I freely admit I have an affinity for Martinsville Speedway, simply because it was the track at which I covered my first NASCAR Cup Series race. Additionally, it was the track’s principal officers who took me under their wings. They made sure my first steps as a motorsports journalist were positive ones headed in the right direction.
See, I worked for the Martinsville Bulletin in 1970, my first of many years as a sports writer, editor and publisher. Only weeks after I arrived, I was told I would have to cover the September NASCAR event at Martinsville.
I felt I was being thrown into the lion’s den. I knew nothing — absolutely nothing — about stock car racing, much less NASCAR.
But I was lucky. The late Dick Thompson, the speedway’s public relations director, was an old newspaperman who recognized my dilemma. He quickly tutored me and taught me as much as I needed to know to at least be competent in my attempt at race coverage.
As time passed, he did a lot more than that.
But there is one thing he did not do. He never forced me to glorify his track. Oh, he and speedway president H. Clay Earles never shied away from talking about the speedway’s qualities – let’s face it, that was their job when it came to selling tickets – but Thompson always applied a different tactic.
“Look, you are a reporter,” he said. “You have to tell who won the race and how he did it.
“But you have to go beyond that. Tell stories. Folks know who won the race, tell them something about him they don’t know. Every driver, owner and crewman have a story. Find it and tell it.
“I can assure you that you will be fascinated. And so will your readers. In turn, they will appreciate you.”
I’ve always tried to follow his direction. And as a result, I have been able to write things about NASCAR people that I could never have imagined in 1970.
The reporter side of me has waned over the years as I moved into different positions in the publishing industry – and into relative retirement. I did indeed cover the news but now, after my extensive time in the trenches, I am more of an analyst, if you will.
So, allow me to analyze:
As many of you are aware, the 2021 NASCAR Cup season has been unlike any other in recent memory.
The number of changes to the schedule are numerous and, in the final analysis, remarkable. Many races on established tracks are not remotely close to what they used to be, and there are several events that will be held in new venues – or those that have undergone significant alterations.
Here are some examples of what we’ve already seen in 2021 and what lies ahead.
- There has been a second Cup event on the Daytona International Speedway road course. There was a time when NASCAR fans would have shunned such an event, feeling it was best for sports cars, notably the 24 Hours of Daytona, and beneath the dignity of the rumbling stock cars they loved.
- But the affinity for road courses has evolved to a popular status among fans, or so it seems. That is largely a reason NASCAR has added even more for 2021 – at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., and the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway that will join the established courses of Daytona, Sonoma Raceway, Watkins Glen International and the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL.
- Bristol Motor Speedway, the only high-banked NASCAR short track in the country, had become wildly popular for the speed and mayhem it produced. It was converted to a dirt track for its event in March. Thus, the sanctioning body held its first event on soil since 1970.
- Texas Motor Speedway will play host to NASCAR’s All-Star Race and Open for the first time. The special events moved to Bristol last year, which was only the second time since 1985 they were not held at Charlotte and the first time since 1986 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
- NASCAR will stage a race at Nashville Superspeedway in June. This will mark the first time the sanctioning body has held a Cup race in the Music City since 1984.
- Auto Club Speedway, struggling for years as a two-mile layout, is scheduled to be converted into a half-mile short track in 2023. If you ask me, this is another effort by NASCAR to favorably respond to the demand for more half-milers – just as it has done for road tracks.
- And on April 10, Martinsville will stage its second night race. Last season, it joined fellow (and nearby) short tracks Bristol and Richmond Raceway with races conducted after the sun goes down.
In one man’s opinion, what is happening in 2021 is part of NASCAR’s effort to restore itself to what it was – especially in its appeal to fans.
I’ve said that before, but it should be emphasized that it’s very doubtful any of this would exist if NASCAR still had its high television ratings, its robust race attendance, its wealth of sponsorship and high fan appeal. All of which, incidentally, have dwindled with each passing season.
NASCAR is, simply, trying to change. It is attempting to give fans more of what they have said they want. It is experimenting in an effort to learn that if what it offers as new is a satisfactory and stimulating replacement for the old.
Its hope is that if such is the case it will be a major step in its restoration. Make no mistake, right now restoration is what NASCAR is all about.
Me? Naturally, I will be very interested in what happens under the lights at Martinsville. After all, it’s an old friend.