I have made it no secret that Martinsville Speedway, site of the Nov. 1 Xfinity 500 – the final race in the NASCAR Cup round of eight – is something special to me.
The reason is simple: I started my career as a sports writer at the Martinsville Bulletin, the city’s small daily. The NASCAR races at the half-mile track in Henry County, just outside the city limits, were easily the most anticipated and publicized sporting events in the area.
They might not have received national media attention other than through the wire services, but regional newspapers, radio and television from Virginia to Georgia were always present.
And, as you might imagine, they were very big at the Bulletin, worthy of extensive, in-depth coverage.
That’s where I came in.
In 1971, I had been at the paper only a couple of months before Martinsville’s September race rolled around. I was told I was going to cover it.
I nearly panicked. I didn’t know a thing about stock car racing. I think I read the word “NASCAR” somewhere. And I heard the name Richard Petty at one time or another. Outside of that, everything was a black hole.
But as I have said many times in the past, I was rescued by the speedway’s public relations director, the late Dick Thompson. He literally took me under his arm. He did everything from explain how a race was conducted to introducing me to drivers, crew chiefs and crewmen.
I didn’t have a wealth of confidence when I covered that season’s Old Dominion 500, won by Bobby Isaac, but at least I wrote a somewhat competent article – well, at least in my opinion.
Back then, Martinsville didn’t look anything like it does now, but it was unique. It had many features and amenities that other NASCAR tracks, even some of the more notable ones, didn’t have.
It had the first air-conditioned press box. Rest rooms were plentiful, spotless and attended. Azaleas bloomed along the turns. Concession stands were prominent and the prices were right.
Hot dogs were the most popular fare. Now known as “The Martinsville Hot Dogs” they still are – by far.
The grounds outside the track were well-groomed and highlighted by a pond. The place looked like a city park. That’s the way the track’s founder and president, H. Clay Earles, wanted it.
Many years after my first visit to the track my buddy, the late Tom Higgins, hit upon an idea. In addition to motorsports, Higgins was the outdoors writer for the Charlotte Observer. He thought a fishing trip to the speedway pond would make a good story. After all, it was loaded with bass.
Earles was asked for permission to dip a couple of lines in the pond.
“I don’t want to hurt the fish,” he said.
Then there were the ducks.
They roamed freely through what was, for them, an idyllic setting.
There seemed to be an army of them. They were everywhere – in the water, the parking lots, at the ticket office door, the track’s main entrance.
As you might expect, where ducks congregate is where they deposit their, uh, leavings. At Martinsville those leavings were just about everywhere. You had to watch your step.
I once asked Clay Campbell, Earles’s grandson and now the track’s president, what he was going to do once he assumed leadership.
“Get rid of the damn ducks,” he said as he scraped the sole of his shoe with a stick.
The ducks have been gone for quite some time now.
That another Martinsville race is on the horizon isn’t the only thing that spurred my memory.
It was recently announced that popular, veteran actor Jeff Bridges was being treated for lymphoma. I’m sure you are familiar with his tremendous body of work that includes some of the most entertaining movies ever made.
But in 1972, he was just starting his career and found himself at Martinsville Speedway.
The track was a location for the film The Last American Hero, inspired by the article “Junior Johnson is the Last American Hero, Yes!” written by Tom Wolfe for Esquire magazine.
It was an eye-opening piece that revealed the world of stock car racing, illegal liquor and the man who personified both.
Bridges was “Junior Jackson,” a character created in the image of Johnson himself.
In fact, it was a Johnson car that was utilized in the Martinsville shooting. It was the 1972 red and gold, Coca-Cola-sponsored Chevrolet driven by Bobby Allison, who during that year was in a war with Richard Petty that galvanized fans and media alike.
In the movie, Bridges was the car’s driver. His crew was composed of several of Johnson’s regulars, including crew chief Herb Nab.
Some of Bridges’s cast-mates became some of the most recognizable, if not famous, actors in movies, such as Ned Beatty, Gary Busey, Geraldine Fitzgerald and William Smith.
I was working in Roanoke at the time and spent several days on the set.
To me, filmmaking was a science. Scenes were shot and reshot, cars that were poking around the track were made to look fast by camera angles, and speeds and actors could change their moods and personalities to match the requirements of the director.
Bridges was laid back. There was not a trace of self-importance, arrogance or snobbery – traits attached to so many stars – about him.
I got to interview him during a lunch break. He asked me several questions about NASCAR, Johnson, moonshine and racecars. He seemed genuinely interested.
I asked him what he had planned after shooting the movie.
He took a bite of apple pie, smiled and said, “Nothing.”
At the time I thought that might be true.
I was so very wrong.
Over the years, Bridges has changed, achieved success and faces challenges. But he is still here.
Indeed, the same can be said for Martinsville.