ABOUT THE SPEEDWAY
Founded in 1947 by the late H. Clay Earles, Martinsville Speedway is only track which has hosted NASCAR Cup Series races every year since the division’s inception in 1949.
At .526 miles in length, Martinsville Speedway is the shortest track on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit. Because of its small size, tight corners and unique shape – described most often as a paperclip – Martinsville offers some of the most exciting and close-quarters racing in the sport.
Also because of its size, fans are closer to the action than any other track on the circuit. The cars are never more than a few hundred yards away and sometimes they seem close enough to reach out and touch.
The track is also one of the most modern, with high-rise aluminum chair back seating, corporate and fan suites and state-of-the-art facilities for the media.
In a recent poll of race fans by a major publication, Martinsville Speedway was voted as the top bargain in all of NASCAR Cup Series racing as well as the track having the best view of the action.
Now owned by NASCAR, Martinsville Speedway conducts three major race event weekends each year. The track annually hosts the NASCAR Cup Series races in the spring and in the fall, the NASCAR Xfinity Series in the fall, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in the fall, the NASCAR Whelen Modified Series race in spring, and the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 NASCAR's biggest, richest and most prestigious Late Model Stock Car race.
Martinsville Speedway's Long Colorful History
When Martinsville Speedway first opened, NASCAR was just an idea. When NASCAR was formed, Martinsville Speedway was a charter member, a membership that endures after more than 70 years.
In fact, the historic Virginia half-mile oval is the only track that was on the schedule in the first NASCAR Cup Series season that still hosts the series today.
Without a great deal of capital, but a passion for stock car racing, H. Clay Earles carved Martinsville Speedway out of the Henry County clay in 1947. He opened for business on July 4 of that year with just 750 seats but a crowd of over 6,000 fans.
A year later NASCAR was formed and in 1949 Martinsville hosted the sixth race in the series that eventually became the NASCAR Cup Series.
At just over a half-mile in length, Martinsville Speedway is the shortest track on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit, but it’s one of the biggest when it comes to action.
The track has two 800-foot straightaways hooked together by short, tight and almost flat turns with just 11 degrees of banking. The demanding layout consistently produces some of the wildest racing each season.
The facility has grown enormously since Red Byron won the inaugural event, but other than being paved in 1955, the track configuration remains the same. But just about everything else has changed.
Today over 60,000 seats reach skyward from the edge of the racing surface, topped by VIP Suites and a state-of-the-art press box. Teams have one of the best garages in the sport in which to service their cars. There is a top-flight care center at one end of the infield and a modern media center in the middle of the infield.
A few years ago pedestrian tunnel was added beneath the fourth turn. Outside of the fourth turn is a large, paved area for the sports' many displays and souvenir rigs.
The constant, consistent improvements at Martinsville Speedway are a part of Earles’ original philosophy which is carried on today by his grandson, W. Clay Campbell, who has been the track’s president since 1988.
“The secret to success in our business is giving the customer what he wants,” Earles said before his death in 2000. “When a man plunks down his money, he deserves the best. You try to make him comfortable, give him a great show and make sure he gets his money’s worth. And we’ve always tried to do just that.
“Your customers are your greatest assets and that will never change. You actually sell the customer a memory as much as a race. If their memories are good, they’ll keep coming back.”
Martinsville Speedway was purchased by International Speedway Corporation in 2004, but Earles’ philosophy continues.
"Martinsville Speedway is constantly growing and we expect to continue that trend for many years to come," said Campbell, who remained as the track's president after the facility was purchased by International Speedway Corporation in 2004. "We review our facility and the operation of it after each race and look for ways to improve. Martinsville Speedway has been a showplace for Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing for more than half a century and we plan to continue that for generations of race fans in the future.
"My grandfather often said that Martinsville Speedway is a work in progress, that it would never be finished. We all still believe that…we will always be working to make it better for the fans.”
It’s difficult to find a word to best describe H. Clay Earles.
He was a stock-car racing pioneer, but that doesn’t do justice. Neither does visionary nor creative thinker, or diligent or persistent.
Perhaps if you combined all of the above, it would adequately describe the founder of Martinsville Speedway. And one thing is certain: he was one of a kind.
Earles built and opened Martinsville Speedway in 1947. What began as a dusty tribute to one man’s vision endures today as a modern speed plant that rivals any in the land.
Earles seen the sons, and even grandsons, of great drivers grow up to compete here. Earles knew Red Byron, Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly and Fred Lorenzen as well as he does Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace.
"I can remember watching Buddy Baker, Richard Petty, and later Kyle Petty, and Davey Allison following their fathers around the pits when they were just kids," Earles said.
"I can remember giving a young kid enough money to get home on after a race because he was broke. His name was Fred Lorenzen."
NASCAR is the premier stock car racing sanctioning body in the world and Earles was there at the very beginning. The .526-mile asphalt speedway, built as a dirt track, has grown from a dusty, primitive operation into one of the most beautiful racing facilities in existence.
Earles, who died November 16, 1999 as Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of the speedway, spans racing's rough and tumble birth to its current mega-bucks attraction.
The track runs basically the same weekends each year and highlights four NASCAR racing divisions.
Back in 1947, Earles originally had planned to put only $10,000 in the facility, but spent $60,000 before an engine was fired.
"When we finished building the track and filling in the lake, we had only about seven to ten acres left for parking, enough to accommodate about 1,400 cars or about 4,000 people," Earles said. "And we had completed only 750 of our proposed 5,000 seats.
