Nestled away in Southern Virginia, the tiny town of Martinsville is home to about 13,000 souls, though that number swells considerably two weekends a year. The town is just over 100 miles away from Mooresville, N.C. where most of the NASCAR Cup teams are now headquartered. Since 1949, the nation’s best stock car racers have been making the trek there, biannually since 1950 (well actually, three times in 1961 with two of the races held in April, only 21 days apart).
That makes Martinsville the sole survivor that’s hosted Cup racing ever since the inaugural 1949 “Strictly Stock” season. (They raced at Daytona as well that year, but that was on the old beach and road course, not at the superspeedway which opened in 1959.)
Red Byron won Martinsville’s first Strictly Stock event en route to the 1949 championship. Martinsville was a dirt track back then, remaining that way until the fall race of 1955 when the paved asphalt circuit debuted. (Tim Flock won the last dirt race at the track while Speedy Thompson won the first race held on the asphalt surface.)
The move to pave the track was controversial at first as many drivers and fans felt that dirt was for racing and asphalt was for getting to the race. Track management felt that they’d attract more female fans, though if those ladies didn’t leave the track covered in dirt and dust.
Turns out the new asphalt track was a place fit for a King. Richard Petty won a record 15 times at Martinsville with his first win occurring in 1960 and his final victory at the track coming in 1979. Petty won a stupefying 11 of 16 races held at Martinsville from 1967 to 1975. The King’s dad, Lee Petty, also won three times in Martinsville. Among active drivers, Jimmie Johnson has the most Martinsville clocks with nine, tying him with Jeff Gordon in that regard. They’re both tied for third in that statistic behind Darrell Waltrip, who won 11 times at the tiny track in Virginia. (And just because someone is going to ask, Dale Earnhardt Sr. won six times at Martinsville, while Dale Junior won here once in 2014.)
The world was a very different place back in 1949. The United States and our allies had just recently won the War To End All Wars (wouldn’t that have been nice?) The fascists had been defeated and democracy had triumphed. Harry Truman was in the White House and the national mood was near jubilant despite the sobering loss of life and the monetary costs of World War II. Returning GIs were looking for work and moving to the suburbs, a new concept in housing and lifestyle.
Some people objected to stock car racing in that there was a pent up demand for new cars after the auto makers had stopped producing cars from 1942 to 1946 in order to produce the munitions of war. They felt tearing up perfectly good new cars was wasteful as a result. In 1949 Oldsmobile turned the automobile industry on its ear introducing its new overhead valve Rocket 88 engine that would eventually lay the flathead V8s to rest. If you could find one Hudson’s “twin six” was another of the early performance cars in that era. (In addition to the Big 3, several automakers like Studebaker, Hudson, Packard and Nash were still in business.) Ford was teetering at the brink of financial ruin despite the war and the “Whiz Kids” were trying to right the ship. (These Whiz Kids were returning World War II veterans who assumed management positions in Dearborn.) Some returning GIs had been exposed to sports cars over in Europe and either imported mainly British two seaters once production resumed or built hot rods with the same idea of light weight and big horsepower. Oh and in January 1949 the first VW Beetle (Type 1 officially) was imported to the US.
On a personal level, I wasn’t around yet, what with my dad having been in been in the seventh grade in 1949. I came along in 1959 and was a fan of stock car racing about five years later. To me Martinsville VA was a place I knew of only from newspaper accounts of the races and it seemed every bit as exotic a location as Hawaii, Bermuda or Tahiti were to most kids my age.
Yes, the world is a very different place than it was in 1949, and in some ways not for the better. But in Martinsville, both the town and the tiny track, things seem to have progressed at a slower pace than in the Northeast Megalopolis and Silicon Valley (at least that portion of the Silicon Valley that didn’t recently get torched.) Even as dramatically faster than the current generation of stock cars are than the actual “Stock cars” run early in NASCAR’s history nobody has yet qualified in triple digit speeds at Martinsville. (Earnhardt Junior came close posting a pole speed of 99.9 MPH here in 2014.) The fastest average speed for a Cup race at Martinsville is 80.1 MPH set by winner Kyle Busch in 2016 despite eight yellow flags that flew that day. The fewest caution flags ever to slow a race at Martinsville (at least by my records) is 1 (1961, 1966, and 1971.) The most caution periods at the track were the 21 yellow flags that fluttered in 2007. The most lead changes in a Martinsville Cup race were 33 (2014) and the least one (1950.) NASCAR stopped posting race purses back in 2016, but in the fall Martinsville race of 2015 Jeff Gordon took home just under $200,000 of a total $ 4.6 million purse, not bad for a short track that seats 60,000 fans.
