Race Weekend Central

Shakedown Session: Take Me Down To The Bullring

by Brody Jones

When one thinks of bullrings in NASCAR history, they think of tracks such as Bristol Motor Speedway and Richmond International Raceway. Or, if fans want to go “back in the day”, there was North Wilkesboro Speedway, Bowman-Gray Stadium, Myrtle Beach Speedway (then Rambi Raceway) and South Boston Speedway. One track with just as much history as a bullring, yet inexplicably ignored by NASCAR fans, is the Martinsville Speedway in rural Martinsville, Virginia. The track has been in operation since 1947 and remains a part of NASCAR lore to this day. While the track only seats 63,000, it still serves as a great reminder of the roots of NASCAR and a testament to the success of the sport.

Martinsville spent its first eight years of existence as a paper-clip shaped dirt track. However, frequent dust issues kept cropping up with the races there and track owner Clay Earles paved the track in 1955. The next year would see the facility’s first 500-lap race. Over time, the track’s asphalt started to break up due to stress from race cars. To alleviate this, Earles decided, in a unique move at the time, to pave the corners with concrete in 1976. By 2004, the concrete started to break up badly and, in fact, during the spring 2004 race, a large chunk of concrete damaged Jeff Gordon’s car to the point where it took him out of contention for a certain win. Currently, the track holds a pair of Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck Series dates with the Whelen Modified Tour running a date on Labor Day and there’s also the Bailey’s 300 for Late Models that the track hosts every year. And in this edition of the “Shakedown Session”, the topic that will be tackled is has Martinsville surpassed Bristol and Richmond as the premier NASCAR bull-ring?

Now that our readers have been educated on some facts about the track, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty heart of the matter. With fans departing Bristol in droves, partially due to hotels and campgrounds charging ridiculous rates and partially due to long-time fans of Bristol loathing the progressive banking and Richmond, despite its slot as the final race to make the Chase, still not quite able to surpass Bristol, one has to wonder if the true bull-ring of NASCAR resides in the sleepy little hamlet of Martinsville? Of course, one will make a strong argument that Bowman-Gray Stadium is the one, true bull-ring of NASCAR, thanks in part to the immense popularity of the show “Madhouse”, but since BGS hasn’t hosted a major NASCAR touring event in nearly 40 years and, for comparison’s sake, this is confined to tracks currently with Cup dates, Martinsville wins the honors here.

The track has all of the contact that has made Bristol a must-see destination in the past, but the facility is a flat-track unlike Bristol, therefore, any thoughts of progressive banking would be about as necessary as another cosmetic surgery for Joan Rivers. The track, amazingly, hasn’t had the issues attendance-wise that other NASCAR tracks have had. Of course, much of that truthfully can be attributed to the fact that Martinsville only holds 63,000 seats compared to Bristol’s 160,000. But here is the question posed to readers and fellow race fans. What looks more impressive on TV. A sell-out crowd of 63,000 or a track seating 160,000 that is about 50 to 60% full? While Martinsville doesn’t get the hype of Bristol, it definitely cannot be glossed over as just another track. The facility is the true Fenway Park of NASCAR. It has been around the longest and has the most character to it. It draws consistent sell-outs, like Fenway Park, and it has a great deal of history behind it. The many moments of Martinsville have been timeless over the years. Richard Petty won 15 of his 200 career victories at the track, including a fantastic battle with Bobby Allison back in 1972. There was Ricky Craven picking up his first career win, coming back from post-concussion syndrome to win in 2001, bumping Dale Jarrett along the way. There has also been the recent domination by Hendrick Motorsports at the track. Plus, if one wants to bring up Camping World Truck Series history at the track, one needs to look no further than Timothy Peters’ 2009 win at the track in the October race, living just 10 minutes away from the track.

Let’s throw Richmond in the mix for a comparison as well. Now, Richmond is a great track for racing and requires slightly more finesse than Martinsville rather than contact and it has one advantage Martinsville does not have in night-racing, in addition to drama with the final race to get into the Chase For The Cup. But, truth be told, Martinsville does not need night racing, nor does the dates work for night racing with nights in the Blue Ridge Mountains in April and October on the brutally cold side and Martinsville has its own date in the Chase instead of being the appetizer, compared to Richmond.

In closing, with the attendance and competition woes Bristol has suffered in recent years and fans looking for a new bullring to flock to, why not flock to Martinsville? This is a track that, only until recently, was grossly underappreciated by NASCAR fans compared to Bristol and Richmond and often was relegated to third banana status on the totem pole of short track racing. But it appears slowly, but surely, NASCAR fans are finally learning to appreciate and embrace the rich tradition and history of Martinsville and in return, they are rewarded with the type of short track racing that Bristol used to have and that Richmond has never quite been completely able to brag about.

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