Celebrating 65 Years At Martinsville Speedway
Sixty-five years ago H. Clay Earles was working from dawn to dusk, carving his dream out of the Henry County countryside. It was the spring of 1947 and what was to be Martinsville Speedway was beginning to take shape.
Five months later, on Sept. 7, 1947, the engines roared to life for the first stock car race at Martinsville Speedway. Over 6,000 fans turned out to see Red Byron win on the half-mile dirt track. It was a year before NASCAR was formed; two years before the first sanctioned NASCAR event was contested.
Earles was a pioneer, a ground-breaker who helped put Martinsville Speedway and NASCAR on its way to successes that were unimaginable in 1947. "You've got to remember he built Martinsville Speedway a year before NASCAR was born, so he was obviously there from the beginning, forging a friendship with Bill France Sr., which later turned into a partnership here at the speedway," said Clay Campbell, Earles' grandson and the president of Martinsville Speedway. "I think anyone that was around during that era would tell you his unwavering support of NASCAR and the things he did to see it grow were significant."
Martinsville Speedway is the only track left from NASCAR's first season of Sprint Cup (Strictly Stock in those days) racing. Earles understood the importance of a strong sanctioning body and was one of NASCAR staunchest supporters.
Even while he was trying to grow Martinsville Speedway, Earles was scouring the southeast looking to sign up tracks under the NASCAR banner. He became a regional field director for the sanctioning body, and in the early 1960s actually served star driver Curtis Turner with papers suspending him from NASCAR for attempting to organize a union.
It's no surprise that Earles was nominated last year for election to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
"While I think it's truly an honor for my grandfather to be nominated to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, I certainly feel he is worthy of being in the Hall," said Campell. "It's easy to forget how someone like H. Clay Earles helped contribute to making auto racing into what it is today.
"There are a lot of people that don't even know who he was, and I understand that. That's all the more reason it would be great to see him recognized for his accomplishments and role in the formation of NASCAR."
As NASCAR and the sport grew, so did Martinsville Speedway. New, bigger grandstands were built, topped by luxury suites. Television became a major player. Amenities were added. Through it all, though, Earles never wavered from his basic premise: make sure you treat fans fairly.
"Just looking at what he did with Martinsville Speedway back in the day when you didn't have the financial resources you've got today really set the standard for which most all tracks live by now," said Campbell, who learned the business working side-by-side with his grandfather.
"He wrote the book on ‘guest experience.' With the manicured grounds around the track, attended restrooms and affordable ticket prices for families ... we all strive to do the very same thing today."
Earles' concern didn't end with the fans either. He was one of the first to understand that the competitors were integral to the success of the sport. "For the drivers and teams back in the day, he tried to see how much he could pay them, not how little. He paid more for a 250-mile race than some of the 500-mile races," said Campbell.
And the day after a race, he went right back to work on the next one. "What money he had left over went right back into the facility. No question he was a visionary who knew what it took to become successful in this business," said Campbell. "Without that thinking, many of us, and I include myself, would be doing something else today"
(This is the second in a year-long series of stories celebrating the 65th anniversary of Martinsville Speedway.)