Some people have accused me of having a double-standard for decrying the carnage at Talladega but eagerly anticipating the beating and banging at Martinsville. I may be duplicitous by nature but in this case the difference comes down to simple physics. It’s a lot more likely someone is going to get hurt or worse at 200 MPH than a 99. (Though no track is completely safe. Modified series legend Richie Evans was killed at Martinsville in 1985.)
There are just three short tracks left on the Cup schedule. (Though as an aside, with me being a habitual offender, it seems lately the TV networks want to label Phoenix and New Hampshire as short tracks which they most certainly are not under the classic definition of a short track being an oval race course of a less than a mile.) Yes, NASCAR needs more short tracks but relabeling two intermediate tracks as “short tracks” will no more help the situation than handing a man ablaze a bucket of gasoline and telling him it’s water.
While short tracks might be desperately underrepresented on the Cup schedule, there’s still a ton of them scattered from sea to shining sea in the US of A. It’s on the short tracks that just about every young driver aspiring to race in NASCAR’s top series someday cut their collective teeth. While it’s true today that an aspiring NASCAR star would be better served taking public speaking courses than learning to weld, the fact remains it’s on the bullrings, in close proximity to a lot of other determined drivers with decidedly bad attitudes about being passed that a driver learns his craft. Those who join combat and post the best results go on to be stars of the sport. Those who fare poorly end up driving tow trucks and being that guy at the end of the bar telling pointless stories nobody wants to listen to. Frayed tempers, flailing fenders and smoking tires are part of the game and that’s the sort of action that puts butts in the seats. Even today it seems most drivers still enjoy an occasional chance to bang fenders, get some measure of payback and let their knuckles drag awhile. For sure more drivers look forward to the short tracks than Talladega. Every once in a while the stars all align just right and a Martinsville race becomes an instant classic. In the fall Martinsville race of 2015 Matt Kenseth took out Joey Logano to even a score real or imagined. And that same afternoon beneath a rapidly setting autumn sun Jeff Gordon recorded what we’ll presume was the last victory of his storied career as the crowd roared and refused to leave their seats. Whether you approved of what Kenseth did or not surely you remember that race. How many other races do you remember from the 2015 season?
The difference between Talladega and Martinsville is like the difference between a game of paint ball and a game of Russian Roulette.
This little gem of a race track was founded by H. Clay Earles back in that post-war era. Earles’ grandson W. Clay Campbell still runs the track though the ISC (aka NASCAR) bought it back in 2004. Since then more than once there have been rumors that Martinsville might lose one or both of its dates with the “experts” stating that the track doesn’t hold enough fans to make an adequate profit. That’s more than a little ironic in an era where the big super-stadium sized tracks can’t sell even half of the seats available. And the last time NASCAR dumped a short track, North Wilkesboro, one of the dates was moved to NHIS, a track that lost that second date for next year. Hopefully cooler heads prevail and someone in charge realizes the quality of the racing at a track is more important to the fans than silly amenities like misting stations, casinos, social media gathering areas and escalators. For my part I can only say if Martinsville were to lose a race date that would be it for me. I’d join the rapidly expanding number of “ex-NASCAR fans.” To be truthful Martinsville is the only race I look forward to in the playoffs and one of two races I care passionately about run after the Southern 500.
While time pauses for no man, it seems that the tracks founder H. Clay Earles understood the most important part of running a race track and promoting events. Before his untimely passing Earles said, “The secret to success in our business is giving the customer what he wants. When a man plunks down his money, he deserves the best. You try to make him comfortable, give him a great show and make sure he gets his money’s worth. And we’ve always tried to do just that. Your customers are your greatest assets and that will never change. You actually sell the customer a memory as much as a race. If their memories are good, they’ll keep coming back.” That statement ought to be included verbatim on the Christmas cards NASCAR sends out this year.
Meanwhile, I can only add, Thanks for the memories. I’ll be back.
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