Clay Campbell knows exactly the photo you’re talking about, nodding in affirmation before you can even get the words out.
“There aren’t many pictures that exist of Red Byron,” he said, “but…”
In this historic image, this photo, there’s the driver who would become the first NASCAR Cup Series champion with an almost smile of satisfaction on his face. Byron is covered in dirt, wearing post-war sunglasses and a canteen in hand to cool off. Stock car racing was barely organized then, and the historic Streamline Hotel summit in Daytona Beach, Florida was still months away. But this image captured a 32-year-old Byron on September 7, 1947, after becoming the first winner at Martinsville Speedway, the race track that Campbell’s grandfather crammed into a central gap in Virginia there is around 75 years old.
“If you look at that day, and if I’m not mistaken, maybe he had a rope tied around his waist as a seatbelt, I don’t know,” said Campbell, the speedway’s longtime president. . “But, you know, they were daredevils, they were really daredevils there. There was nothing safe about those cars, no safety devices on them, and a lot of them, they drove them on the track to race it.
Byron’s dusty, moldy image provides a scenic book start to the first NASCAR weekend of the season, culminating in Saturday night’s Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM) – the 147th event cup series in the track’s storied history.
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Saturday’s race will be the first for the seventh generation Next Gen stock car that ushered in a new era of racing in NASCAR’s top series this year. Martinsville’s reach is so deep that its earliest events were pre-Gen 1.
“We were racing in Martinsville before there was a us,” NASCAR Vice President Mike Helton said, soaking up the exhibit that opened earlier this week to commemorate the Diamond’s celebration of the track.
It’s true. NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. helped organize that first event, but racing for modified stock cars predated the sanctioning body’s first season of competition.
About 6,000 fans took part in this Martinsville opener, which included three 12-lap qualifying rounds, a 15-lap consolation race and a 50-lap main event. Admission was $2, with children 12 and under admitted free with a paying adult. Byron won $500 of the $2,000 purse. Two years later he would win again at Martinsville, but this time in the new Strictly Stock division which would become the NASCAR Cup Series. The victory helped him come one step closer to sealing the first championship of the tour’s inaugural season.
H. Clay Earles, Campbell’s grandfather, founded the track at great personal financial risk – a peril that increased after two early investors pulled out, opening the door for France to become a partner. Stock car racing had not yet become a sustained and lucrative business, but Earles was able to imagine what would become of the 30 acres he had first purchased from the McCrickard family farm between the towns of Ridgeway and Martinsville.
Earles walked through an overgrown thicket when he first explored the land. Shortly after, his teams laid out a half-mile oval with long, narrow straights and sharp turns—a layout that owed its shape to the hills that cradled it and the railroad that adjoined the backstretch.
“The way it’s here now is about the only way you could have shoehorned it here,” Campbell said. “And I think it was just a fluke that it turned out that way. There are plenty of half-mile tracks all over the country, but you won’t find any of this shape. There has a unique racing style about it, no one else has.
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Another factor that set Martinsville apart in its early days of stock car racing was the track’s attention to fan amenities – a rarity in an era filled with night racing promoters. After the early years of the dirt track kicking up clouds of dust, Earles made Martinsville one of the circuit’s first paved short tracks in 1955. Two years later, North Wilkesboro Speedway – another charter track for the Cup Series – followed suit.
But Earles also took special care in sprucing up the track he built. Boxwood and azaleas once lined the corners’ retaining walls, and even the primitive restrooms of the track’s early days were decorated with nearby rose beds.
“I remember people asking me, ‘Why do you want to do this? It’s a racetrack,” Campbell said. “He said, ‘Why can’t a race track be pretty? It was his thought process, and he always wanted it to be well maintained.
Early reports before that first race touted Martinsville as “one of the finest half-mile dirt tracks in the United States”, a state-of-the-art venue with a spacious grandstand. Some 75 years later, these features remain state-of-the-art, including the LED lighting system that will illuminate all three night races in this week’s three-time NASCAR National Series title.
Campbell also noted what has been a common refrain that the track management team exercised caution when making changes to highway terrain. Martinsville had to adapt and grow to position itself for the future, while taking care not to upset the rustic charm of the place.
Much has changed in 75 years, but the shape of the track and its spirit have not waned.
“It’s been such an evolving business since Red Byron’s historic first win here,” Campbell said. “You’re right, that canteen and his dirty face and the goggles and whatever kind of helmet he was wearing – we’ve come a long way, and for 75 years Martinsville has been one of them. So we’re really excited and touched by it all, and I’ve said it many times today: I attribute most of our success to our fans, without them we wouldn’t be here 75 years.