Martinsville deserves it’s Spots on the NASCAR Schedule

                                   March 25, 2009           Dale Wilkerson

After the Darlington Raceway lost a race, many folks have speculated that the Martinsville Raceway would be the next cornerstone track of NASCAR to see a race date taken away.

                This little half-mile speedway, known as the Paper-Clip due to its tight corners, was one of the first stops on the NASCAR schedule. Drivers enjoy it because most of them cut their racing teeth on tracks just like this. In fact, the Greenville-Pickens Speedway was used by many teams as a good testing facility to prepare for races at Martinsville. The NASCAR ban on testing this year put a stop to that practice this year.

                Martinsville is the first track that I can remember attending a race. That first trip to a NASCAR race was overwhelming for this, then, a six year old boy. Taking in all the sights and sounds; The covered grandstand, the train going by while the cars were racing, the sound of those huge 426, 427, and 428 cubic inch power plants roaring to life, the smell of hotdogs, the geese at the pond, the cars that were painted just like the one’s I had seen on television, and then seeing Richard Petty take the checkered flag. It was a great day.

                Then I saw the movie, The Last American Hero, based on Junior Johnson. A lot of that movie was filmed at Martinsville and I recognized many of the sights that I had seen on that first trip.

                It was several years before I attended another NASCAR race and the memories from that spring day at Martinsville still fill my mind when the schedule makes the trip to South Virginia.

                The covered grandstands were removed and more seats were added. Some folks said the place looks better without the old metal roof, but for me, just as I thought when the same type roof over the seats at Darlington was removed, Martinsville lost some of its character.

                It has been compared to Wrigley Field, one of the most loved ballparks in the country. The folks in Chicago haven’t changed much at the home of the Cubs over the years, and that is a large part of the allure of the Cubs, and this great ballpark to baseball fans across the country.

                That first trip to Martinsville, just like my first trip to Darlington and even my first trip to Duncan Park in Spartanburg, the covered grandstands made me think, “This place is special and I am about to see something good take place here.”

                Several track owners seemed to follow the suggestions made by the same marketing firm as most all of the covered grandstands have disappeared. I still believe some fans decided not to return to Martinsville because of the quote ‘face-lift’ that was given to the facility.

                As for the racing, Martinsville has remained the same. The driver that can save some brakes for the final 50-laps normally gets a good finish. Tempers will flare. Fenders will be mashed. Doors will have ‘donuts’ rubbed on them. Bumpers will be knocked off. Drivers may even throw things like helmets, gloves, car parts, and perhaps even a hissy fit!

                Some fans say the speeds are to slow at Martinsville. The pole goes for under 100mph. Drivers will stand on the gas off the corners and accelerate to the 130-135mph range before they stand on the brakes, turn hard left and head down the next straight-a-way. Martinsville is one of the toughest test of the durability of the racing engines, the parts and pieces of the chassis under the cars, and can prove to be a day in front of the heater for the drivers. Not to mention the pit road being very crowded when the most of the field decides to pit under caution.

                “I remember when Earnhardt drove for us, daddy was making a wedge adjustment and his wrist watch got caught. The jack man let the car down just a second or so too soon. Earnhardt jumped on the gas and daddy went for a ride down pit road. When he got loose from the car, he cut about three flips  and landed in front of Richard Petty’s crew, while  at least a couple dozen cars were still coming down pit road,” said Greg Moore speaking of an incident involving his father, Bud Moore. “Back in those days, we did not have a pit road speed limit and seeing my daddy fly down pit road and then tumble to the pavement, in front those cars coming with the hammer down, was more than a little unnerving for me.” Bud Moore was bruised from the incident, but he went right back to work.

                The track temperature also gets rough on the drivers just from the heat generated by the brakes. This can be greatly intensified when the humidity and temperatures are high. After more seats were added in the turns, some drivers said the air flow seemed to stop at the track, which left the drivers feeling like poinsettias in a green house.

                Ricky Rudd, a Virginia native, won the fall race on a very hot, humid day, felt the full wrath of the Virginia heat. He was worn out from driving a physical race combined with the intense heat inside the car. Rudd had to lie down beside his car to try to gather up the strength to complete his Winner’s Circle duties.

