Pretty Little Martinsville
Author’s Note: Much of this article has been seen before at one time or another. It debuted with this title in October of 2003 on the pages of Insider Racing News. It is always offered with love and caring, as your scribe hopes to convince any and all that it’s more than worth the trip to go and see a race in person at this charming little track. Do yourself a favor and put her near the top of your “Bucket list.” You won’t be sorry, but I bet you’ll go back!
I bid you welcome gentle readers, and our always cordial welcome goes out to our assigned reader of all things NASCAR on this beautiful spring day in the hills of North Georgia. Today we’re going to talk about my favorite track on any circuit anywhere… Pretty Little Martinsville. Please settle back, get comfy and let me take you to Martinsville as I remember her. Yes she’s changed over the years, but I don’t think even the cockamamie “packages” they’ve dreamed up for this year can spoil the way she races… or the emotions she elicits from drivers young and old alike… talented or not so much. There’s not another like her, and that only speaks to her perfection
Just a bit north of Greensboro, North Carolina and nestled at the foot of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, one can find Martinsville Virginia, home of the sweetest little short track on the Cup circuit. Martinsville Speedway is rich in racing history, being one of the original hosts of the first NASCAR racing series, "Modifieds" and "Strictly Stock" which later became the "Grand National" Series, “Winston Cup" Series, “Nextel/Sprint” Series and today the “Monster Energy NASCAR Cup” Series.
The track was built by H. Clay Earles in 1947, and debuted as a dirt track, which was all there was back then. "Dirt's for racin'; asphalt's for gettin' you there." Building Martinsville wasn't the easy task that Mr. Earles had envisioned, since the $10,000 he anticipated spending turned out to be $60,000 before it was ready to race on, but he persisted and on September 7, 1947, the first cars rolled onto the brand new track. Red Byron won the race and pocketed the winner's share of the $2000.00 purse, $500.00. I wonder what Red would say about the purses being handed out today?
Originally, the track had a seating capacity of 5000 fans, though at that first race only 750 seats were even in place. By 1949, when NASCAR was a full-fledged racing entity, Martinsville was up and running and hosted the sixth race of what we know today as the Cup Series, on September 25, 1949. (Byron won that one too) On July 4 of the previous year, NASCAR sanctioned Modified stock cars raced there, and it was Fonty Flock taking home the honors that day.
In 1955, Mr. Earles modernized his little Jewel by adding pavement to her. Some folks might tell you that the same stuff is still there, but that's not true. We’ll talk more about her pavement in a minute.
Martinsville has a unique shape, especially for a short track. It's a long narrow oval, described by many as being the shape of a paperclip. (Just for fun, come Sunday, make “paperclip” the drinking word. Good luck!) It has some banking in the corners (12º), but the straightaways are pancake flat, creating a situation where a driver must accelerate hard on the front and back stretches, then brake equally hard before going into the hairpin turns at either end. Brakes are at a premium and even with all the technological advances of today, Martinsville is the equal of the best and always manages to park a few hapless drivers who have overused or burned out those brakes. For as long as television has been covering races there, the broadcast media take great delight in showing the viewers someone's brakes, "glowing cherry red." Listen for it. They won't disappoint.
Passing on this track is a trick of its own, since it is notoriously a one-groove racetrack and that groove is tight to the bottom. Also on that bottom is a fairly high curb that can and will mess up your afternoon if you climb it. A pass on the outside is a rarity and a pass on the inside is difficult if the car ahead can hold the bottom.
The secret of course, is to move the car away from the bottom, which can sometimes be accomplished by getting him a little "aero-loose", but more often than not it's done by applying the "chrome horn" to the rear bumper. That usually works, though it might not garner many friends.
I haven’t heard yet if they plan to apply the “Coke syrup” treatment this year, but my guess is they will. It has a fancy name that consists of letters and numbers today, but “Back in the day” it was literally Coke syrup and it was used for traction in the pits, so as not to spin tires and rip out a gear or three on acceleration.
Another interesting facet is that pavement I mentioned a while ago. It seems the transition areas between the flat straights and the banked turns didn't hold pavement very well. Mr. Earles devised a way of making it stay put that like so many things, is unique to Martinsville. The flats are asphalt but the turns are concrete, a combination sure to upset the handling of the best of cars.
Over the years, some drivers seemed to develop a knack for handling this tricky little half-mile (.526-mile to be exact), while others continue to struggle. The overall champ would be Richard Petty with 15 wins, followed by Darrell Waltrip (11), Jeff Gordon (9), Jimmie Johnson (9), Rusty Wallace (7) Dale Earnhardt (6), Cale Yarborough (6) and Denny Hamlin (5).
Whatever the trick is to winning there, one thing is certain. It involves good brakes, a lot of patience and at least a mildly aggressive nature, though few of those drivers I just mentioned could be described as “mild.” Saying, "Excuse me" won’t likely get it done.
