The following is a guest post to our blog by Brooks Taylor of Martinsville Speedway.
There are 23 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racetracks and only one has been a part of NASCAR’s premiere series since day one: Martinsville Speedway.
Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, just outside of Martinsville, Virginia, the track has been a part of NASCAR for nearly 70 years.
Clay Earles, a business man from the area, started construction on the half-mile track in 1946. The track was completed and Red Byron won the first race in 1947.
“When my grandfather built the track it had 750 seats and he wasn’t sure if they would be full,” Martinsville Speedway Track President Clay Campbell, the grandson of Earles, said. “As it turns out there were more than 9,000 people here, sitting anywhere they could find that had some view of the track.”
In 1948 NASCAR was formed in Daytona Beach by Bill France and a year later it would run its inaugural season.
It didn’t take long for Martinsville to be known nationally, as the Universal Radio Network would start broadcasting races from the track in 1952.
“Hal Hamrick would sit on a Pepsi crate in turn two and call the races,” Campbell said.
Martinsville, along with seven other tracks, was a part of that original schedule. As time passed, one-by-one, the other tracks would fall off the schedule. Earles however had a plan: Never be satisfied with the way things are.
“My grandfather had a saying, ‘this place is always under construction’,” Campbell said. “He always wanted to make improvements.”
In 1955 the first major improvement came, in the form of pavement. Martinsville, like so many other tracks of its era, was originally a dirt surface.
“People told him he was crazy,” Campbell said. “They wanted to know why and he would tell them that pavement was going to be the future of the sport.”
And he was right.
However, while the pavement changed the racing surface, the track’s layout and design remained the same.
It was still a half-mile in length (the shortest track on the Sprint Cup Series schedule), with straightaways measuring 800 feet in length and 12 degrees of banking in the notoriously tight turns.
“People ask me about the layout or design of the track and I tell them there wasn’t much choice,” Campbell said. “We have train tracks on the backstretch, hills in the turns and houses and roads behind the frontstretch.”
In 1960 a young driver would start to make his mark in NASCAR, especially at Martinsville. The King, Richard Petty, would pick up the first of 15 career wins at the track, including a six-year stretch from 1967-73 where he won 10 of the 14 Martinsville races he entered.
On the same day that Petty would pick up his first win, the speedway would unveil another first. Martinsville became the first race track with a fully-enclosed, air conditioned press box.
In 1964 Earles introduced something else that made Martinsville Speedway standout from the rest.
Instead of the winner getting a trophy, he would get a grandfather clock, made just up the road from the speedway at Ridgeway Clocks.
Fred Lorenzen would win the first clock and in the 50-plus years since the 8-foot-tall trophy has become the most sought after trophy in NASCAR.
“He (Earles) was looking for something different,” Campbell said. “The grandfather clock was, and still is, unique to Martinsville. You can talk to veteran drivers or rookies and they will tell you they already have a spot picked out for when they win the clock.”
The 1970’s ushered in a new era, both for the track and on the track.
In 1972 Hollywood would come calling. The climactic scene of “The Last American Hero”, the biopic about NASCAR pioneer Junior Johnson, was filmed at the track. The movie starred Jeff Bridges and Gary Busey among others.
In 1978 NBC would tape portions of the Cardinal 500 race weekend, featuring Modified and Late Model cars. The races would air on “Sports World” and become the first television broadcast of racing in Virginia.
By the 70’s Petty’s run was coming to an end and two more Hall of Fame drivers were staking their claim to Martinsville Speedway.
Cale Yarborough would win five races at Martinsville between 1974 and 1979.
While Yarborough was already established as one of NASCAR’s greats, another name, Darrell Waltrip, was getting his start.
Waltrip, who at the time was known as much for his brash and cocky attitude as much as his ability to drive a race car, claimed victory twice in the 70’s but would win 9 more times in the 80’s and 90’s. His 11 wins rank second all-time in Sprint Cup Series victories at Martinsville, behind Petty’s 15.
