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Campbell marks 25th year as speedway president
For the past 25 years, Martinsville Speedway President Clay Campbell has worked to make sure the speedway has kept up with changes in racing. Yet he says Martinsville Speedway’s rich history and individuality have made it a fan favorite in the days of super speedways. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
Sunday, October 27, 2013
By SAM JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer
It would be cliché to say that Clay Campbell knows every square inch of Martinsville Speedway by heart. That is, if it weren’t true.
“Basically, anything that can be done around here, I’ve done it,” said Campbell, president of the Martinsville Speedway. He has mowed grass, wielded a hammer, painted fences and more, up to and including managing the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ shortest track. “Whatever it took,” he said.
For the past 25 years, Campbell has been running the track that his grandfather, the late H. Clay Earles, founded in 1947.
Campbell was born in 1960, and “by the time I could understand what was going on, this is where I hung out,” he said. He worked odd jobs at the track during the summer until he graduated from Drewry Mason High School in 1978.
He had the option of going to college or working for his grandfather at the speedway full time. “I chose working here, because I figured I had the best professor there was,” he said.
For the next decade, he worked in every department, he said. That helped him as he advanced to become vice president, assistant general manager and then president in 1988.
Campbell said having such a dirt-under-the-fingernails knowledge of the speedway is a positive in some ways, but not all. For instance, most of his contemporaries are businessmen with backgrounds in marketing, he said.
But “operationally, I probably have as much knowledge of how to operate a speedway” as anyone, he added.
When Campbell and former NASCAR Chairman Bill France Jr. sold the track to International Speedway Corp. (ISC) in 2004, Campbell stayed on as president. “Obviously, they’re satisfied with my work,” he said, or he would have been gone long ago. Campbell’s responsibilities with ISC include supervising the management of three other NASCAR tracks — Richmond, Darlington (Ala.) and Watkins Glen (N.Y.).
Though he understood why there was consternation locally when ISC bought the speedway, Campbell said if that had not happened, it would have been “an uphill battle” to maintain the facility and keep pace with rising costs as the NASCAR series grew to a multi-billion-dollar industry. Campbell said the benefits of being part of ISC have been numerous, while the on-track product has not been adversely affected.
“We have much more capital available to us now ... so we’re able to do things to re-invest in the facility,” he said. “I have a lot more help now than I used to. If I have an issue, all I have to do is pick up the phone and call somebody.
“I just think that was the best move that could have been made, not only for the speedway and our family, but for the community,” he said.
That corporate ownership does not mean the local staff has it easy during race weekend, however.
“Especially now, with the complexity of the two Sprint Cup events,” speedway employees always have an eye toward the two race weekends, he said. “We’re working a year in advance on each of those.”
Campbell estimated that 90 percent of the time and effort at the track goes into the two Sprint Cup race weekends. The speedway doesn’t have to do much in-house marketing to promote stock car races of national importance, as much of that is handled by NASCAR and ISC.
However, community events such as the annual Independence Day Celebration and Speedway Toy Drive allow the track a different level of community involvement besides a tourism hub, he said.
Each year, the speedway partners with the Grace Network to raise money and receive toy donations for local children at Christmastime.
“That’s brought joy to a lot of kids in the area, (so) that’s pretty high on our radar to keep it growing,” Campbell said. “Anything we can do for kids, we’re on board.”
The speedway partnered in July with the United Way of Henry County and Martinsville for the Fuel for Families Food Drive, which culminated at Celebration 2013 with the collection of a total of more than 900 pounds of canned food and other nonperishable items as well as $500 in donations.
The donations meant more than 4,000 meals were made available to local residents, United Way Executive Director Tiffani Underwood has said.
That, of course, is on top of the celebration event itself, which features carnival rides, music and a massive fireworks display.
“All the people in the area get to come to that, and it doesn’t cost them a dime,” Campbell said. “With the economic situation we’re faced with now ... a lot of people wouldn’t get to see fireworks like that” if not for the celebration event.
It all boils down to what Campbell calls being a “good corporate citizen” of Martinsville and Henry County.
“Obviously, the Cup weekends, that’s what butters the bread. They have to be a success. But it’s really gratifying” when the holiday events succeed, Campbell said, “to know that we’re helping people that really need it.”
The community involvement is part of the reason Campbell wants to increase the track’s visibility year-round, using facilities such as the new Party Plaza, which will feature pre-race entertainment and games this weekend, including a performance by blues musician Gary Hoey.
The plaza and the new Club 47 luxury suite provide ideal spaces for the track to become what Campbell calls “a year-round destination.”
Parties or other local events — even the occasional wedding — are possible, he said.
“The sky’s the limit,” he said. “We’ve always looked at doing other things, but we’re getting to the point where we’ve got things in place where we can actually make that happen.”