting on a few dollars to head their way, a little help from somewhere to keep going. Just like the cars racing there this weekend…
It’s a perfect fit, really, when you think about it. Martinsville mirrors the Whelen Modified Tour and the K&N Pro Series East perfectly. A little lost in time, perhaps, but in a good way. A little shabby in places, but beautiful and proud. If they work hard enough and try long enough, something better will come around. Turns out this small Southern town and these two primarily Northern series have a lot in common.
They’re two places where, with a lot of work and a little luck, dreams come true.
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