CP MOTORSPORTS: TOM HIGGINS: GIVEN THE HISTORY, THE LOGANO/KENSETH DUST-UP HAPPENED AT THE RIGHT PLACE
Clay Earles parked his car alongside U.S. 220, got out and sighed with resignation. Before him was a briar patch that looked more intimidating than any he ever had seen.
He mumbled an expletive and waded into the tangled mess, which was thick with thorns.
Within only a few feet Earles, then 33, was forced onto hands and knees, following a path probably worn by rabbits, 'possums and other critters.
Finally, Earles, who was considering buying the land, reached the bottom of the hollow formed by a small creek. He found himself in something of a natural bowl. "I think this might do," Earles muttered, nodding approval while rubbing scratches inflicted by prickly blackberry bushes.
Might do, indeed.
The spot visited by Earles almost seven decades ago soon became the site of Martinsville Speedway, a Virginia short track that's now a NASCAR treasure. The Cup Series teams visit the .526-mile layout, which is shaped like a paper clip, once again this weekend for the Goody’s 500 on Sunday.
Approximately 65,000 are expected to attend. It's likely very few of these fans are aware of how the track came into being. Hopefully, this little history lesson will make those who read it appreciate Martinsville Speedway even more.
Clay Earles had bulldozers clear away the briar patch and carve out a race track from the red clay of the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills.
The speedway was ready for racing in 1947. Or at least it seemed so.
Earles had been inspired to build his speedway after attending some races in North Carolina, where short tracks began springing up across the Piedmont in the car-crazy months following World War II.
Earles had seen that clouds of dust were kicked up at these dirt tracks, and he was determined this wouldn't happen at Martinsville.
Earles, who passed away in 1999 at age 86, set out to provide a cleaner racing surface. He covered the clay with a 20,000-gallon mixture of oil, calcium chloride and water.
Excitement about the "clean track" was the talk of Virginia and North Carolina.
"We advertised in good faith and sincerely believed we had a dust-free speedway," the personable Earles told me in a wide-ranging interview in 1990. "But it turned out to be the dustiest place I've ever seen. Just after the race started it looked like an A-Bomb had been dropped. There was a dust cloud so big hanging over the track that I'm sure it could be seen for miles.
"A lot of fans came to the race straight from church in their Sunday best. We had fill dirt around the track and the grandstand. Some of the ladies wearing high heels sank down to their ankles in this dirt. Most of them went home barefooted, carrying their dirtied shoes."
This was bad, but not the worst.
"We had proposed 5,000 seats for the first race, but we only had 750 ready," continued Earles. "Still, we drew a paying crowd of 6,013. I've always estimated that another 3,000 sneaked through the woods and came to watch for free because we didn't have any fences.
"I thought we had done a good job of getting ready, and going into that day I was mighty proud. After the race was over, well, I've never been so ashamed in my life. I wondered if anyone would ever come back.
"For years I had nightmares about that race and what happened."
Earles should have spared himself the worry.
His little track, the shortest in NASCAR and paved sinced the 1950s, developed into a dream that's a favorite among fans who like the contact and close-quarters competition it produces.
For years drivers who have either been spun out our pushed aside by a rival while battling for position at Martinsville have emerged from their cars red-faced in anger.
However, no driver's face ever has been as crimson as that of Red Byron, winner of the inaugural Martinsville race which produced that big mushroom cloud in 1947. He was caked with dust.
"I'll never forget the sight," said Clay Earles with a chuckle. "Red looked like he had been painted."