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Why Martinsville Matters

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 cultural institutions.

Then, there is Martinsville, nestled in the southwestern Virginia highlands. 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.

As the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series returns to Martinsville for Sunday’s STP 500 (7 p.m. EDT, Premier Sports, MRN), it is undeniable that Martinsville is a place that defies logic, even by NASCAR’s own standards.

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IS MANIFEST DESTINY A GOOD THING?

As recently as the 1990s, Martinsville’s place on the NASCAR schedule was not certain. In the push for NASCAR to spread nationwide, North Wilkesboro Speedway and Rockingham Speedway — two tracks near Martinsville and also in small southern towns — had their races stripped away.  From 1996-2005, the four races at North Wilkesboro and Rockingham were moved to New Hampshire, Dallas, and Los Angeles, and both facilities closed their doors.

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. That race also moved to Los Angeles. 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.

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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. There are two chances to gun it like you’re on a quarter-mile drag strip, only to brake hard to make the hairpins that follow. It sounds simple, but in reality, it’s a complex 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, whether or not you’re racing for position or clearing lapped traffic (and here, you’re always doing one or the other).

Rarely is there room to manoeuvre around cars in front of you, which means that the easiest way to overtake someone is to move their car using your front bumper. The stylised chrome bumpers of American cars from the 1950s made this easy, and it makes sense that the phrases “bump and run” and “chrome horn” both originated from racing at Martinsville around that time. Both are still commonplace in the NASCAR world.

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. 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 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. ESPN’s main pit road reporter at the time was Dr. Jerry Punch, so Punch used his medical background to interview Rudd while helping to administer an IV.

Rudd’s run illustrates the kind of toughness and determination that are prerequisites to victory at Martinsville. These qualities are tested in most races, but they carry more value at this track.

After Ricky Rudd won the fall race at Martinsville in 1998, he conducted all post-race interviews from Victory Lane flat on his back while receiving an IV. (Steve Helber/ Associated Press photo)

TIME ON THE CLOCKS TELLS ALL

History means everything at Martinsville. Last 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 new media and medical standards, but most of what exists now would be recognisable 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 light campfires in the evenings among the Spring blossoms and the torches of Fall colour from the trees, just as they did 70 years ago.

Sometimes, the train will whistle through on the tracks directly above the back straight. No other track on the NASCAR calendar has train tracks in such close proximity; here, they stand as a reminder of their importance to Martinsville and to the development of 20th-century America.

Fans flock to the concession stands for Martinsville’s signature food item – hot dogs (boiled, with chili, sautéed onions, barbeque slaw and mustard on top). The hot dogs have been a staple of the track since its founding.

Everyone watches as drivers race for a seven-foot grandfather clock. The clock is given in lieu of a trophy to every Martinsville race winner and is 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, virtually 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 seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson head it up.

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FOR THE TOP AND BOTTOM OF THE TOTEM POLE

Over the years, Martinsville has not just hosted 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 2017 Cup Series champion 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!”

“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 modified event has morphed into a late-model stock car event that draws many of short track racing’s best from Virginia, the Carolinas, and beyond.

The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (NCWTS) also has a long-standing presence at Martinsville. The NCWTS is NASCAR’s lowest-rung national touring series, and is designed to bridge the gap between local short track racing and the the national competition found in the XFINITY Series and Cup Series. Many young drivers have made their NASCAR debuts at Martinsville, whose profile is similar to that of the many short tracks they have grown up racing on. Truck racing is beloved by Martinsville patrons: this track is one of the few that has been on the schedule every year since the series’ founding in 1995.

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A RETURN TO BASICS

For those who complain that NASCAR has forgotten its roots (as many did when the nationwide expansion hit its peak), Martinsville is the perfect antidote to the superfacilities that have sprung up in places further west.

While the Martinsville community worried about their races 15 years ago, they watched as NASCAR’s hyper-nationalisation experiment 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. 

As attendances dropped in California and Texas, the loss of North Wilkesboro and Rockingham from the schedule drove many NASCAR fans to come to Martinsville instead. Attending Martinsville races became as much about supporting traditional short track racing as it was about sending a message to NASCAR that the south could still host races with full grandstands. 

That 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.

It took some time, but NASCAR now recognises how untouchable Martinsville’s two races are. This track is the clearest link the Cup Series has to the sport’s history and origins, and Martinsville’s symbolic status is appreciated by everyone.

Don’t expect the racing – or the hot dogs, for that matter – to change much anytime soon.

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James Pike
James Pike is a reporter specialising in motor sports. An American hailing from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Pike grew up near the epicentre of NASCAR, America's most popular form of motor sport. He has spent the last year as a radio analyst on the Performance Motorsports Network and the last three years as a writer for Race Chaser Online. In addition, Pike is a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur, Philadelphia Phillies, and Wake Forest Demon Deacons. He is a graduate of the Motorsports Management program at Belmont Abbey College and currently resides in Twickenham.
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