"Modified Stock cars" kicked up a rooster tail of dust during the first race at Martinsvil
Clay Campbell (current president of Martinsville Speedway), H. Clay Earles, Richard Petty,
Richie Evans’ Modified Pinto (#61) climbs the wall at Martinsville Speedway while Geo
Buck Baker won the first 500-lap NASCAR Grand National (Winston Cup) race, the April Virgi
The first race at Martinsville, held September 7, 1947, remains the most embarrassing day of my life. Only 750 of a proposed 5,000 seats were completed, and there were no fences. However, paid attendance was 6,013 for the Modified Stock car event, and police estimated that another 3,000 watched for free.
The people didn't know what to expect, and I didn't either. I knew that dust would be a problem, so the dirt surface was treated with 20,000 gallons of oil, calcium chloride, and water. That didn't seem to help. Fifteen minutes into the race, the place was enveloped in a cloud of dust that looked like fallout from a nuclear explosion. I'm sure it was seen for miles.
A lot of fans came straight to the track from church, dressed in their Sunday best, and got covered in red dust. Some of the women wearing high-heel shoes sank to their ankles in fill dirt that was around the track and stands. Most of them left barefooted, carrying their shoes.
It seemed for a month after the race that every time I took a bath, the water turned red. But I really felt sorry for the fans and still regret what happened.
Paving the Way
I run into people today that tell me they saw my first race. And yes, they say they haven’t been back. I guess they think the track’s still dirt.
Well, apparently only about half of those who paid to see the first race came back for the next seven years. No matter what we did, we couldn't settle the dust completely. Attendance had averaged only 3,000 and, having operated in the red, by 1954 we faced a financial crisis. I bought out my original partners and sold NASCAR founder "Big Bill" France an interest.
Martinsville is a charter member of NASCAR and of what is now the Winston Cup division. I called and told Big Bill that if we were going to remain in business, we needed to pave the track for the sake of the spectators.
He laughed and asked if paving wouldn't ruin the track, because most of them were dirt then. I told him if we didn't, we would be ruined. Reluctantly, he agreed.
It was a big gamble that paid off handsomely. Attendance shot up to 12,000--then a record.
I was a gambler back then. I’m ashamed to admit now that I was a poker shark. I could beat just about anybody. I wouldn’t play a game now for a thousand dollars.
In the early '40s, I ran a service station near Martinsville. Across the road was an inn, run by a Greek friend. One day he called and said a fellow had heard about my poker game and wanted to play me. He said he wanted to tell me that the man's cards were marked. I said that was fine, I'd spot his mark as soon as he put his cards on the table.
We set up a game and I saw his mark, the only deck I've ever seen marked down to the seven. In the first hand, I saw that he had something smaller than a seven in the hole and a deuce up. I had a trey (three) in the hole and was high with a jack. I bet, he raised, and that went on. I knew he had a pair of deuces, and nobody would raise with a hand like that. I dealt. He got a queen, I got a trey. Finally, he bet $600--all the money he had. I took it with three treys over his pair of deuces. He said in Greek that "the SOB broke me." I understood because I had picked up some of the language from the friend who owned the inn, but it didn't make me mad. A few days later, he returned with another $600, and I broke him again. The moral is, it doesn't pay to cheat. Those winnings, and others, went into the speedway.
I had another idea that seemed ridiculous at the time: a 500-lap Grand National (now Winston Cup) race at the speedway. The number 500 had a special significance with fans because of the Indianapolis 500 and the Southern 500 at Darlington.
I figured that on a half-mile track, the spectators could see all the action, and after adding a concrete retaining wall for greater safety, the speedway could accommodate a race of that length. I also felt the cars could go the distance.
I called Bill France and told him I'd like to run a 500-lapper in the spring of 1956. That's unheard of, he says. Well, it won't be after we do it, I say.
A crowd of 15,000, another track record, jammed the speedway for the first Martinsville Annual 500. Buck Baker won in a Dodge. The 42nd Goody's Headache Powder 500, run on April 20 this year, marked the 83rd 500-lapper held at the speedway. At this race, all 71,000 reserved seats--an increase of 70,250 in 50 years--were sold, and we anticipate similar success for the Hanes 500 on September 28th. I reckon it was a pretty good idea after all.
Concrete racing surfaces are not unusual now, but they were rare in the mid-'70s.
We had repaved the track's surface three times in two years because the combination of soft tires and tight turns tore up the asphalt. In 1976, much to the horror of the racing fraternity, concrete was laid on both ends of the speedway.
Before the drivers unloaded their cars for the fall race, they were telling the media that I had ruined the track, and there was no way they could race on it. The only person who had agreed with me was Leo Mehl, Goodyear's head of racing at the time.
Darrell Waltrip set a new qualifying record that silenced the drivers. When a doubleheader was run the next month, Geoff Bodine set a track record for Modifieds, and L.D. Ottinger smashed the Late Model Sportsman mark, along with 22 other cars.
The concrete is still there.
Bill France and I resisted a radio broadcast of the early races. We were afraid it would hurt attendance. In 1952, though, we relented at Martinsville. I think Darlington beat us by about three weeks, but we had a bigger network. They had five stations; we had seven.
Race announcer Hal Hamrick made a makeshift table and chair out of Pepsi-Cola crates and did our first broadcast from atop a concession stand.
