50 Years of nascar racing ~ Martinsville In The Spring (Post 49)
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor's note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin's "50 Years of NASCAR Racing", written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration that year. Matt has kindly granted me permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
With the demise of North Wilkesboro, the sole remaining track that has hosted a race every year of NASCAR's senior division's history is the tiny Martinsville Speedway located in extreme southern Virginia , only a few miles from the North Carolina border. The track opened right after World War II in 1947, built by H. Clay Earles. In those days a man built a race track because he loved auto racing and hoped to be able to make a few bucks, not because he was planning to become a millionaire overnight. Even a forward thinker like Mr. Earles probably couldn't have imagined the economies of racing today, and the track he built stands as a tribute to NASCAR's roots, amidst all the larger, fancier superspeedways that seem to be cropping up like crab grass lately.
There are enough stories to tell about racing at the beautiful little track to fill a book, but here are some of the highlights. In April of 1960, a young man became a first time winner at the track, and in fact it was only the second race he had won, and the first on asphalt. That man's name was Richard Petty, and he would go on to win a record total of 15 races at Martinsville. A little over 19 years later Richard won again at the same track, scoring his first win in a Chevrolet that day. More importantly, it snapped the King's slump on short tracks that dated back to the fall event at Bristol in 1975. The Monte Carlo that carried Petty to that victory showed its fair share of battle scars, a trademark of the tight racing at Martinsville, and there were a few more lines around the King's eyes after all those years squinting into the sun, watching for the checkered flag, but his trademark smile remained the same as it had been almost two decades before in victory lane.
Another driver to chalk up his first Grand National victory at Martinsville was Fred Lorenzen, though he did so in a rather unusual fashion. The race was scheduled for 500 laps or 250 miles. On lap 119 Lorenzen drove his fleet Holman- Moody Ford around pole sitter Rex White to take the lead for the first time. On lap 149 a driving rain forced NASCAR to throw the red flag well before the halfway point that would have signaled an official race. The forecast was not good for resuming racing that day, so Earles and Bill France jointly decided it would be easier for everyone involved if the race was declared official and a new 250 mile race at Martinsville be inserted into the schedule April 30th. The drivers were awarded their points and prizes, and came back to try it again a few weeks later. Fast Freddie almost pulled off the sweep in the added event, leading for the first three quarters of the race until a faltering engine sent him to the pits for a lengthy repair session. Junior Johnson inherited the lead and had a four lap advantage on the field. His car owner, Rex Lovette, grew concerned at the blistering pace that Johnson was setting, despite the lead he had that late in the race. Junior had won more than a few races, but he was such a hard charger he had blown up or wrecked more than a few cars while leading as well. Lovette signaled Junior repeatedly via the pit board to ease up and save the car. Junior flew on heedlessly, driving the only way he knew how, flat out. During the final pit stop, Lovette found a way to get Junior's attention, leaning in the car with a sledge hammer cocked behind him, asking Johnson somewhat less politely if perhaps slowing down a bit wouldn't be a good idea. Junior agreed and while Lovette put the hammer down, Junior eased up a little on the throttle and took the win.
In more modern times, first time winners would score their victories at Martinsville as well. Unlike the superspeedways, where the big dollar cars and their horsepower advantage over the smaller teams and independents made the big teams clear favorites, Martinsville was a driver's track where strategy and luck often won out over brute horsepower. That same brute horsepower, coupled with the demands faster cars put on brakes, often caused mechanical problems, felling the Goliaths of the sport and letting the underrated Davids win. The half-mile short track was also a more familiar stomping ground for graduates from the sportsman ranks, and therefore more comfortable for them and their driving styles. While Ricky Rudd took the pole in the DiGard entry for the 1981 Spring race at Martinsville, Harry Gant took the outside pole, and perennial independents Buddy Arrington and Butch Lindley lined up right behind them. Starting 12th was reigning Sportsman Champion Morgan Shepherd in a Cliff Stewart owned Pontiac, that had arrived at the track being towed on an open trailer behind a pickup truck, not inside an 18 wheeler. Attrition took its toll that day on the favorites, with Darrell Waltrip, Benny Parsons, Cale Yarborough, and Dale Earnhardt all losing engines, and Richard Petty caught up in a crash. Shepherd emerged as a contender early in the race, powered his Pontiac into the lead for the final time on lap 387, and cruised to a 15-second win over Neil Bonnett. Besides being Morgan's first win, it was also the first time a Pontiac won an event since 1963, despite the fact Buicks were dominating that year's Winston Cup races.
