MARTINSVILLE, Va. — The smallest track on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule is also the one that’s been around the longest. But Martinsville Speedway, measured out at just a shade over a half-mile, might not have been H. Clay Earles’ first attempt at stock car racing.
“Clay, he run one little ol’ race … he took a motor grader and graded a little field in Mount Airy,” NASCAR Hall of Fame member Junior Johnson told NASCAR.com. “Anybody that wanted to could go up there and run.”
That was before 1949, when NASCAR debuted its Strictly Stock series; Martinsville Speedway hosted one of eight such races that inaugural season. And it was before 1947, the year Earles officially opened Martinsville Speedway with a July 4 Modified race won by future champion and NASCAR Hall of Fame member Red Byron.
There was only one problem with the location of the Mount Airy track, according to Johnson, and it wasn’t the river located nearby. It was the one-room schoolhouse situated on the other side of the river.
“People would be down there running cars when they had class in that school and they couldn’t hear theirself talking with the cars so close,” Johnson said. “They got up a petition and made him close it down. That’s how he wound up up there where it’s at now.”
Goodbye, Mount Airy. Hello, Martinsville.
“Junior’s probably right; Junior knew my grandfather quite well so it probably did happen,” said Clay Campbell, Earles’ grandson and president of the track that celebrates its 70th year of operation this season.
Martinsville Speedway sits just off Route 220, south of what was once a bustling furniture hub full of factories with names such as Bassett, Hooker, American, Stanley and Gravely.
Up the road they once churned out chairs and tables and bedroom suites and dining room sets and, yes, even grandfather clocks.
But twice a year the rip saws and sanders would go silent, their noise replaced by the roar of engines, the squeal of tires and the sounds of thousands upon thousands of folks packed into a tiny race track that was big on action and full of NASCAR’s stars.
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Fifteen drivers competed in the first Strictly Stock race at Martinsville won by Byron. Three — Byron, runner-up Lee Petty and ninth-place Curtis Turner — are members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
On Sunday, Martinsville Speedway will host the First Data 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM). It is the second stop for the series this season at the legendary facility as well as the opening race of the Round of 8 in this year’s NASCAR Playoffs.
The track hosted one Monster Energy Series race in ’49 and two every year since. Sunday’s First Data 500 will be the 138th points race for the series at Martinsville.
There have been 60 different pole winners and 50 different race winners. Richard Petty is the leader in career wins with 15; among active drivers, that honor belongs to another seven-time series champion, Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson.
The winner’s race trophy Sunday will be a grandfather clock, just as it has been every year since 1964 when the first one was presented to winner Fred Lorenzen. For years, the clocks were built locally, a tie-in between the track and the Martinsville community.
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Earles, who died in 1999 at the age of 86, was “a tough individual,” according to Campbell, “but he came from a tough time in life.”
His street smarts and financial beliefs were the result of living through the Great Depression of the 1930s. “So he watched pennies probably more than anybody,” Campbell said. “They said he was so tight he squeaked when he walked and that’s probably accurate.
“But I guess when you go through the Depression and about lose everything, it changes your outlook on finances and life in general. He didn’t want to go through that again.”
He may have been somewhat tight with his finances, but Martinsville Speedway was the first short track to post a $100,000 purse for a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event.
Earles wasn’t a formally educated man — he made it no further than the fourth grade — but he was wise in many other ways.
Campbell said his grandfather was “one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life. … He could do math in his head quicker than I could do it on the calculator. He just had that natural-born talent.”
Earles enlisted the help of two fellow businessmen, Sam Rice and Henry Lawrence, when he began building the half-mile dirt speedway. A year later, the two partners had had their fill of what appeared to be a dusty endeavor and had departed. William H.G. France, a racer, promoter and head of NASCAR, stepped into the picture, at the time providing competitors in exchange for a percentage of the gate revenue.
Earles was one of the first promoters to understand the importance of satisfying the customers, and took great pains to make sure families enjoyed their time at his tiny race track.
“You can have races all you want to, but if nobody’s there to watch it, it wasn’t going to work,” Campbell said. “He realized early in his career that fans were important.”
Campbell said he recalled stories of his grandfather going as far as to have rose bushes planted around the outhouses on the track property.
“It goes back that early where he thought ‘We need to dress this place up and make it a place where a man, wife and family could come and enjoy themselves.’ He caught on to that really early,” Campbell said.
For years, the grassy area between the turns and grandstands at Martinsville was lined with azaleas and boxwoods and no race weekend could begin until the walls around the track had gotten fresh coats of paint.
“Who else did that?” Campbell asked. “Nobody. Now you look around and everybody has a nice place.
“To that point, he set the bar years ago where the fan experience had to be first and foremost in a promoter’s mind.”
In January of 2017 Earles was recognized for his lifelong contributions to NASCAR when he was posthumously presented the Landmark Award during the NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
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The design of the track, which measures .526-miles today with turns banked at 12 degrees, was determined by nothing more than the layout of the available property — and nearby railroad tracks.
“The (Norfolk Southern) railroad was there (on the back side of the property) so you couldn’t go back any further and some homes were (located) on the other side, so you were kind of squeezed in between; you had obstacles you had to overcome,” Campbell said. “That’s the reason it’s shaped the way it is, long and with tight turns.”
The railroad tracks have been moved back a bit, but it still runs behind the backstretch.
The track, meanwhile, has undergone tremendous change. In ’55 the dirt was replaced with asphalt and by ’77 concrete had been poured in the turns to withstand the pounding of a full field of stock cars.
The original wooden bleachers, which held 750 or so patrons, have long since been replaced with steel and aluminum grandstands.
A $5 million LED lighting project completed earlier this year is the first of its kind at any motorsports venue and debuted last month during the track’s Late Model Stock weekend.
The unique paperclip shape of the track, however, remains the same.
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Only eight tracks hosted NASCAR sanctioned races that first season. And of the eight, only Martinsville remains.
“It’s not the only short track,” Campbell said, “but I think it’s the only true short track. I think you get racing here that you don’t see anywhere else.
“Race fans are loyal. … You come here and you get a glimpse or a feel for the past, see the (present) and glance forward into the future with the lights and things like that.
“Even though we have grown with time, we’ve expanded and done what everyone else has done, I think people feel like we’re still Martinsville, just like it used to be.”