I first discovered this little jewel sometime in the 1980's and I fell in love with her immediately. She had grown considerably from the 5000 original seats, and housed over 20,000 fans at that time. I understand that number at one point swelled to over 100,000, but like most tracks, some of those seats are now unused. Back when I met her, the first thing that greeted you as you entered the grounds was a huge free-roaming flock of ducks and geese that made their home around a pretty lake situated just outside the track.
They were friendly as can be and would follow you anywhere with the slightest encouragement, like a piece of popcorn or a potato chip. Unfortunately, they are gone now, sacrificed in the name of progress. No one ever said exactly why the birds were removed, but I've always suspected that some NASCAR higher-up or an influential sponsor slipped on something and fell in it. I hope it stained his suit.
The little lake is also gone… drained and filled to house the “Hollywood Hotel” some years back. That experiment is over and has left the building, but the lake will never come back. That’s just not the way things work.
For the race fan, Martinsville is an amazing place. There is scarcely a seat around the entire track from which you can't see every inch of the action. A few at track level on the backstretch have a limited sight range, but are also very cheap. The fans that used to buy those would usually go and stand up on the hill by the railroad track to watch the race. Heck, folks never sit down at a race anyway, do they? The railroad track that I mentioned was situated up the hill, just behind the backstretch and just in front of the campgrounds. At least once or more during every race, a train would come through and the engineer would blow the whistle just to say "Hey Y’all" to the race fans gathered there. The track now runs behind the campgrounds and out of sight of the race track.
Beyond that, there is the subject most dear to the hearts of race fans with ever-shrinking wallets, the cost of attending a race. I figured this out many years ago, but someone actually made it official 17 years ago, and Clay Campbell assures me it’s still so today. "The best all-around bargain in the sport, hands down, is Martinsville Speedway," says Art Weinstein, staff writer for Winston Cup Scene, in a 2002 issue of that now defunct and much missed publication. WCS did a price survey of all 23 tracks currently on the Cup circuit, and came up with some very interesting observations.
Tickets at Martinsville range from $40 to $75, and parking is free. Soft drinks are $1 and hotdogs $2. Camping costs only $40 for the entire stay, no matter if it's one night or the entire weekend. Would anyone care to weigh those numbers against any of the other tracks, like the newer cookie-cutters? For the price of a hot dog and a Pepsi at Martinsville, you'd be extremely lucky to get a bottle of water elsewhere. Bear in mind, these are 2002 prices and though they probably have increased through inflation, I’m assured that Martinsville remains the most fan-friendly track on the circuit.
Current president of Martinsville, Clay Campbell, says, “This is something we have always worked hard to do. My grandfather (H. Clay Earles) always believed that the fans came first and we have kept that legacy alive. People say this is a sponsor-driven sport or a TV driven sport, but it's still fans who make the sport go around, and we want to keep the sport affordable for fans." Campbell continued, "We will always strive to keep prices as low as possible. We want our fans to be happy and that's the best way we know to do it."
Something else unique about Martinsville is the winner’s trophy they hand out twice a year. Instead of awarding the race winners another pretty shelf decoration, Martinsville gives them full-sized Grandfather clocks. I have no idea what started that tradition, but it is singular to this track every bit as much as her shape and her pavement. The drivers all seem to think it’s a “Grand” idea.
Note to self: Find out where King Richard keeps fifteen of those.
Well, let's see! We have here one of the oldest tracks on the circuit, which has managed to survive where others failed. It's located in one of the most beautiful parts of this great country. It offers spectacular racing with no obstacles to viewing, and it does all this cheaper than anyone else does, by far. I'm not sure what the fans of today are looking for, but for this scribe's money, Martinsville has it all. She's been my absolute favorite from the first day I set foot on her grounds and continues to be so today.
The beautiful little lady finally did get a new black dress some years back, after she puked a chunk of concrete through the grille and radiator of Jeff Gordon’s #24 rainbow car, but even NASCAR knew that they couldn't better the best, so the corners remain concrete, connecting the two asphalt drag strips.
Yes gentle readers, I know that since I last visited my little jewel at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, controlling interest has been bought out by ISC, which is merely an alias for NASCAR. Fortunately for the track, Clay Campbell remains in charge of operations there. Amazingly, as of last year, a hotdog remains at the low, low price of $2! The Jesse Jones “Red Hots” disappeared for a couple of years, but fans know what they like, and Clay brought them back. No, they are not my cup of tea and I have a definite distaste for serving me “mystery meat” that turns my bun a bright shade of pink. The fixins are great, (Chili, onions, mustard and slaw) but I’ll tell you a secret few seem to realize. You can get the same fixins on a burger, made with real beef and identifiable!
But no matter the owner or the year, with or without the lovely lake or the birds that called it home, even with no beautiful azaleas to be seen or no train to be heard, may she live long and prosper, for she truly remains to this day the crown jewel of stock car racing… Pretty Little Martinsville.
And with those words, we’ll close our visit for today and enjoy some good ol’ Classic Country Music. This album claims to be the Country hits from 1954. Well, that was a good year. I turned 16 at mid-year. As it begins to play, I can tell it’s the original artists… so many today are done as “covers” and that is disappointing, as I know every note of every song as originally done. Please enjoy…
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!