Promoters greeted the arrival of television with similar skepticism--how wrong we were. Radio and TV have contributed mightily to the growth of our sport.
As you know, Martinsville's Winston Cup races are televised live by ESPN and broadcast by Motor Racing Network (MRN).
Speaking of the sport's unprecedented growth reminds me of the speedway's humble beginning. I had gotten discharged from the Navy in 1945 after serving two years. The next year, I went with two friends to some little races at a small track in Winston-Salem (North Carolina), now Bowman Gray Stadium. They ran stock cars right off the street.
I told the guys I liked it and that it would make a nice hobby, and maybe down the road, a fellow could make some money off of it. I could see the potential even then. So we decided to build the track. Each of us put up $10,000, and I bought 35 acres. The cost grew to $20,000 apiece--a major risk at that time. The rest, of course, is history.
Of the hundreds of races I've promoted, it would be hard to pick the best, but the greatest finish at the speedway--maybe anywhere--is no contest: In a Modified race (the '81 Dogwood 500 Classic), (the late) Richie Evans and Geoff Bodine came off Turn 4 side by side on the final lap. They got together, and Richie's car climbed the retaining wall so high that you could read his top number from the infield. Richie never let off. When the cars hit, the impact knocked off Evans' right-front wheel, and his car bounced across the finish line to victory while Bodine slid across the line sideways and crashed into the inside pit wall.
The Third-Place guy (John Blewett Jr.) avoided the mess and would have won if Evans hadn't kept his foot on the gas. Naturally, tempers ran hot. I got every police officer I could find and took them to the pits. I just knew we were going to have a riot.
We took both drivers--separately--to the press box and put one in each end for interviews. They eventually got over it, but it was wild at the time.
The weirdest race we've run was the fall Winston Cup event in 1970--when the so-called independents, those with little or no backing, parked their cars. We put up $10,000 for qualifying, an amount unheard of at the time. The independents figured the factory-backed drivers would win all the money and decided to protest by dropping out of the race early. At the drivers meeting, I asked them not to do it, that they would hurt themselves more than me, but they went ahead anyway.
After 50 laps, only 13 cars were running, and I feared we were headed for a disaster. But it turned out to be one of the most competitive and exciting races we'd had. Richard Petty won. When the media interviewed me, I told them it was a better race with all the strokers off the track, and that I might just start thinking about limiting the field to 10 cars. Nothing like that has happened since.
In that regard, I've always believed in paying a man fairly. We used to make deals, maybe $100 or $150, with car owners--especially the independents--to run our races. I'd also give those who had a particularly bad day a little extra after the races. But I could be bullheaded if someone tried to take advantage of my generosity. One time, a driver brought four or five others with him to me after an event. Serving as the spokesman, he sort of demanded that I give all of them some money. I told him to load his box and never come back. If they had come to me individually, I'd have given them something. We've always been a leader in purses at Martinsville, at one time paying more than some superspeedways, and they would have been bigger if we had counted the deal money. The purse for our first race in 1947 was $2,000; for the spring Winston Cup race this year, $1.241 million.
I wish that Big Bill France (who died at the age of 82 on June 7, 1992 of complications from Alzheimer's) was still around to see how far his dream has come. When I met him in 1947, he had in mind to form an organization that would protect the promoters, fans, and competitors. The result was NASCAR, the world's greatest sanctioning body.
Bill was much more than my partner at Martinsville--he was a dear friend. We had a unique relationship. We were both stubborn and headstrong. I don't guess any two partners ever fought each other more, or helped each other more, than we did. We were strong-willed and had our own ideas. When the chips were down, though, we were there, side by side.
I remember once (the early '60s), when I was a field representative for NASCAR, Bill asked to me to serve a suspension notice on Curtis Turner, one of the best and most colorful drivers, for leading an effort to form the drivers into a union. It was a risky and unpleasant experience. I liked Turner and the others involved, but what they were doing wasn't good for racing. And nobody hated unions more than France. I attended most of the races during that time, and as strange as it may seem today, I went fully dressed. That is, I packed not one but two guns. Those were wild days; after every race, it was rare if there wasn't a fight in the pits.
A few years later, after Turner had been reinstated in NASCAR and had retired, I ran into him in Roanoke, Virginia. That was shortly after the first race at Talladega had been boycotted by drivers who had organized into the Professional Drivers Association (PDA). France ran the race and busted the PDA.
Turner had broken his leg and was wearing a cast. He told me that if France had needed him, he would have cut off the cast, gone to Talladega, and driven for him. Even through rough times, Bill inspired that kind of loyalty.
Through the years, I've had a few people ask about buying Martinsville Speedway. I figured most just wanted to know how much (money) I had in it. Then a year ago, Bruton Smith came to me and asked if anybody had tried to buy the track. I told him not recently, that it wasn't for sale. He offered me $25 million. I told him he was toad-low. He upped it to $30 million and I repeated that he was toad-low. That was the end of it. I feel this way: After I got in with the Frances, I tried to help NASCAR, and I feel that selling the track would hurt NASCAR. There's no way I'll do anything to hurt the organization. And I don't believe NASCAR will do anything to hurt me, such as taking a Winston Cup date away. So I don't want to sell the speedway at any price. It's my life, and as long as I'm alive and of sound mind, I don't intend to part with it without a fight.