Martinsville has long been one of the favorite stops on the NASCAR schedule, for drivers and fans alike. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images photo)
RIDGEWAY, Va. – Churchill Downs. Fenway Park. Wrigley Field. The Rose Bowl. The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Soldier Field.
And Martinsville Speedway?
It might be hard to believe, but that is the list of the oldest professional sporting venues in the United States, in order.
Most of them make sense: they either sit in a large city, or established themselves so early that they became institutions.
Then, there is Martinsville, nestled in the Virginia highlands only 10 minutes away from the North Carolina border. Just over 73,000 people live in the surrounding area, compared to the 13 million that surround the Rose Bowl and the L.A. Memorial Coliseum.
Martinsville is a place that defies logic, even by NASCAR’s own standards.
When the sport expanded to a full nationwide reach in the 1990s, places like Martinsville had their races moved to bigger locales like Dallas and Los Angeles. So why did Martinsville get to stay?
As recently as the 1990s, Martinsville’s place on the NASCAR schedule was not certain. North Wilkesboro Speedway and Rockingham Speedway, two tracks that were near Martinsville and also in small southern towns, had their races stripped away. From 1996-2005, the four races at those two tracks were moved to New Hampshire, Dallas, and Los Angeles, and both tracks closed their doors as a result.
To make matters worse, NASCAR alienated much of its traditional Southern fanbase by stripping a third track, Darlington Raceway, of its traditional Labor Day race, the Southern 500. After 54 years, that race was to be run outside of Los Angeles at California Speedway, beginning with the 2004 season.
By the mid 2000s, many in the Martinsville community feared that they would be next. But as nearby tracks fell off the schedule, Martinsville was in a much safer position. Ownership from the International Speedway Corporation helped, since ISC was (and still is) one of the two major corporations that control NASCAR’s circuits.
ISC chose to keep Martinsville for three reasons: its proximity to the Greensboro-High Point-Winston-Salem market, which has long led the nation in television ratings for NASCAR, its unique layout, and its history.
MORE THAN JUST OFFICE SUPPLIES
Martinsville features two long straights and two tight corners. Many short tracks have tried to imitate either the shape or the banking of Martinsville, but no track in the country has the same combination of flatness and tightness like “The Paper Clip”.
There’s nothing like it anywhere else in NASCAR. You have two chances to gun it like you’re in a quarter-mile drag race, only to have to make sure you make the hairpins that follow.
It sounds simple, but in reality, it’s a massive challenge.
Martinsville’s status as the shortest and narrowest track in NASCAR compounds all of this. Running room consists of two lanes at best, and on-track space is at a premium everywhere here, whether or not you’re racing for position or clearing lapped traffic (and here, you’re always doing one or the other).
To no surprise, the phrases “bump and run” and “chrome horn” both originated here in the 1950s, because that was often the only way to pass someone. There was no room to race around someone, so you had to move them to advance your position.
Despite all of this, the racing at Martinsville is beloved by fans and drivers alike.
“There’s not many short tracks left and there’s none like Martinsville,” said former Cup champion Matt Kenseth. “Short track racing is where everything came from. They’re an important part of the sport.”
“There’s no more intimate and cool track to experience than Martinsville,” added seven-time champion and nine-time Martinsville winner Jimmie Johnson.
In an era where the engineering abilities of the larger teams has made the difference at the standard mile-and-a-half tracks NASCAR runs at, Martinsville’s lack of distance has neutralised most of the mechanical advantages they have.
Simply put, it is a place where the talent of the drivers means more than anything else.
This may be best exemplified by Ricky Rudd’s run to victory in the 1998 fall race. Rudd’s driver suit cooling system failed just five laps into the 500-lap event, and as temperatures soared inside his car, he gritted out the heat to win the race.
He climbed out of his car in Victory Lane and immediately laid down on his back, exhausted and dehydrated. Luckily, ESPN’s main pit road reporter (the honorable Dr. Jerry Punch) also had a medical degree, so he used both talents to interview Rudd while helping to administer an IV!
