Race Track Review: Martinsville

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Hello, race fans. This week the NASCAR Sprint Cup series is in Martinsville, Va. at the Martinsville Speedway. This is the shortest track of the season, at only .526 miles. It is also the only track that was there in the beginning of NASCAR. I found an article from Scene Daily that I thought I’d share with you. Enjoy!

MARTINSVILLE, VA. – H. Clay Earles, the founder of Martinsville Speedway, used to bristle when he heard the word “superspeedway.”

He heard it a lot 30 years ago when there were rumors that NASCAR’s top series would be composed solely of tracks a mile or more in distance.

Word was the half-mile tracks, like Martinsville, would be phased
out.

“To me,” Earles would growl, “a superspeedway is one that operates in the black.”

Most of the big-track promoters, who struggled to pay the bills, couldn’t respond to that.

Today, Martinsville, site of Sunday’s Tums Fast Relief 500 Sprint Cup race, is NASCAR’s oldest track. It held its first sanctioned race in 1949. It was a 105-mile event, on dirt, won by Red Byron.

However, Martinsville’s very first race was held in 1947, the year Earles built the track. He dug out the red clay, packed the oval surface
down with oil and other materials and installed 750 seats.

He advertised that the race would be “dust free.”

But when the race started dust flew everywhere.

“It was like someone had dropped the atomic bomb,” Earles said.

Folks – 6,000 of them – came to the  race dressed in their Sunday best. They left covered in dust and dirt.

Bill France Sr. got word of Earles’ track and paid a visit. He told Earles that he planned to form a stock-car racing association and wanted to
build a following of owners and promoters.

“Bill told me that if I hooked up with him, he’d make sure I had plenty of cars to enter my races,” Earles said.

France became Earles’ partner and, as promised, provided a full field for the first NASCAR race in 1949.

As for the dust issue, Earles kept telling France that it could be resolved only if the track was paved.

France balked. He was concerned about the expense.

Earles prevailed – he seemed to always prevail when it came to his track – and Martinsville became a half-mile asphalt track in 1955.

Earles was a self-made man. The son of a tobacco farmer, he grew up in Bassett, Va., during the Depression. He left school to work in a
furniture factory.

He went into business for himself. A billiards parlor failed, so he acquired a service station that was successful, so successful that Earles
was able to get a loan, with which he built the first drive-in restaurant in Martinsville.

I’ve always thought that it was at that restaurant that the famous Martinsville hot dog was born.

Earles sold the service station and acquired another, which he kept for 16 years. He sold it in 1954 because his track required all of his
attention.

Earles engaged in other profitable ventures. He never owned up to them, but stories circulated that he was involved in the “shipping”
business. He operated it during the heyday of the moonshiners, so it’s not too difficult to determine what product was “shipped.”

Earles was also an expert poker player. I once played a few hands with him – I’m not good – and he told me, each time, what cards I held.

“But I gave up poker,” Earles said. “I didn’t like taking a man’s hard-earned money away from him.”

Earles had to deal with some rough characters in many of his enterprises. But he was prepared.

He once showed me his framed set of brass knuckles.

He always carried a gun – always.

Earles could be tough and argumentative. He was especially so when it came to his speedway. He was protective of it.

He had reason to be. Unlike most of the tracks that riddled the South, Martinsville was no bullring.

Earles felt that anyone who spent money to come to a race should have a good time in a good environment and feel it was money well spent.

“If I came to a race, that’s the way I would want it,” he said.

Martinsville’s grounds were landscaped and adorned with trees and flowers – there were even azaleas inside the track around the turns.

It was the first track to have attended rest rooms. It was the first track to have an air-conditioned press box. It was the only track whose
walls were re-painted white each day after racing activities were over.

Earles died 10 years ago at age 86 after a long illness.

Some thought that without his leadership the speedway was doomed.

Hardly.

Martinsville has certainly changed over the years, but it still bears the print of Earles’ guiding hand.

Article by Steve Waid

Brought to you by Sheila Hawley

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