                There have been a few empty seats in recent years at Martinsville, but we as race fans need to remember the great races we have seen at this historic facility.

                Darrell Waltrip once pulled the bump and run on two guys at the same time. Dale Earnhardt was leading with Terry Labonte all over him, hounding him at both ends of the speedway. Waltrip was just behind this duo as they charged into turn three on the last lap. As Labonte, driving for Junior Johnson, looked for racing room on the inside of Earnhardt’s Childress Racing Chevy, Waltrip bumped Labonte knocking him into Earnhardt. Both drivers slid up the track and Waltrip scooted by in his Tide Chevy to steal the victory.

                Ricky Craven picked up his first career win, after battling door to door with Dale Jarrett. They hit a few times, but both drivers made it back to the finish line.

                In 1991, Harry Gant charged from the rear of the field, with a damaged racecar, to snag the victory. This was one of his four wins during September 1991. Gant’s car had heavy front end damage, but he would not be denied the victory.  

                One of my favorite Martinsville stories did not involve the race winner. Why when race day came around, this fuel oil delivery man was not even in the race car.

                In 1989, when Hurricane Hugo rolled into the Carolinas, the Charlotte area was pounded. The late Dale Earnhardt had damage at property that he owned and needed to tend to these problems before making the trip to Martinsville. Team owner Richard Childress called on Jimmy Hensley to shake down the car and to give it a run in qualifying.

                Hensley, who competed on short tracks and in Busch Grand National races, gave the Goodwrench car a good ride, as he won the pole position. This earned Hensley a spot in the Busch Clash, because winning a pole used to mean that a driver earned a spot in the Clash, the race for pole winners. This also helped Hensley earn a cup ride, and at age 47, he was crowned Rookie of the Year. If Hensley wasn’t at the track, he continued to work his day job which included delivering fuel oil to homes and businesses.

                Geoff Bodine, who had won many modified races at Martinsville, scored the first ever win for Team Owner Rick Hendrick in 1984. Bodine would later win for Spartanburg’s Bud Moore here as well. That race was rained out on Sunday and ran on Monday. The odd thing was the same weather seemed to linger around for the next race, the following week at North Wilkesboro. After that event was postponed on Sunday, Bodine continued his winning ways on Monday, by giving Bud Moore back to back wins.

                Martinsville has been the site of some great moments in the history of NASCAR. With this track holding a Chase date, we as race fans need to fill these bleachers again to help this Speedway maintain its’ spot on the NASCAR schedule. It would be a shame to see another of the pillars of the sport of NASCAR to lose a race or perhaps worse, to be shuttered like the North Wilkesboro Speedway.

                I have often wondered if the owners of the Martinsville Speedway would install lights, like the other two remaining short tracks on the Sprint Cup schedule, Bristol and Richmond, to perhaps give this short track more of the short-track feel that fans get by attending races at tracks like Hickory and Greenville Pickens.  Short track racing just looks better under the lights.

                There were plans to bring in temporary lighting a couple of years ago for a Nationwide race, which was to be ran under the lights on a hot July night. The television folks decided they wanted the race held earlier in the day, so the hot July weather greatly affected the turn out in the stands.

                As NASCAR looks to do different things with the schedule, could we see lights go up at Martinsville to put it in line with Bristol and Richmond? Could we see a Monday night race at Richmond, followed by a Thursday night race at Martinsville, and then complete the short track week on the high banks of Bristol on Saturday night?

                If you look back at some of the schedules from the 60’s, this is not that bad an idea. Back then teams drove a lot further between events, and sometimes there was racing six nights a week. Besides, the city of Bristol is in both Virginia and Bristol, so this could be called the Virginia Swing of the schedule. This might just be the scheduling jewel that could give NASCAR two to four open weeks to add more races at tracks like Kentucky, Kansas, Las Vegas, Rockingham, and Darlington. 

                I know, those last two will be tough ones to get. But if you don’t ask Santa to bring you new cars for your old racetrack, he doesn’t know what to load in his sleigh!!