In this week’s edition of “Stories from Martinsville Speedway” we have two long-time newspaper reporters, one of which is a lifetime fan of the sport, another who knew very little about racing before going to one for his job.
Ed Hardin has been has been working a sports writer for the Greensboro News & Record since 1988 when he was hired as the paper’s racing writer. But his roots in racing go back much further. His grandmother had one of Richard Petty’s Grandfather Clocks he won at Martinsville.
Now as Greensboro’s sports columnist, Hardin goes to the Daytona 500, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Martinsville races every year.
Aaron McFarling has been working as a sports writer, and now a columnist, for The Roanoke Times since 2000, and attended his first race at Martinsville Speedway in the spring of 2001.
If you missed previous editions of "Stories from Martinsville Speedway", we've spoken with Martinsville Speedway President Clay Campbell, track photographers Mike Paris and Ken Childs, NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Noah Gragson, and Fox Sports analyst and former crew chief Larry McReynolds.
Here are stories Hardin and McFarling told me this week about experiences they’ve had the track.
Ed Hardin: Mine actually starts from when I was a youngster. My family kind of grew up with the Pettys. My dad is from Randleman (North Carolina). My mom got to Randleman as a student teacher to teach and actually taught Richard and Linda Petty. I actually grew up with Kyle (Petty), kind of around him.
Martinsville was the home track. My grandmother was Kyle’s nanny and she would keep Kyle and his sisters when his mom and dad would go to races together. But when Martinsville rolled around they all went in the same car. They would pack up fried chicken and egg salad sandwiches and iced tea and all pile in a station wagon and go to Martinsville for the day. My mom would watch the kids in the infield and Richard would go to the race.
It was just a fascinating thing to go back and look at pictures and see my grandmother in victory lane. So I just kind of grew up around it. I can remember my own family going to Martinsville and doing the exact same thing. Just making friend chicken and egg salad sandwiches and you’d come home and you couldn’t hear for three days. It was just a part of our life growing up. We’re part of the sport in a weird way. I just grew up around it.
Most of my memories of Martinsville are from very young. I was fascinated with the duck pond that’s not there anymore. I would just hang out at that thing all day. I’d see enough racing after about 30 or 40 laps and I’d just go exploring.
The reason Martinsville is different is it’s so intimate. It’s so small, you’re right on top of the track, everybody is on top of each other, and they really are the smartest race fans in racing. They always have been. And I think that’s because you’re so darn close. You feel like you can reach out and touch them.
We used to sit in the unreserved grandstands, which aren’t even there anymore. They’re there, they’re just covered up with something. They were just concrete blocks is all they were right out of the second turn. But the cars would go by you, you’re so close to them. You can’t imagine how close you were to them. That’s why you couldn’t hear for three days. It was also the most incredible experience in the world to have these cars a few feet away from you going by at, I don’t know how fast they were going.
I used to tell the guys about it, the other sports writers. In those days, with about 10 laps to go they would invite us, the sports writers, invite us to come down through the grandstands. They would open the little fence gate below the press box, we would crawl through it, out on the grass there. Think about this, between the wall and the grandstands, over in the first and second turns, we would sit in that grass for the final 10 laps. The sensation is unbelievable. To see those cars coming straight at you and going through that little hairpin turn right in front of you. There’s nothing like Martinsville.
I tell everybody, if you’ve never been to a race, just go to Martinsville. It’s the perfect little race track, perfect package. The first hundred laps or so you’re on the edge of your seat, then you realize it’s going to be a long day. But it’s fun. If you’re a race fan, if it’s in your blood, it’s the place to go.
I guess that was 2004. I was still relatively new to the sport so they had me down in the media center as opposed to up in the press box. We had a beat writer up in the press box and I was supposed to chase any crazy stuff that went on, crashes or whatever else. And of course this concrete comes up. They actually had three holes but one of them was pretty sizable chunk that came out of the track and Jeff Gordon ran into it. He was going for his third straight victory at Martinsville and he hit it with the right side of his front fender and basically wrecked his race.
I think he ended up, I think, rallying and finishing in the top 10, but he was in I think second place at the time. But it was just such a bizarre thing. I didn’t know what I was doing and I went running out there and was like, ‘What is going on?’ Nobody knew what was going on. And I’ll never forget Clay Campbell in his 3-piece suit bending over and looking inside the hole and seeing what they could do to fix it.
You talk about grassroots, Martinsville is as grassroots as it gets. There’s your track president in a suit where he’s supposed to be hobnobbing and helping out, drumming up support for the track like he always does, and there he is with a birds-eye view at the track coming apart. I know it’s not his finest moment. And they repaved it and got everything set up for the fall that year but that was pretty crazy.
