There’s just something about Martinsville. NASCAR’s oldest track, on the schedule since 1949, has a certain ambiance that is missing at the high-banked, high-dollar speedways that take up the lion’s share of the schedule. The little track, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, seems to have been passed over by the sands of time.
But there is another reason why the drivers want to win at the little paperclip-shaped oval in the hills, and it’s not just bragging rights. It’s the trophy.
Since 1964, the speedway has handed out what is perhaps the most unique prize in motorsports, a grandfather clock, manufactured locally by Ridgeway Clocks. It’s worth a cool ten grand, but that’s not why the drivers want it. It’s different, a symbol of conquering what is still one of the hardest tracks in all NASCAR to master.
It’s hardly surprising that the all-time wins mark at Martinsville belongs to Richard Petty, NASCAR’s winningest driver. With a total of 15 wins at the track, and 15 grandfather clocks, it’s no wonder it was once said that all of Randleman, NC, Petty’s hometown, chimed on the hour. Darrell Waltrip also has nearly a dozen clocks from his 11 wins in the Virginia hills. These days, Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with seven wins (and clocks).
There’s no doubt that the Martinsville grandfather clock is one of the most coveted trophies in the sport, but which other tracks offer prizes so cool that everyone wants one on the shelf? And which trophies, despite the significance of a win, aren’t nearly as sweet as the taste of the champagne that went with them? Read on for my list of the best-and worst trophies in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series these days!
*Harley Earl (Daytona 500) Trophy* Not only does this one mean you’ve won the sport’s biggest race, it’s a beautiful piece of hardware. With a smooth black base in the shape of the track itself, the trophy is topped with one of Earl’s designs, a car that looks like it drove straight out of the dreams of a car-crazy kid. Never mind that the Earl invention that most Americans use today is spray cheese in a can, the trophy with his name on it evokes a different era of motorsports, and would be the centerpiece of any driver’s trophy case, even if it didn’t come for a win in the Great American Race.
*Bristol* Bristol’s silver loving cup might be the tallest trophy in the Sprint Cup Series besides the clock, and it has a classic simplicity to it. And it’s huge…like the trophy for surviving 500 laps in a blender should be. Some trophies should just be _big_. This is one of them.
*Texas* They give the winner six-guns. They let him shoot them off in Victory Lane. Need I say more?
*Kentucky* This one is beautiful and truly symbolic of the track the winner just raced on. A silver horse’s head with a flowing checkered flag for a mane, it’s a reminder of the _real_ horsepower that the state is known for. Nothing embodies the heart of a champion driver more than the heart of a Thoroughbred, and this one represents them both.
*Miles the Monster* Dover’s stony-faced Miles is one of the newer trophies on the scene-most races’ prizes these days represent the sponsor or the track’s heritage, but Miles just represents how darn mean Dover’s concrete surface can be. Holding the winner’s car aloft in his fist, Miles is just one cool monster.
*The Silver Brick* The trophy given to the winner of the Brickyard 400 is stunning in its simplicity. It’s a reminder that the track was once paved with over a million of them, and it’s so different form the Borg-Warner Trophy given to the Indianapolis 500 winner that it’s totally acceptable for the NASCAR event at the track. The trophy and the finish line always get a kiss in recognition of just how sweet this victory is, and the single silver brick atop a slender column is, like the others mentioned, far from the gaudy sponsor-centric prizes that await the winners of most races.
*Southern 500* The perpetual trophy for the Southern 500 has the name and face of every winner since 1950, when Johnny Mantz bested 74 other drivers to win it. This is NASCAR’s version of the Borg-Warner Trophy- one that everyone still wants, though the race has lost its traditional date and a bit of its former luster. Once NASCAR’s oldest race, the Southern 500 has a trophy befitting its former glory.
*The Sprint Cup* Whether you love the current era of racing or not, this is a beautiful piece. A traditional loving cup with a twist, the Tiffany silver Cup is formed by a pair of checkered flags, the symbol of racing excellence the world over. The fact that to date, only three drivers can lay claim to one serves to make it even more special.
*On the Other Hand…*
*Kansas* What exactly _is_ that supposed to be, anyway? A tornado? A motor oil funnel? Something else? It’s simple and not laden with sponsor logos, but that’s about its only good quality.
*Anything from Bass Pro Shops* I suppose if you’re a hunter, these would be more appealing, but I’ve never been fond of the giant wild animal sculptures the sponsor has handed out. I think this year’s was a pair of wild turkeys. Have you ever looked at a wild turkey up close? With those talon-like bony and clawed feet and those beady little eyes, they’re kind of creepy.
*Pocono* Just because something is retro doesn’t mean it’s _good_ retro. This one might have been cool in 1978, but these days, not so much. It looks more like a Little League participation trophy than a big-league stock car racing prize.
*The Las Vegas Prize Fighter Belt* Um, _no_. It’s a NASCAR race, not a boxing match, and while I know a lot of big fights take place in Vegas, this race lacks the beating and banging that might make such a connection plausible. Heck, if they wanted to embody Vegas, why not a neon trophy that lights up…done right that could really be retro-cool. But the current belt is too gaudy to look at directly for fear of melting an eyeball. They’re ugly on prize fighters. Why would they be any better on a racecar driver?
*Big Kobalt Tools* OK, Kobalt, we know you make tools, but a giant plumber’s wrench? Not so trophy-like. Not to mention, a driver running around crowing, “Hey everyone, look at my big giant tool!” just isn’t a pretty thought…
*That Fontana Helmet thing* This one made a one-time appearance a few years back, and it just might be the ugliest trophy ever. A brightly-painted driver’s helmet with the wing that was then on the Cup car affixed to the top? It was even uglier than the cars were.
*The NHMS Lobster* OK, this one isn’t _technically_ a trophy, because it’s a live lobster, and the driver doesn’t get to keep it after posing with it in Victory Lane. But have you ever seen a driver looking happy to hold that beast up by its substantial claws (and I can’t imagine that the lobster is thrilled, either)? No, me either. Mostly they just look like they want to get rid of it before it gets those massive pincers loose and does some damage. Note to promoters: the winner shouldn’t be scared of what awaits them in the winner’s circle.
*The Winston Cup* An honorable mention because it’s no longer in circulation. While many long for racing’s halcyon summers, the champion’s trophy during the Winston era was actually kind of tacky, with big gold cups and other gewgaws atop a wooden base and a plaque with the driver’s car—or worse, his face—engraved with his signature. The good old days they might have been, but today’s Cup trophy is more befitting of a champion at his sport’s highest level.
So there you have it—my list of the nicest and the not-so-nice trophies circulation in NASCAR’s top series today. Some are beautiful and others are downright fugly, but one thing is for sure: every driver wants one, and does it _really_ matter what it looks like in Victory Lane? Whether it graces the home of a first-time winner or joins half a dozen like it, this weekend’s prize is sure to be very special to someone.