Lewis Morris was 12 years old when he piled into a car with his father, grandfather and uncle to make the short drive from Horsepasture to the newest attraction in Henry County – Martinsville Speedway.
It was September 7, 1947 and the freshly finished dirt track was set to host its first stock car race.
“Everybody knew about the track. There wasn’t much to do back in those days, so everybody knew that race was happening,” Morris said. “I think everybody from around here went.”
Stock car racing was spreading its reach throughout the southern states and beginning to push north and west as the events drew larger crowds.
Morris’ memory of the first race at Martinsville Speedway was not of a famous driver, such as NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Red Byron, who won the race, but rather one of formal-wear.
“I can’t remember a lot of ladies going to that first race, but I can remember everybody had on white clothes, like they had just come out of church,” Morris said. “Then, it turned into a dustbowl and everybody’s clothes got dirty. I don’t think anyone cared, though. We were all happy to get to go somewhere we had never been before.”
Glen and Leonard Wood both shared similar memories of the red dirt floating through the air.
“You couldn’t see the cars, hardly,” Glen said.
“Clay Earles had advertised that it was going to be so nice, so people came from church with their suits on and we left with red faces and red hair and everything (from the clay),” Leonard said. “They have a picture of (Red Byron) and it shows that he didn’t wipe his face off when he got his picture taken.”
As more local groups such as the Ridgeway-based Hensley family and the Wood Brothers became regulars at the track over the years, Morris said that he began to have more of a rooting interest in the on-track action.
“I don’t think we knew any of the drivers at that first race, that came later when local drivers ran and we really got into racing after that,” Morris said. “When the Hensley boys and the Woods came along and raced, we never missed a race.”
With racing’s popularity both in Southwest Virginia and across the country on the rise in the years after that first race in 1947, particularly after NASCAR’s first season in 1949, Morris said that he even made an attempt at getting into car ownership.
“Me and a bunch of crazy boys went out and bought a race car once and we thought we were going to get rich,” Morris recalled. “We didn’t, but we sold that car to the Hensleys and they went on and raced and did good with it.”
That love of racing born under a cloud of dirt at Martinsville Speedway in 1947 now spans six generations of the Morris family, as Lewis’ five-year-old great-grandson attended a race recently.
“Everybody went to the first race because we thought it might be a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Morris said. “Now, we have a lot of memories over there at that race track…It brings nothing but positives to the area. It was the beginning of racing for this area of the country. We didn’t go anywhere, so it brought something to us.”
Morris said that his family has traveled to other tracks such as Daytona and Charlotte over the years, but “it all started over at ‘The Paperclip’ as they called it back then.”
Although Morris, now 82 and still living in Horsepasture, doesn’t make it to the races in person anymore, he said he still takes pride in being able to say he’s lived his life in the shadow of Martinsville Speedway.
“It’s such a part of Henry County. I’m proud to say I’m from where the track is,” Morris said. “Especially if you go up north or out west and people hear you talk, they ask where you’re from. Well, I always tell them that I’m from Martinsville, Virginia, where that little race track is. It’s something that we can tell people about where we’re from.”
For Morris, and for Martinsville Speedway, it all started when the first race stirred up the dirt of the historic half-mile in 1947.
“I know that first race started a special tradition for my family,” Morris said. “That first race at Martinsville Speedway got us all interested in racing and we still love those hot dogs!”
The Speedway will be celebrating its 70th anniversary during the First Data 500 on October 29. The First Data 500 is the first race in the Round of 8 of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. If the winning driver is in the Playoffs, he or she would be the first to clinch a spot in the Championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Last fall, Jimmie Johnson won his ninth grandfather clock, on the way to winning his record-tying seventh NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Tickets for the First Data 500 are on sale and may be purchased by calling 877.RACE.TIX or online at www.martinsvillespeedway.com.