Little Martinsville Is the Monster Track of NASCAR Cup Series History
Sixty-eight years ago, when Bill France’s fledgling NASCAR group held its first Strictly Stock tour, eight races made up that initial series. Only one of the tracks hosting those races remains an active racing venue today: Martinsville Speedway.
The littlest track on the circuit is the grandparent.
Not only that, but Martinsville holds a lofty place among all tracks purpose-built for auto racing. Let’s go a little farther with that (and be prepared for diversions).
When you’ve got a little reading time, follow this link to some of the best Virginia-centric racing history around.
This site, a project from Ferrum University, features an account by Brian Katen of the early days of stock car racing in southwestern Virginia, the hotbed that produced Curtis Turner, the Wood Brothers and Bill Blair, recently interviewed by Tim Leeming on the Ghost Tracks & Legends podcast.
(Editor’s note: Podcast is found on the Fan Forum page of Race Fans Forever)
Racing’s early days featured events on streets/roads and then – as Katen notes – fairgrounds horse racing tracks. The so-called “board tracks” had a brief heyday, and there were a smattering of purpose-built speedways, some quite ambitious, like the two-mile Atlanta track we discussed in a recent article, but dedicated auto racing tracks didn’t really blossom until after World War II.
According to Katen, the first of those in southwestern Virginia was the aptly named Southwest Virginia Speedway, built near the community of Adwolfe, outside of Marion.
As the photos show, this wasn’t the most refined facility around, but it sufficed, at least until it went under because everybody could watch the races from nearby hillsides without paying to get in.
Southwest Virginia Speedway opened in the early spring of 1947. By the end of that season, it had competitors, including Martinsville.
Martinsville opened less than six months after Southwest Virginia, and it also had trouble stopping freeloaders from watching the races – as many as one-third of the spectators at the inaugural event In September 1947 did not pay. Nevertheless, H. Clay Earles persevered, and Martinsville remains an exciting and successful venue today, celebrating its 70th birthday this year.
There’s a great slide show on the “Full Throttle” (VaAutoRacing.com) website that shows a whole bunch of early race tracks in that part of the state, which is pretty amazing, considering how relatively few people there were in the area to race and watch. Of course, most of them are long gone, which begs the question of why Martinsville succeeded when so many of the others failed.
Clearly, H. Clay Earles is reason number one for the track’s success. A great promoter is pretty much necessary for a great track. He made Martinsville stand out from the beginning . . . well, almost. You see, Martinsville originally was a (dusty) dirt track, and its Strictly Stock/Grand National races were everyday 200-lappers with about whatever that year’s minimum purse was. In fact, in 1949, it was the minimum, and Martinsville had only 15 cars on hand, lowest turnout of the year.
The next year the track picked up a second race, but the distances remained ordinary and the purses low until 1956, when the track was paved, and the races lengthened; one was 400 laps, the other 500 (later both 500), and they paid the sixth- and seventh-highest purses of the 40 Grand National events run that year. The drivers noticed the money, too: fields increased to 35 and 40 cars.
By the next year, the fall’s Old Dominion 500 was the fourth-highest-paying race, even exceeding the beach-road course event at Daytona Beach. Martinsville was in the big leagues.
So Clay Earles gets a lot of credit, but how about Bill France and NASCAR? It certainly didn’t hurt. What if Earles had cast his lot with the Dixie Circuit?
Looks like an impressive line-up of tracks there, but while the sanctioning body, ARDC, still exists, it’s barely a shadow of what it was then, so maybe things didn’t go quite as well for those tracks. On the other hand, the Virginia history website has a photo of (I think) Bill France congratulating Lee Petty for a win at Lynchburg Speedway, which isn’t exactly a regular stop for major circuits, anymore.
Bottom line, I guess, is that a track needs the right combination of ingredients to succeed, and Martinsville’s got the combo super-sized. For that I’m happy, because the little paper clip is a great place to watch races, and I hope it’s next 70 years provide even better – if not bigger – things.
Some time back I wrote a piece about female drivers in NASCAR’s early days and almost included Virginia’s Gayle Warren, who definitely was a guy. Warren popped up in the research here, too, as founder/promoter of Southwest Virginia Speedway.
In an early issue of Speed Age magazine, I read an interview with Bill France in which he strongly maintained that the key to promoting success was to offer a guaranteed purse (as opposed to a percentage of the take), but make that guarantee for a lower percentage than many tracks offered. His point was that the tracks and promoters had to be successful to make everything else work. Marshall Teague was just one early driver who refused to run all of NASCAR’s races because he didn’t think they paid enough, and there are occasional tales of top drivers skipping races in protest of low purses, including one instance with the July 4 race at Daytona – the current track, not the beach/road course. Another case of “right/wrong” being difficult to judge.
I see Martinsville is having a hauler parade this year, and that’s great, because it’s one of those places where race weekend really gives the whole town a special feel. Darlington’s like that, too.