Why Older Tracks Like Martinsville Speedway Are True NASCAR Treasures

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistMarch 30, 2014

Six-time Sprint Cup champion  Jimmie Johnson knows what Martinsville Speedway means. He's an eight-time winner there, along with teammate Jeff Gordon.
Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson knows what Martinsville Speedway means. He's an eight-time winner there, along with teammate Jeff Gordon.Associated Press

I'd venture to guess that many people 25 years old or younger have no idea what kind of national treasure Martinsville Speedway is not only to NASCAR, but also to this country in general.

The .526-mile paper clip-shaped flat short track in southern Virginia is something that young people just don't understand. While they may think it's just an old bullring, it's so much more than that.

It's NASCAR history, old-school racing the way it used to be and what the sport was built upon, a place where the greatest of the greats—including the likes of Petty, Earnhardt, Pearson, Waltrip and so many others—plied their trade before NASCAR became what it is today.

I admit, it was only a handful of years ago that I advocated cutting Martinsville from two races to one per year. In my foolishness, I felt that NASCAR would be better served to take a date from Martinsville and transfer it to a place like Las Vegas or Indianapolis or bring a second date back to Fontana or Darlington.

I honestly thought that a track that could draw maybe 30,000 or more would better serve the sport than a 60,000-seat bullring.

I was wrong. I'm man enough to admit it.

Sure, while places like Texas, Las Vegas, Kansas and others are newer and brighter and bigger, they have nowhere near the character, the history or the homey feel that Martinsville has.

Ditto for a place like Darlington Raceway. Places like those two are truly gems, natural treasures that should be preserved at all costs by NASCAR.

Admittedly, the older a track gets, the more outdated or out of shape it gets. Maintenance costs typically climb at a much greater rate than a track that is fewer than 20 years old.

But how can you put a price tag on tracks like Martinsville and Darlington that look virtually the same today as they did 30, 40 or even 50 years ago?

Think about this: How many fans, even to this day, continue to complain about the preponderance of 1.5-mile tracks on the Sprint Cup schedule?

Fans call those kinds of tracks "cookie cutters" because they're all so similar to one another. While there's a certain element of truth to that, perhaps an even greater reason fans disparage mile-and-a-half tracks is because many of them just don't have the kind of character that a Martinsville or Darlington or Richmond or even Bristol (although it has changed significantly since it was first opened in 1961) have had for years, and continue to have to this day.

If you were to go to a modern-era track—say, a track that was built or opened within the last 20 years—really, what kind of character does the place truly have?

But places like Martinsville not only the character of great racing, they also have other forms of character that you can't find elsewhere.

How about the so-called "famous Martinsville hot dogs"? They're a unique treat you won't find at a place like Las Vegas.

What about pimento sandwiches and mini burgers at Darlington? Again, a unique taste that adds to the overall character at a track with one of the coolest nicknames in sports: "The Lady In Black."

And even though it's undergoing a massive overhaul that won't be complete until 2016, Daytona International Speedway will always have a character that the most modern steel girders and state-of-the-art amenities will never take away.

Even if DIS ultimately looks like a futuristic concrete and steel pavilion, it will still have the character and history that many of the most recently built tracks on the circuit not only envy, but likely won't earn themselves for maybe another 20 or 30 years.

So if you're going to the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway Sunday, or even if you just watch it on TV, take a few moments to close your eyes and let yourself go back in time.

The NASCAR of today began decades ago at places like Martinsville, Darlington, Daytona and Richmond. And if you listen real, real hard, or try to imagine what it was like back in the day, you might just hear the sound of Richard Petty streaking to one of his 15 record wins at Martinsville, or Cale Yarborough crossing the finish line, or David Pearson rubbing fenders with Michael Waltrip or Junior Johnson driving like he still had a trunk full of moonshine.

Places like Martinsville are the foundation upon which NASCAR was built, a foundation that remains as strong today—and will continue to do so for many years to come—as it was when it first opened.

While young folks may not get it, true and longtime NASCAR fans do.

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