Dave Marcis also scored his first career victory at Martinsville in the fall of 1975. Dave employed a conservative strategy, saving his brakes, while Benny Parsons burned up the brakes of his Chevy going for the win. Despite teaming up with Harry Hyde in the famous K and K Insurance Dodge, Marcis had not gone into the race as one of the favorites. Richard Petty, a perennial threat at Martinsville, chewed up his differential before the halfway point. Cale Yarborough took command of the event but wrecked his car on lap 394 trying to get around a lapped vehicle. Darrell Waltrip inherited the lead and he too seemed headed for certain victory when his DiGard Chevy lost an engine on lap 421. That left it for Parsons and Marcis to decide it among themselves, and in the end it was Dave's saving his brakes that allowed him to score his first win. For a driver who had been competing since 1968 without a victory, the day was a fitting tribute to his dedication, determination and ability to endure near endless frustration. Marcis had found out about every possible way to lose a race. That day he finally figured out how to win one.
Another driver who scored his first win at Martinsville, who must have felt as much relief as elation in victory lane was Harry Gant, in the spring of 1982. Once again, mechanical problems plagued many favorites, with Benny Parsons, Tim Richmond, Richard Petty, Geoff Bodine, Dale Earnhardt, and Bobby Allison all making early exits from the race. In fact the race was so tough on equipment that only 14 of 32 starters were running at the checkered flag. Darrell Waltrip had a special day as well. The engine in the car went bad race morning and had to be replaced. During the race, Darrell suffered two blow outs and hit the wall twice. Remarkably, he managed to finish in fifth place, though he was four laps behind. That left the battle for the win to Harry Gant, and a surprisingly strong Butch Lindley. A late race gas and go stop dropped Lindley a lap off the pace, and Gant went on to take the win. Making the victory that much sweeter was how close Handsome Harry had come to wins before, scoring no less than ten second place finishes.
Another first time winner visited Martinsville's victory lane in 1984. Defending Winston Cup champion Bobby Allison and runner up in the '83 points, Darrell Waltrip, put on quite a show that day, dominating the middle stages of the event. There was no love lost between the two drivers and they were often only inches apart. Ricky Rudd mixed it up with those two drivers as well, until mechanical problems in his Bud Moore Ford relegated him to a disappointing 18th place finish, 13 laps off the pace. Geoff Bodine emerged out of the pack to take the lead on lap 452, and from that point on he had the car to beat. Another surprise, Ron Bouchard, got around Allison and Waltrip and gave it his best shot, but Bodine managed to hold on to beat him by six seconds. It was also the first victory for Bodine's car owner, Rick Hendrick, in the eighth race of the team's inaugural season. Of course Hendrick-owned cars have gone on to victory lane a few times since then, 71 times by the end of the '97 season in fact, and have claimed the last three Winston Cup titles, but it all started that day at Martinsville. While Bodine and Hendrick were new faces in victory lane, their crew chief's was not. The late Harry Hyde, the same crew chief who helped Dave Marcis score his first victory at the same track, and had visited winner's circle at Martinsville with Bobby Isaac before that, was calling the shots for Bodine from the pits that day. Harry Hyde remains one of the legends of Martinsville, one of a very long list of heroes at the tiny little track H. Clay Earles built over fifty years ago.
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