Racing Beat: Family tradition
For NASCAR fans who sunk their teeth into the sport during its early days, Martinsville (Va.) Speedway is something of a sacred place.
While recent years have seen the series build cookie-cutter tracks in places like Kansas City and Chicago, the expansion has come at the expense of traditional venues, such as North Wilkesboro Speedway and North Carolina (Rockingham) Speedway.
Yet through it all Martinsville has remained a staple of the 36-race NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, remaining a popular site for both drivers and fans. It’s also arguably the best buy on the circuit.
The first NASCAR-sanctioned event at Martinsville was held on July 4, 1949. In addition to longevity, the track also holds the distinction of having the smallest number of drivers in NASCAR history crossing the finish line at a single event. In 1951, only four cars were running when the checkered flag waved.
The dirt track was paved in 1955, and in 1956 it hosted its first 500-lap event.
The history of Martinsville is not lost on speedway President Clay Campbell.
“I think it’s very important, obviously going as far back as we have gone,” Campbell says. “This is our 61st year. I think it speaks a lot for what we have done here at Martinsville, and I think it speaks a lot for our relationship with NASCAR. Obviously the fans still love this type of racing.”
Campbell says Martinsville’s always been mindful of its history. The track, he says, in terms of size and shape has not changed since the day it opened in 1947. “So I think here you’ve got a little bit of a mix of the past and the future all bundled in together,” he says. Two oft-cited concerns leading to the removal of traditional tracks from NASCAR’s Cup series have been marketing and ticket sales. By having events in major media markets, NASCAR can appeal to a broader fan base. And some of the older tracks have seen lagging ticket sales in recent years.
Campbell says it’s the fan base itself – one that is spread out nationally and even internationally – that creates some of the challenges. “Obviously the economy has affected just about everything and everybody,” he says. “And I think the biggest reason that track operators have a challenge vs. other professional sports, our people have to travel from such a great distance to see our events. It’s not like a professional sports team where the majority of the fans are local.”
Attending a NASCAR race often requires a significant investment of both time and money, he notes. With fuel prices at high levels, he says, “it’s a challenge for fans to come in via campers or flying in or driving. I haven’t seen it like this in a long time. Our biggest challenge now is just getting people to travel.”
Campbell says tough economic times affect all sports, and it’s something that simply has to be ridden out. “The way we look at it, the economy is one thing that we have no control over,” he says. “Things that we do have control over