Welcome to the Wrigley Field of auto racing.
Indeed, Martinsville Speedway, home of the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500, airing Sunday, Oct. 27, on ESPN, is to NASCAR racing what the venerable Chicago edifice is to baseball: old, intimate, and steeped in the kind of history and tradition that make purists genuflect. A throwback to a much different era.
As the sun glistened on the southern Virginia track’s aluminum stands on a cool early April morning, Sprint Cup cars qualifying for that weekend’s race thundered around the half-mile “paperclip” at speeds approaching 120 mph in the straights and nearly 100 mph for an average lap. In fact, Jimmie Johnson would set the track record for average speed on this day, of 98.4 mph.
For Johnson, who would go on to win that weekend’s race – his eighth career Cup victory here – Martinsville represents good old-fashioned “boys have at it” racing at its finest. It’s also the antithesis of restrictor-plate tracks such as Daytona, where high speeds, drafting and racing in packs rule the day.
“The slower speeds and the smaller track promote real bumper-to-bumper, door-to-door racing, and that’s why it’s so popular,” explains Johnson to Zap2it over the roar of race cars inside his hauler in the Martinsville garage. “I mean, if somebody wrongs you, you can settle the score right then and there on the spot.
“And then also, the tolerance for putting up with stuff is far greater. I mean, casual contact is allowed. Doing that at 200 mph [such as at Daytona], a guy is frowned upon. Here, tire marks on each other’s race cars [are not uncommon], and you can get away with a lot here and just race aggressively. It’s fun.”
But the short straights and tight corners can task brakes and handling and make life difficult for the uninitiated. Just ask Jeff Gordon, who laughs when he recalls his first impressions of Martinsville.
“I was thinking that this place is asking for everything that this car can’t do,” says Gordon inside his hauler. “It’s a big, heavy, powerful car, and you’re accelerating quick, but the wheels are trying to spin, then you’re going into the corner trying to slow it down, and it doesn’t want to slow down. So my first couple of times here, I did feel like I struggled and was lost.
“We came in here and tested one time, just made a ton of laps,” continues Gordon, who has won here seven times, “and through that test and experience, something clicked. And I said, ‘Oh, that feels good. That feels more natural. That feels faster.’ And it was … and ever since then, I just searched for that same feeling.”
For fans, Martinsville just has the feel of an old-time venue, with rows and rows of plain aluminum benches rimming the oval track, topped by press and broadcast booths on one side, not unlike a college football stadium. Outside, there’s really nothing pretty about the place – a nondescript gray bowl supported by thin, crisscrossing columns and beams that resemble scaffolding. Clearly, the retro park craze never made it to this neck of the woods.
But one could argue that that’s what makes it cool — a very plain building hosting racing that hearkens back to NASCAR’s roots and what some would say is the essence of stock-car racing.
“It’s had a deep history here,” says Tony Stewart inside his hauler, “and this is one of the places that still, racetrackwise, has that old-school feel to it. I mean, you can still feel the heritage.”