Turn back the clock: NASCAR's earliest days trace back to Martinsville

Martinsville Speedway celebrates a major milestone this year, one that dates back to the era before NASCAR’s formation.

Clay Campbell knows exactly the photo you’re talking about, nodding in affirmation before you can even get out the words.

“There aren’t many images that exist of Red Byron,” he said, “but …”

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In that historic picture, that photo, there’s the driver who would become the first NASCAR Cup Series champion with an almost-smile of satisfaction on his face. Byron is covered in dirt, wearing post-war sunglasses and a canteen in hand for refreshment. Stock-car racing had barely organized by then, and the historic Streamline Hotel summit in Daytona Beach, Florida, was still a few months away. But that image captured a weathered, 32-year-old Byron on Sept. 7, 1947 after becoming the first winner at Martinsville Speedway, the race track Campbell’s grandfather crammed into a central Virginia gap some 75 years ago.

“If you look back to that day, and if I’m not mistaken, he may have had a rope tied around his waist as the seatbelt, I don’t know,” said Campbell, the speedway’s longtime president. “But, you know, they were daredevils, they were truly daredevils there. There was nothing safe about those cars, no safety features on them, and a lot of them, they drove it to the track to race it.”

The dusty, musty image of Byron offers a quaint early bookend to the first NASCAR weekend of the season, culminating with Saturday night’s Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM) — the 147th Cup Series event in the track’s rich history.

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Saturday’s race will be the first for the seventh-generation Next Gen stock car that has ushered in a new era of racing in NASCAR’s top series this year. Martinsville’s reach is so deep, its first events were pre-Gen 1.

“We were racing at Martinsville before there was a we,” said NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton, soaking in the exhibit that opened earlier this week to commemorate the track’s diamond celebration.

It’s true. NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. helped to organize that first event, but the race for Modified stock cars pre-dated the sanctioning body’s first season of competition.

Roughly 6,000 fans took in that opening Martinsville program, which featured three 12-lap qualifying heats, a 15-lap consolation race and a 50-lap main event. Admission was $2, with children 12 and under admitted free with a paying adult. Byron won $500 of the $2,000 purse. Two years later, he’d win at Martinsville again, but this time in the new Strictly Stock Division that would become the NASCAR Cup Series. That victory helped him inch closer to sealing the first championship in the circuit’s inaugural season.

H. Clay Earles, Campbell’s grandfather, founded the track at great personal financial risk — a peril that heightened after two early investors bowed out, opening the door for France to join as a partner. Stock-car racing had yet to become a sustained, lucrative business, yet Earles was able to envision what might become of the 30 acres he first purchased from the McCrickard family’s farm plot between the towns of Ridgeway and Martinsville.

Earles bushwhacked through an overgrown thicket when he first explored the land. Soon after, his crews were carving out a half-mile oval with long, narrow straightaways and tight turns — a layout that owed its shape to the hills that cradled it and the railroad that neighbored the backstretch.

“The way it’s in here now, that’s about the only way you could have shoehorned it in here,” Campbell said. “And I think that was just a stroke of luck that it happened that way. There are many half-mile tracks all over the country, but none you’ll find shaped like this. It has a unique style of racing about it, nobody else has.”

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Another factor that set Martinsville apart in stock-car racing’s infancy was the track’s attention to fan amenities — a rarity in an era filled with fly-by-night race promoters. After the early years of the rutted dirt track kicking up clouds of dust, Earles made Martinsville one of the first paved short tracks on the circuit in 1955. Two years later, North Wilkesboro Speedway — another charter track for the Cup Series — followed suit.

But Earles also took special care to beautify the track he built. Boxwoods and azaleas once lined the turns’ retaining walls, and even the primitive restrooms from the track’s earliest days were decorated with rose beds nearby.

“I remember people asking, ‘Why do you want to do that? It’s a race track,”” Campbell said. “He said, ‘Why can’t a race track look pretty?’ That was his thought process, and he always wanted it to be maintained nicely.”

Early news reports in advance of that first race touted Martinsville as “one of the finest half-mile dirt tracks in the United States,” a state-of-the-art venue with a spacious grandstand. Some 75 years later, those features remain cutting-edge, including the LED lighting system that will illuminate all three nighttime races in this week’s NASCAR national-series tripleheader.

Campbell also noted what has been a common refrain, that the track’s management team has treaded carefully when making changes around the speedway’s grounds. Martinsville has had to adapt and grow to position itself for the future, all while taking care not to upset the rustic charm of the place.

Plenty has changed in 75 years, but the track’s shape and its spirit haven’t wavered.

“It’s been such a such an evolving business from Red Byron’s historic first win here,” Campbell said. “You’re right, that canteen and his dirty face and the glasses and whatever kind of helmet he was wearing — we’ve come a long way, and for 75 years, Martinsville has been a part of it. So we’re really excited and humbled by the whole thing, and I’ve said it numerous times today: I attribute most of our success to our fans. Without them, we wouldn’t be here 75 years.”