"But we went ahead and ran our first race, they called them Modified Stock cars then, on September 7, 1947."
Today, Martinsville Speedway covers over 340 acres. Earles has turned the track into a multi-million dollar facility. It has 800-foot straights, short, tight turns banked at only 12 degrees and has been called "two drag strips with short turns."
Despite the fact that there were no fences and some 3,000 fans were able to watch the race without paying, the initial effort was a financial, if not artistic, success.
"We had a paying crowd of 6,013," Earles said.
Robert N. "Red" Byron, Virginia-born but racing out of Anniston, Ala. and Atlanta, Ga., which later became his hometown, bumped and skidded his way to the first victory at the track. He wore a special stirrup on his left leg, which was smashed by flak in World War II, and the injury necessitated the use of a special clutch pedal.
Byron won $500 out of a $2,000 purse.
Earles always insisted on beautification, excellent concessions and attended restrooms at the track. "We like to think of our track as a family-type facility," he said. "We like to see a man bring his wife and children to our events and be comfortable. Racing appeals to all ages and many of our most avid fans are young folks and ladies."
The track has 26 corporate suites, a chalet village for tent entertainment, a 100-seat press box, high-rise grandstands, a fully-staffed medical Infield Care Center, and a helicopter for quick evacuation of any seriously injured person.
Improvements continue to change the face of the facility each year, and it has evolved from a nightmare to a dream. But the track itself and the battles that go on there are little different from 1947 when Red Byron won the first race.
Martinsville is a driver's track where exchanging paint is commonplace and no car completes 500 laps without body damage. But, with its long straight-aways and short, tight turns, such is expected.
The winners at Martinsville compose a "Who's Who"" among drivers. The King, retired driver Richard Petty, still leads all modern era Winston Cup winners with 15 victories although his last victory came in the spring of 1979.
Darrell Waltrip is second to Petty with 11 wins, while the victory list includes Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt, Fred Lorenzen, Geoff Bodine, Harry Gant, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Ernie Irvan, Bobby Isaac, Buck Baker, Junior Johnson, Morgan Shepherd, Buddy Baker, Dave Marcis, David Pearson, Earl Ross, Bob Welborn, Lee Petty, Jim Paschal, Jim Massey, Bill Amick, Fireball Roberts, Rex White, Tom Pistone, Joe Weatherly and Nelson Stacy.
Ray Hendrick, who died in 1990, still leads the track's modern era win list for Modified, Grand National and Late Model Stock cars with 20 victories followed by the late Richie Evans with 10.
Over the years, the fans enjoyed wild, action-packed events and even though there were numerous wrecks and flips, there were few serious injuries.
Tony Siscone, seriously burned in a Modified wreck in the 1982 Cardinal 500 Classic, returned two years later to win the same event in one of the most emotional victory lanes ever witnessed at the track.
Tragedy struck the speedway during practice for the October 1985 triple-header. NASCAR National Modified Champion Evans of Rome, N.Y. died instantly when his Chevrolet crashed into the wall between the third and fourth turns during practice.
In the 1987 spring Miller 500 Classic, another Modified veteran, Charlie Jarzombek of Baiting Hollow, N.Y., was killed when his Pontiac crashed into the wall between the first and second turns.
"Those were the two worst days of my life," Earles said. "You have to remember that everyone in racing is like a family. When anyone in racing dies, it's like losing someone in your family and it hurts.
In 51 years, what was the best race Earles has seen at his track?
"Well, after all those races, I can't say which was the best, but I know which one had the best finish," he said.
"In the Modified half of the 1981 Dogwood 500, Richie Evans and Geoff Bodine came off turn four side by side going for the checkered flag. They got together and Richie’s car climbed up on the retaining wall so high you could read the number on the top of his car from the infield.
"He never let off. Geoff crashed into the inside retaining wall and Richie, with his right front wheel coming off from the impact, came bouncing across the finish line to win on three wheels.
"In my opinion, that was the greatest finish of any race, anywhere."
Earles' efforts in racing did not go unnoticed. He has been honored by NASCAR, Winston, the National Motorsports Press Association with its Myers Brothers Memorial Award, the Virginia General Assembly, Virginia's Governor, the Department of Justice, the City of Martinsville, the Navy, and the Air Force with it's "American Spirit" award, which first was received by Bob Hope.
And in 1994, he received the GM Goodwrench/L.G. DeWitt Lifetime Service Award, honoring his lifelong commitment and dedication to NASCAR Winston Cup racing.
In 1984, Earles was honored at a testimonial dinner and one of his awards was the establishing of the H. Clay Earles Scholarship for Automotive Technology at Patrick Henry Community College.
Since he first built the track, Earles' promoting philosophy was simple and effective. He took care of the fans and the competitors.
A year never went by that Earles didn't add something, from seats to restrooms.
"The secret to success in our business is giving the customer what he wants," Earles said. "When a man plunks down his money, he deserves the best. You try to make him comfortable, give him a great show and make sure he gets his money's worth. And we've always tried to do just that.
"Your customers are your greatest asset. And that will never change. You actually sell the customer a memory as much as a race. If his memory of Martinsville Speedway is good, he'll keep coming back.
"Racing will change, continue to grow, and you can thank the fans for that. They are the best fans in the world."
And Martinsville Speedway will continue to change and grow, all for the better.