Memories at Martinsville
By Rick Kavanagh
On a recent trip to North Carolina, to attend the “Chase-Race” at the oldest and smallest oval on the NASCAR circuit, my wife Michelle and I decided to take a few side trips before the race. With the continuing down turn in the economy, we decided to visit the latest home of the Gilette-Evernham-Petty merger at Statesville, North Carolina.
The short drive to the Statesville Airport area lead us to a three building complex that Ray Evernham had organized with Bill Elliott to launch the re-born Dodge assault on NASCAR back in 2001. Today, Richard Petty Motorsports houses the Dodge Chargers of Kasey Kahne #9, Elliott Sadler #19, Reed Sorenson #43 and A.J. Almendinger #44. While these C.O.T. race cars are Dodge Chargers in decals only, they still represent the latest race car technology that NASCAR’s cloning rules allow. No doubt, the beauty of these race cars lies within the beautiful workmanship and over 880 hp. under the hood. Having seen the cars and toured the race shop, we decided to make our way to our accommodations at Greensboro, touring the beautiful countryside and indulging in some great North Carolina barbeque.
Saturday morning started out raining and cloudy, but we could live with this day being wet, since the big race at Martinsville was scheduled for Sunday. As we headed down Old Randleman road, we were meandering not only through beautiful countryside, but heading towards Randleman North Carolina to take in the NASCAR festival in its downtown. Randleman is one of those “mill hill” towns that just happens to be the home for the Richard Petty Museum and Victory Junction Gang Camp. While the rain put a damper on the festival, there were still bands playing Country – Gospel tunes, while we spotted a display of vintage race cars parked in the local gas station, just like we experienced as kids in the 50’s. With the rain showers continuing to dampen the day, but not our spirits we decided to head a short distance up the road to Level Cross. As we pulled in to Petty Enterprises, now called “Petty’s Garage” the Richard Petty Fan Club was hosting an open house and we quickly made our way under cover, in a complex of buildings that goes back to 1949, the infancy of NASCAR stock car racing.
While having visited the modern complex at Statesville, we now felt that we were surrounded in a time capsule, rarely opened to the public. On this day the bright red painted floors and while shop’s walls were home of many of Petty Enterprises race cars, on the left side, while on the right side were some of Richard’s personal car collection. We were surrounded by racing history from the famed STP race cars up to last season’s 50th anniversary Dodge Charger C.O.T., as we took in the history and were able to visit with members of the fan club, and while Richard signed autographs and Linda visited with everyone.
A charity motorcycle ride was dampened by the rain showers but the catered barbeque was excellent as we dined within the same walls that once fabricated the Plymouths, Dodges and even Pontiacs that took both Lee and Richard Petty as well as Kyle and Adam to decades of NASCAR wins.
After lunch, Michelle and I had a chance to walk around the rest of the Petty compound. While the Petty Garage is no longer producing race cars, its workers are restoring them as well as building hot rods. Next to the shop sits the family home of Lee and Elizabeth Petty, where Richard and his brother Maurice grew up but the real treasure was a walk behind the shop where we spotted a couple of gems. There back in the weeds, was a white 1950 Dodge coupe and a 1948 Chrysler discarded but not forgotten, as a reminder of the beginnings of Lee Petty’s career, with a simple #42 painted on the door. Also on the edge of the driveway was one of the old Petty Enterprises work horses, a cab over Dodge tractor, that used to haul the famed #43 Dodge Chargers to the races back in the 1970’s. It sat there complete hopefully awaiting restoration by the crew at Petty’s Garage, in fact I hoped that the old white Dodge would be restored to the condition as it would have been raced by Lee Petty back in 1949-1950, simpler race cars in simpler times.
With our visit complete, we made our way back to Greensboro, where we would take the short drive to Ridgeway, Virginia, on the North Carolina border to attend Sunday’s “Tum Fast Relief 500” at Martinsville Speedway. While most NASCAR fans of the modern era rave about the short track at Bristol, nothing can compare to the history and simple fan friendly country atmosphere at the oldest track on the circuit.
Back in 1948 H. Clay Earles built a simple half mile dirt track in the rolling countryside outside Martinsville, Virginia. Many of the pioneers of the sport, Lee Petty, Red Byron, Curtis Turner, the Flock brothers, Fonty and Tim, Herb Thomas, and Buck Baker started their careers winning races on the half mile dirt oval that paved the way for the next generation where Richard Petty would set victory records, at 15, and Dale Earnhardt at 6, with the likes of Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip posting victories on their way to their championships.
Today’s racers, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have dominated recent victories, for Hendrick Motorsports at Martinsville. Martinsville Speedway was also known for its modified classics where pioneers such as Rome N.Y’s multiple modified champion Richie Evans, as well as Western N.Y. driver Jerry Cook would battle competitor’s Ray Hendrik in the famed winged #11 from Virginia and Geoff Bodine from Chemung N.Y. in #99.
The point is that while many of the huge complexes on the NASCAR circuit dazzle the fans with their modern amenities, nothing compares to the history at Martinsville Speedway, where NASCAR’s first champion raced there on dirt, in a stock Oldsmobile in 1948 to last year’s winner Jimmy Johnson’s Chevrolet in 2008. Both won in those years, while on their way to respective championships.
On this race day during a ceremony, where those of us in the grandstands would act as Grand Marshals. From “Gentlement start your engines” to the waving of the green flags, which were provided to all, it was a first for a NASCAR race. For 500 laps it was a hotly contested race, but Virginia native Denny Hamlin prevailed in front of his home crowd.
It was a weekend to remember where not only did we attend a NASCAR race, but we felt immersed in racing history from Level Cross to Statesville to Martinsville, it tied together all eras of NASCAR racing in the South.
Martinsville Speedway stands as a monument, still on the NASCAR circuit, as a survivor in the sport of stock car racing in the south, while other tracks such as nearby Rockingham and North Wilksboro have fallen off the schedule.
Let’s hope that NASCAR and the France Family keep short track racing on this historic half mile oval. There is nothing like door to door, bumper to bumper short track racing. While we have just completed our 58th consecutive season on dirt at Merrittville Speedway,& are planning ahead for the 2010 season with the addition of the World of Outlaws Late –Model series on June 17,2010. I can appreciate the history and tradition of 61 consecutive seasons at this now paved oval, known as Martinsville Speedway. Merrittville Speedway &Martinsville Speedway have a common thread that binds them,&that is a tradition with roots in racing’s past ,while planning for the future. Race On!