By Ben White
Martinsville Speedway has always been famous for its tight semi-flat corners, fast straightaways and guaranteed fender rubbing action since the track opened on Sept. 7, 1947. Now in its 74th season of operation, the famed Virginia track continues to be a cornerstone of NASCAR’s Cup Series schedule.
It was the vision of H. Clay Earles, a workaholic until a year before his death on Nov. 16, 1999 at the age of 86. The once dirt-track transformed to asphalt in 1953 became a virtual playground for seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Richard Petty through his 32-year career. Petty’s 15-career Cup Series wins there from April 10, 1960 through April 22, 1979 remains a record on the storied Virginia short track. All told, there have been 228 NASCAR events since 1949 as well as additional modified and Sportsman events, each with an incredible finish all their own.
Petty seemed to have a magical feel on the paperclip-style track. The first order of business was survival of equipment, specifically brakes, the lack of often sending many top contenders to the garage area on the closing laps. Once such driver was 1983 Cup Series champion Bobby Allison. The Miami, FL. native was in the lead there many times through his 25-year career and won 85 races during his career but could never take a checkered flag at Martinsville Speedway in Cup Series competition. He did win a modified race there in the early 1960s.
“I guess you could say I won quite a few Martinsville 490s and 495 but never any Martinsville 500s,” Allison says today. “I led a bunch of laps there but when it got down to the closing laps, something could break or go wrong every time. I just could never get to the end. I just could seem to stay off the brakes or I would have engine failure or someone would get into me. For some reason, I could win a race in a Cup car there.”
For Petty, it was a much different story. The native of Randleman, N.C. was always the favorite each time his famed Petty blue Plymouths, Dodges and Chevrolets pulled into the track’s colorful garage area. The winner of 200-career Cup Series races used patience and pure driving talent, as well as the mechanical expertise of longtime crew chief Dale Inman, as they mastered the .526-mile track seemingly at will.
“Of all the short tracks, I like Martinsville best,” Petty said before he retired from driving in 1992. “Now, maybe I’ve got that backwards and I like it only because I’ve won there so often. I really don’t know. It’s not an easy track but it’s one that’s been good to me.”
That means Petty holds the distinction of owning the most grandfather clock trophies of any other driver. Some are in Petty’s home, including a few in some of the bathrooms. The Petty children, Kyle, Sharon, Rebecca, and Lisa, and as well as their cousins and other family members, have been given many of the clocks.