Monday, October 27, 2014

Martinsville Memories

A “sense of place” is important to me. I’m much more interested in a place after I have visited there, and have an understanding of the overall surroundings. I need to know what is beyond the borders of a picture (or the television screen). My mind likes to have its own panoramic mental picture.

Sometimes it is good to “recalibrate” your sense of place by revisiting spots that have changed over the years. Such was the case with my recent trip to southern Virginia, through the beautiful autumn colors, to reunite with Martinsville Speedway.

My first NASCAR race was the 1965 Daytona 500—my next NASCAR races were at Martinsville, beginning in 1967. Our annual spring pilgrimage to the Virginia 500 continued into the mid-‘70s, and originally involved taking numerous two-lane highways to arrive at our destination. Dad took me to lots of local racetracks in the tri-state area, but as a youngster, my one trip a year to see the big stars of NASCAR compete was to Martinsville—the closest track to our home. We would generally park in the infield along the fence leading into the third turn, with a good view of the big “human powered” scoreboard above the landscaped boxwood shrubbery lining the outer walls. Martinsville was a beautiful track, and even included a small lake just outside the track which contributed to its impeccable park-like environment.

I took this picture at the Dogwood 500 in the late '70s.
Notice the shrubbery and the scoreboard.

During my youth in the ‘60s and ‘70s, racing was a cult sport and mostly ignored by the mainstream newsmedia. Often we would not know who won Sunday’s big race until our beloved Speed Sport newspaper would arrive by mail every Thursday. Only the biggest races might merit tape-delayed, partial coverage the following Saturday on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. I often wished that someday my sport of auto racing would become as big as football/baseball/basketball sports that interested my peers as well as the general public. However, from that na├»ve childhood desire, I learned to be careful what you wish for!

With the advent of ESPN (as well as improved camera technology), television coverage of auto racing began to take off in the 1980s. By the 1990s, the Tom Cruise movie “Days of Thunder” seemed to bring in tons of new race fans—many of whom had little appreciation for the history of the sport, and often seemed most interested in the crashes. Plus, big money really moved into the sport, making sponsorships more important than driver talent or managerial ethics. Ticket prices and traffic headaches were other discouraging effects. Somehow, my beloved NASCAR seemed to edge closer to evolving into a combination of daytime soap operas and WWE wrestling.

The big business aspect has taken some of the fun out of my sport. I still follow it, and watch it on TV occasionally, but haven’t been to an actual Sunday NASCAR race for over twenty years. However, last Friday I had the opportunity to stop by Martinsville for their practice and qualifying day. Tickets are only $15, with free parking and no traffic hassles. The weather looked great so I decided to check it out again to revitalize my sense of place and create some new mental pictures.

Since my last visit to Martinsville about 35 years ago, I knew from television coverage that the track had changed. The old concrete seats crammed between the backstretch and the railroad tracks (where I sat one race weekend) are now covered with huge billboard signs angling down towards the track itself. Massive grandstands arc around the turns at both ends of the track (no more human powered scoreboard or immaculately trimmed shrubbery). The stands on the front stretch are several times higher than the old covered grandstand used to be. No one gets to drive their car into the infield to watch these days because the massive car haulers now used by every team are intricately parked adjacent to each other, filling up most of the space (along with the new covered garage area).

The new look of the track from high up in the stands near Turn One.

I drove to the track via a new route, coming across Route 58 from I-77 at Hillsville. Although there is still some stretches of two-lane road on Route 58 (including the beautiful “Lovers Leap” overlook), the vast majority of my trip was on four-lane highways—a big improvement over the old days!

Fall colors from the roadside pull-off at Lovers Leap.

I came into the track entrance from the south on U.S. 220, and discovered that the old entrance street had been replaced by a new multi-lane entrance road. The lake had been drained and converted into “fan zone” filled with souvenir trailers, show cars, food concessions, etc. The track’s business office behind the grandstand was at least in the same spot, although expanded. It all looked different to me—except that the old TraveLodge motel (now under a different name) still stands on the southbound side of 220 just outside the track (although we stayed there a few times when I was a kid, it doesn’t look near as nice as I remembered it—I guess we are both getting old and showing our age).

An interesting surprise for me was that the late Wendell Scott from nearby Danville, Virginia was being honored this weekend. Wendell had been the only black driver on the NASCAR circuit (the Richard Pryor movie “Greased Lightning” was based on Wendell), and he endured a lot of crap in a southern sport during the ‘60s, but still competed on a shoestring budget because he loved to race. Wendell was recently voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame this year, even though he only won one race in his entire career. As a tribute to him this weekend, one of the cars, as well as one of the race trucks, were running as #34 with a special “old school” Wendell Scott paint scheme. I can remember seeing Wendell run during my childhood visits to Martinsville, and it was nice to see “his car” running on the same track again. [As it turned out, the #34 truck won the race on Saturday, and the #34 car had a top ten finish on Sunday.]

Darrell Wallace in his Wendell Scott tribute truck--his victory last year in this race made him the first black to win a NASCAR race since Wendell.

During my visit on Friday, I made a point to eat a hot dog from the concession stand at the race track. Martinsville has always prided itself on the quality of its hotdogs, even back when I was a kid. I was glad to see that the $2 price tag was within reason in this day and age (I don’t remember—and I don’t think I want to know—how cheap they were in 1967).

I had a wonderful day at the track! I’m so glad I made the effort to check out Martinsville again and recalibrate my memories. During the day, I moved around to sit from various vantage points, including some particular seating areas that I could remember from times in the past when I sat in the grandstands. It was fun to put myself back in the same geographical spot where I sat all those many years ago.

The view towards Turn One, without the roof
that used to be over the main grandstand.

Sometimes change can be beneficial. Even though I miss the old-fashioned human powered scoreboard, I must admit the new-fangled huge video screen towering above the center of the infield does provide excellent information as well as replays. The electronic telemetry made it easy to keep up with which cars were turning the fastest laps in real time.

Despite all the changes, I still got to see a reminder of the old scoreboard, the shrubbery, and one of my childhood heroes. Fortunately, I discovered (underneath the back of the main grandstand) there are about half a dozen billboard-sized signs displaying black-and-white pictures of classic Martinsville action, featuring Junior Johnson, Darrell Waltrip, and others. Best of all, though, was a nostalgic picture of Richard Petty, in his 1967 Plymouth, entering the fourth turn with the shrubbery and old scoreboard behind him. It was likely taken at the exact Virginia 500 that was my first race at Martinsville (which Petty won), and I loved seeing it again! I certainly haven’t forgotten that day, and I’m glad that the Martinsville Speedway hasn’t totally forgotten it either. Hopefully it won’t be another 35 years before I come back to Martinsville again.

My favorite billboard under the bleachers.
Notice the men who manually kept the scoreboard correct.

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