Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: A Tale of 2 Racetracks

It’s coincidental, but still notable, that the NASCAR Cup Series visits its shortest oval circuit (Martinsville) then heads off to its longest (Talladega). By chance, the two racetracks are amongst the longest lasting on a circuit where a decade ago new cookie-cutter tracks began popping up like dandelions on a spring lawn, replacing historic venues where the Cup racers had been doing battle for decades.

Yet as different as they are, Talladega and Martinsville remain two lands that time has all but forgotten. The winds of change erode all human edifices, but in these two far-flung corners of Dixie time seems to move at a less hurried pace. Have a look at the grainy black and white newsreel photos as Big Bill France promoted his new uber-speedway back in 1968-69, and there’s no doubt which track you are looking at: Talladega.

It’s the same with Martinsville. There might not be much left but black and white photos turning sepia in tone around the edges, showing skinny white guys in starched white shirts with skinny ties sitting in the grandstands watching Packards, Hudsons, Plymouths and Oldsmobiles battle… but there’s no doubt where the race was held.

Sure, there’s other historic circuits out there. But Darlington has had some major facelifts and it’s easy to tell current photos of the track from back in the day. Richmond and Bristol have been reconfigured countless times, no longer resembling themselves in days of yore. Rockingham, North Wilkesboro, Hickory, Hillsboro, Islip? They’re just gone, baby, gone… and they ain’t coming back. Yet somehow, Martinsville remains, still successful and still hosting two Cup races a season.

Martinsville actually predates the incorporation of NASCAR. On Sept. 25, 1949, the track hosted its first Cup (well that year, it was actually Strictly Stock) event won by that season’s eventual champion Red Byron. Since then, it has hosted a total of 122 races in the sport’s top division. (The track even held three events in 1961, after rain shortened an early April race well before the halfway point. Bill France declared the race official, but then rescheduled it for later in the month. Yeah, they’ve been pretty much making up the rules as they went since even back then.)

But despite all those miles of racing, the last major facelift at Martinsville occurred back in the summer of 1955 when H. Clay Earles decided to pave his pretty little oval. No less an authority than Lee Petty at the time was quoted as saying management had “ruined” a perfectly good racetrack. But Earles was trying to sell tickets and took note of the fact the growing number of female fans attending his races didn’t like going home coated in dust and mud.

Nor, presumably, did the females who stayed home much care for laundering the clothes of their kin who went to Martinsville races (though if you watch the black-and-white laundry soap ads of the ’50s, you’d note that women of that era attacked laundry chores with an almost frightening zealotry, smiling ear-to-ear like something out of The Stepford Wives).

The last big redesign at Martinsville involved incorporating the SAFER barriers to the track. Unfortunately, that did away with the picturesque flower boxes along the catchfence which, while regrettable, was necessary. Speeds at Martinsville are a fraction of what they are at some other tracks, but one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers ever, multi-time modified champion Richie Evans, was killed in a practice wreck at Martinsville on Oct. 25, 1985.

We, the people, hold these truths to be self-evident: no rock-and-roll can be too loud, no Mustang can be too fast, no woman can be too pretty, no beer can be too cold and no racetrack can be too safe.

Anyhow, despite Petty’s criticism the great racing at Martinsville held up on the asphalt and it’s continued ever since for over five decades. Throughout countless generations of racing, numerous configurations of cars, rich times and lean times, the sport’s rising and waning popularity, Martinsville has been there as part of the bedrock of stock car racing, offering up great events year after year. The legendary drivers and events at Martinsville would easily overwhelm a book… much less this column.

Along the way, it’s none other than Lee Petty’s son who’s won the most at a track that is just a quick jaunt from their previous Level Cross, N.C. headquarters, as the King holds the all-time track record with 15.

A trip to Martinsville is a worthy pilgrimage for any true fan of stock car racing. The action is up close, personal and relentless, while the area where the track is situated is picturesque and rich in history. The folks in those parts are also amongst the kindest and most polite you’ll encounter. They love their stock car racing and they love having you as a guest, as long as you don’t get too carried away and remember to take off your cap during the song and the prayer.

I think it’s because there’s something primal in the memories of stock car racing fans – this is the way the whole sport started, and this is how it’s meant to be run on a tight little half-mile with beating, gouging, fenders banging, tires smoking and tempers being pushed to their limit. This is stock car racing, not lawn croquet.

Viewed from above, the track H. Clay Earles created remains timeless. With two 800-foot straightaways connected with two short and tight corners, the design is not unique; but it is, in fact, timeless. Somehow, their country promoter in the post-World War II era got it just right over six decades ago without the use of CAD-CAM design, engineering plans or bulldozer blades guided by lasers and GPS. He built the perfect track in the perfect place, and thus Martinsville has become an enduring legend. The day they take a date from Martinsville will indeed be the day to pack your bags and leave the circus.

Turning our attention to the series’ smallest track to its largest, nobody is ever going to call Talladega picturesque or charming. Instead, it’s about as charming as a rattlesnake slithering out from beneath the pillow of your infant’s crib. “Awe inspiring” might be a legitimate term. “Frightening” is another good one. But the 2.66-mile superspeedway is the product of one man’s vision, twisted though it might have been… one William Getty France Sr.

See also
Voice of Vito: Talladega Flights - Massive Crash Highlights Superspeedway's Continued Conflicts

Buoyed by the success of the Daytona Speedway he’d opened a decade early and awash in more cash from the factory wars of the era then he could toss away at whores, handguns and booze, Big Bill decided he was going to build him a new speedway. It was going to be the biggest, highest-banked, fastest and baddest track anywhere in the world. It was going to make the Brickyard look like a children’s carnival ride, avenging the open-wheel types which insulted him by refusing to race at Daytona.