That determination is a requirement to victory at Martinsville – toughness is a prerequisite, more so than most tracks on the schedule.
TIME ON THE CLOCKS TELLS ALL
History means everything at Martinsville. This year, the track became the first in NASCAR to celebrate its 70th anniversary.
As the sport has changed in those years, Martinsville has largely stayed the same.
There might be more grandstands, and the facilities might have been upgraded to keep up with media and medical standards, but most of what exists now would be recognizable to a NASCAR fan that visited the track in the 1950s.
The fans that camp in the rolling hills behind the backstretch might know this better than anyone. Most of them are there to light a campfire in the evenings among the explosion of color from the leaves, as many did 70 years ago.
Sometimes, the train will even whistle through on the tracks directly above the back straight. The train tracks have been a signature piece of Martinsville since 1947, an ever-present nod to their importance in 20th century America.
Fans flock to the concession stands for Martinsville’s signature food item – hot dogs (boiled, of course, with chili, sautéed onions, barbeque slaw and mustard. Nothing else!).
And they watch as drivers chase both the win, and the seven-foot grandfather clock that goes with it (given in lieu of a trophy to every Martinsville race winner and a nod to the region’s furniture-crafting heritage; the original Ridgeway clock factory sat three miles from the track for many years).
This is all before you get to the textbook history of Martinsville too. Since it is the only track that has been on every NASCAR schedule ever made, everyone in NASCAR has raced here, and many of the greats have won here.
The leaderboard for career victories at this track is littered with current and future Hall of Famers: Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, and current seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson head it up.
Over the years, Martinsville has not just hosted Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races, but has also held events for lower-tiered series in NASCAR.
One of those was an event for NASCAR’s Whelen Modified Tour, which is where current points leader Martin Truex Jr. first learned about the historic half-mile.
“Growing up, I didn’t know much about stock car racing,” he said. “I really only knew what I heard from my dad and my uncles hanging around the shop where they built their modifieds. But I always heard stories about Martinsville. They’d come down once a year to run the modified race here. It wasn’t a Cup race, but it was a big deal for a bunch of clammers from New Jersey that race modifieds on the weekends!”
“I think it’s awesome that we all still come here. That we value the birthplace and the heritage of where short tracks came from in this sport. It’s a tough little race track and I think it’s always been that way. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to conquer it and get that clock!”
Today, that list of races also includes a late-model event that draws many of short track racing’s best from Virginia, the Carolinas, and beyond.
That event is where many young drivers run their first Martinsville race, and has made this a popular place to make NASCAR debuts in one of the two Camping World Truck Series events held here annually (incidentally, Martinsville is one of the few tracks to remain on the Truck Series schedule every year since its inception in 1995).
And for those who complain that NASCAR has forgotten its roots (as many did when the nationwide expansion hit its peak in the mid-2000s), Martinsville is the perfect antidote to the superfacilities that have sprung up.
If you’re curious, the nationalization experiment from the 1990s and 2000s backfired spectacularly.
The Labor Day weekend race that went to California eventually came back to Darlington in 2015, after oversaturation of the Los Angeles market ruined attendance numbers.
While Martinsville wasn’t directly affected by all of the schedule realignment, it did benefit from it massively, as fans who were displaced by the loss of North Wilkesboro and Rockingham came to Martinsville instead.
The surge in attendance, combined with the failures out West, underscored the importance of tracks like Martinsville to the sport: its history is undeniable and its throwback nature provides the kind of close-quarters racing that fans from NASCAR’s home region appreciate most.
Those fans drove home the importance of Martinsville to NASCAR, and NASCAR now recognises how untouchable its two races are every year. Martinsville will be around, and be around for many years to come, as a result.
For me, that’s a good thing, because I miss those hot dogs dearly, and I could go for one right about now! I look forward to the next chance I have to stuff my face with them.