Another memory that I have, I’ll never forget. I’m from Maryland, I didn’t come here with any experience in auto racing at all. I covered some New River Valley Speedway, which is now Motor Mile Speedway, races early in my career before I went to Martinsville so I got kind of an idea of how stock car racing worked but I had never been to a NASCAR event. Certainly not a Cup race.
It’s a sensory overload. When you show up to the track it is Mardi Gras. There’s only two times in my career that I felt like it was going to strike a pedestrian just trying to park my car. One was at LSU. Virginia Tech played a night game against LSU in football. And of course the tailgating scene there is as festive as it gets. There’s people everywhere and they’re all pretty ailed up and had some bourbon going and they’re just walking right in front of you. You’re just dodging them in your rental car. A similar thing happened to me on my first visit to Martinsville Speedway. I can’t remember if it was 2001 or 2002, somewhere around there.
I never had seen anything like it where everyone is going to the Speedway and everyone is walking to their cars, to the track, or wherever. I felt like I had to be Jeff Gordon in order to not kill anybody. And I said to myself, ‘This is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.’ And of course in the two decades of going there twice a year since I’ve obviously learned to navigate that much better. The parking situation is much different than it was back then too. But it really hit me at that point how passionate people are about the sport. Of course we write it about all the time and they talk about it all the time. It’s one of their great sources of pride, and it deserves to be. The connection the fans feel for the drivers, particularly when they come to a place like Martinsville. Just the history of the track, the viewing options at the track, you can see everything that happens down there wherever you’re sitting, which is not the case at a lot of tracks.
Dustin Long, he’s now big time, he was our racing writer at the time and he was really helpful to me in getting me up to speed at the time. But, as you know, if you’re not familiar with all that it’s like showing up to a high school track meet and looking around and not knowing where to start. ‘W ho do I watch? What do I do?’
Back in the day - and I say back in the day, this was around the turn of the century so not that long ago I guess - but in the early 2000s fans would be waiting out there and drivers would go by on their little golf cart or whatever and they’d stop and sign autographs. I think that connection has been diminished some since then. You’ve got the tunnel now so people can drive right through there without stopping or interacting with fans but for years that was something fun to do is just to watch people meet their heroes right out there at Martinsville Speedway. Just the look on their faces, it didn’t matter how old they were either. Whether it was a 5 year old kid or an 80 year old grandmother, if they were meeting Matt Kenseth or whoever it was they came to see, it was always kind of a touching moment.
What I think sets Martinsville apart is just how close all the drivers are to each other. All the cars are just crammed in there on that tight .526-mile paperclip and they don’t have a choice but to get into each other. And it’s not at top speeds, you don’t see a lot of horrific crashes that a lot of people come to see. I know that’s kind of taboo to say that, but that’s what a lot of people want to see. They want to see wreckage. They don’t want to see people get hurt, but they want to see fireworks. And Martinsville doesn’t have that as much as it has a lot of spinouts, a lot of fenders getting busted up because you just can’t avoid when somebody checks up in front of you just running into the back of them. And that leads to tempers flaring. You know all this, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but the scenes over the years, a lot of feuds get started at Martinsville because it’s very easy to screw up somebody’s day there without even really trying. So that’s one of the cool things you kind of always brace for when you show up there.
During that whole hole incident, that was in 2004, I was still pretty new then at this whole thing, and I didn’t understand how it worked with PR people and all that stuff. So Jamie McMurray was just sitting there on the inside retaining wall waiting for the red flag to end and get back in his car. I just went over with a tape recorder and started talking to him, asking him questions. And he answered a couple of them and then was like, ‘You know, I’m not sure I’m really supposed to be talking to you without a medium in between us.’ And I was, ‘Oh I’m sorry.’ I didn’t know. I thought it was like a high school football game where you could just talk to whoever you want. So that was different. Sometimes you’re too young to know you’re doing the wrong thing and you get actually better stuff when you’re not doing it through the proper channels than when you are.
In last week’s story from Martinsville Speedway, NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Noah Gragson r…
In the latest edition of Stories from the Speedway, driver Noah Gragson recalls his first Martinsville Speedway hot dog and details from his 2017 win.
Last week we started a series simply asking people in the world of NASCAR to tell me stories about Martinsville Speedway. This week I spoke with two photographers who know The Paperclip better than just about anyone, because both have worked for the track at some point.
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Cara Cooper is a sports writer for the Martinsville Bulletin. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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