If it happened to be built atop a Native American burial ground, so be it. Big Bill didn’t have a lot of use for dead people unless they’d punched their tickets making him money. Even then, France showed a curious lack of compassion for men killed in stock car races, even Fireball Roberts – a man he also called a close friend.

From the outset, there were problems at Talladega. The track came to be in an era where the Hemi Chryslers and Boss Fords were already overwhelming the ability of Goodyear and Firestone to keep up with the speeds on shorter, less-banked tracks. In pre-race testing, the track surface was shown to be too bumpy but even at that, too fast for the tire technology of 1969. The drivers asked for the race to be postponed, as the tire companies didn’t think they could come up with a safe and competitive tire for that first Talladega race.

Even the factories were expressing some reluctance to risk their big names, giving those drivers unheralded precedent to decide whether to race or not. It seemed there was no way a safe and competitive race could be staged. But the almighty Big Bill France had built his speedway, printed the tickets and scheduled his banquet. He expected the drivers to attend and race, even if they might end up the fatted calf on the main course.

That led to an unparalleled showdown the day before the race with France and members of the fledgling Professional Drivers Association, a union meant to protect the drivers’ interests led by none other than Richard Petty. France stared them down without blinking. He told the drivers assembled if they were too afraid to race, then they should pack up their rigs and go home. His banquet was being staged as planned and no sissy concerns like safety were going to spoil the party.

If those called and chosen weren’t worthy of the banquet, France would beat the hedgerows, alleys and backstreets (well that last one is Bruce, not Bible) to find enough drivers to stage his race.

Most of the big-name drivers did in fact pack up and leave. So in defiance of all rules, Grand American cars (Mustangs, Camaros and the like) were allowed to compete in the Grand National race to fill Sunday’s field. To assuage the disappointment of fans, France did offer ticketholders to that first Talladega Cup race a free ticket to a future Talladega or Daytona Cup event.

History will note that Richard Brickhouse went on to be flagged the winner of the first Cup race at Talladega, but that day’s big winner was Bill France Sr. He once and forever put the drivers on notice they might be the stars… but it was his show. He ruled the sport with an iron fist. He didn’t give a damn about their opinions or safety, and if they didn’t like that, they could damn well leave. There’s been no meaningful challenge to the France family rule by the drivers since, though in open-wheel racing, particularly Formula 1, competitors have been treated as invaluable partners in improving the safety of the sport.

You want any more reasons I find it galling that Big Bill was elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame? You could pile up dead drivers like cordwood, but as long as they didn’t cost him any money, Bill France wasn’t going to let it spoil his day.

Eventually, the tire companies caught up with Talladega’s speed. In the era of what I call “The Box Cars” (late ’70s through mid ’80s), the track did in fact stage some truly outstanding races. The relative horsepower of the cars versus their boxy aerodynamics allowed for some foot-stomping race finishes, with huge packs of cars using the draft to decide the matter. I should hurry to note that in those days, races were held without restrictor plates.

But on May 3rd, 1987, it all almost went terribly wrong at Talladega. On lap 46, Bobby Allison’s Miller Buick blew a tire and went airborne into the catchfence. Thanks be to a loving and provident God, the fence held and Allison’s car didn’t make it into the grandstands; otherwise, the amount of lives lost would have been catastrophic. Several spectators were injured, but none to a degree where it was life-threatening. In response to the near miss, restrictor plates were added to the cars at Talladega and Daytona to rein in the speeds.

Of course, those plates were added as a “temporary” measure until NASCAR could find a better way to control the speeds and keep cars on the track and out of the fan seating areas. 22 years later, we’re still waiting for that better solution. (I’ll say here that if in 22 years, nobody at NASCAR can come up with a better deal than the plates, we have to argue whether they are dumber than a sack of hammers or truly equally dumb as an acre of mud.)

The changes haven’t been a fix all, as there have been other close calls since at Talladega. In 1993, Neil Bonnett’s upside down Chevy (with its requisite restrictor plate firmly in place) tore down a hundred yards of the catchfence during a Talladega race and injured some fans. In the same race, Jimmy Horton flew his car straight out of the park and dropped several stories into the parking lot. (In one of the all-time great post-crash lines, Horton noted, “When the first person to reach you after the wreck is carrying a beer, you know you’re in trouble.”) Also in that same event, Stanley Smith suffered life-threatening head injuries that he’s never fully recovered from.

Then, on April 26 of this year, the sport once again smoked a major bullet. On the final lap of the Talladega race, Carl Edwards was trying to defend his line as the leader on the last lap – but Brad Keselowski was refusing to yield. The two hit, Edwards’s Ford got upside down and hit the catchfence with incredible violence. I invite you to go back and review the pictures of that last-lap wreck. This site has some beauties. Look again and stare in bewilderment at how close we came to incalculable tragedy. Several fans were injured, among them a young lady with a broken jaw.

Talladega has responded by raising the height of the catchfence. I’m sorry, that’s another crutch, not a cure. Given the powers that be’s fundamental reluctance to address the key issue at Talladega – the plates – by redesigning the track itself to allow unrestricted, but safe racing, I’ll go on record as saying eventually a car is going to land in the grandstands with catastrophic loss of life. It might even happen this weekend. It ain’t that it ain’t happened – it just ain’t happened yet.

Like Martinsville, Talladega remains unchanged in essence from its original design. But in this case, it’s not because of the fundamental purity and perfection of the joint that Talladega looks the same. It’s because the track was designed by a megalomaniac and his family maintains their founder’s vision that dead drivers and even spectators are an acceptable cost of doing business when opposed to spending the money to fix the place.

It’s going to happen, folks. It’s going to happen soon, though I pray to the Lord I’ll be proven wrong again this weekend. And I’ve never wanted to be proven wrong as badly as I do about this.

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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