“The 1970’s was a great time for the track,” Campbell said. “It was the first-time that Martinsville Speedway would really start going into homes nationwide. The fact that the racing was great and NASCAR’s superstars seemed to always be at the front helped add to the attraction.”
When the 1980’s rolled around NASCAR was becoming more popular than ever and a new face would burst onto the scene, both nationally and at Martinsville.
Dale Earnhardt didn’t waste any time staking his claim to NASCAR or Martinsville greatness.
“It didn’t take long for people to see how good he was,” Campbell said.
In 1979 Earnhardt would make his first start at Martinsville, finishing eighth. The next year he won his first of six Martinsville races, in route to his first of seven championships.
“In the 1980’s we had some great battles between Dale and Darrell,” Campbell said. “You knew when the checkered flag dropped here there was a good chance one if not both of them would be fighting for the win.”
In 1984 one driver, who was already very familiar with Martinsville’s victory lane from his wins in the modified series, would pick up a win that would change the course of NASCAR’s future forever.
Geoff Bodine picked up the first ever win for All-Star Racing, a team owned by Rick Hendrick. Prior to that race, the team had struggled and was on the brink of closing. Crew Chief Harry Hyde convinced Hendrick to run one more race.
Bodine would win and Hendrick would be on his way to becoming the winningest Sprint Cup team owner in Martinsville history.
“At the time it seemed like Bodine’s win was big because after winning so many modified races here, he finally broke through and picked up a Cup win,” Campbell said. “We had no idea that it would be the springboard for Hendrick Motorsports.”
When the 1990’s rolled around, it was Rusty Wallace who had started to make a name for himself.
Wallace picked up seven Martinsville wins in his career, including a stretch where he won five times in seven races. However, the benefits of the Bodine win a decade before would really show up in the latter-half of the decade.
Jeff Gordon had started to take the NASCAR world by storm. Vastly different from the legends that had paved the way before him, Gordon was a young, talented kid from California who had a bright car and bright future.
In 1995 he would win at Martinsville, driving for Hendrick. Gordon’s win was no flash in the pan and he would go onto win eight more times at the speedway, including his 93rd and final career win, last fall.
“What Jeff Gordon was able to do at Martinsville is as impressive,” Campbell said. “Yes, he has the nine wins, but it goes much deeper than that. He had 37 top-10 finishes in 44 career starts and completed 99.5 percent of the laps. Those are the numbers that really stick out to me when you talk about how good he was here.”
When the 2000’s rolled around Gordon would face a new group of challengers to the Martinsville throne, namely in the form of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson and Joe Gibbs racing driver Denny Hamlin.
In 2004 the biggest change at Martinsville Speedway would take place, as the International Speedway Corporation, which also owns 11 other tracks on the circuit including Daytona International Speedway, purchased the track, but keeping Campbell as track president.
“ISC was able to bring some resources in that we could have only dreamed of,” Campbell said. “We wanted to remain a first-class facility and they are able to help us do just that.”
While Gordon went out on top, it was Johnson and Hamlin who provided the most competition. Johnson first won in 2004 and has won seven more times since, making him the active leader in Martinsville wins. Johnson had also added six championships to his name in the same time frame.
Hamlin, who is from Virginia, finished seventh in his first Martinsville start in 2005. Since then he has won 4 more times, including last spring’s STP 500.
“If it wasn’t for Hamlin and Johnson, Gordon might have a few more wins here,” Campbell said. “Those two, like Petty, Waltrip and Gordon, just really have this place figured out. It seems like no matter what they are always in contention for the win.”
As Martinsville Speedway approaches its 70th birthday next year, Campbell expects the track to continue to be a place where fans know they are going to get a good race at a top notch facility.
“I learned from my grandfather a long-time ago that you can have great racing, but if you get complacent with the race track, it won’t matter,” Campbell said. “It’s because of the commitment that he made 70 years ago and that I try to maintain today that we are able to be one of the most talked about and popular tracks in NASCAR.”
“It’s because of our historic past that I can look to the future and know that the best is yet to come.”
NASCAR returns to Martinsville Speedway April 1-3 for the STP 500 race weekend.