Martinsville: Personal Recollections Of A Professional Past

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – I must beg your indulgence. But I would like to offer some personal recollections from my professional past.

That I experience them now is unavoidable because they involve Martinsville Speedway.

My first occupation in newspapers was as a sports writer for the Martinsville Bulletin. I stumbled into the job.

I walked into the newspaper offices, met the managing editor and asked him if he needed a sports writer. He said yes. I was hired after 20 minutes.

NASCAR racing at Martinsville Speedway was the only professional sport the city had – as it is today.

Martinsville was a half-mile track built in 1947 that, in time, played host to NASCAR competition on its Grand National (much later Sprint Cup), Late Model Sportsman (now Nationwide Series) and Modified circuits.

As a rookie on a small staff – three – the task fell to me to cover Martinsville’s races.
I might as well been asked to translate the Koran.

When I set out to report on my first NASCAR race, needless to say, I was lost. My experience? I had heard of Richard Petty. That was about it.

I was told to contact Dick Thompson, the speedway’s public relations director. I was assured he would give me advice, guidance and all the information I’d need.

I learned that Thompson came from a newspaper background. He had been a sports writer for the Roanoke Times and had been tapped by Martinsville President H. Clay Earles to be one of the very few full-time PR directors then employed.

Thompson knew what sports writers needed because he’d been one. He made all information easily available to them and did more, much more. He was soon recognized as one of the best in the business.

So he certainly knew how to indoctrinate me into stock car racing, which he did. But he did more.
Thompson not only gave advice and direction that allowed me to write competent stories for the Bulletin, he also taught me how to go beyond simple reporting and best serve the readers.

He instilled in me something I have never forgotten. He said it was important to report the news, which is something he knew I had to do. But he also said anyone could do that.

He stressed that what takes more dedication, effort and talent, and ultimately is more compelling, is to tell stories about the people in racing. Let readers know who they are, where they came from, in what they believe and what they care to express about the issues of the day.

In other words, he said, always try to give the readers something they can’t find anywhere else – be original. And that can be easy because very person in racing has a story.

I always tried to follow his lessons and, fortunately, I had my successes.

I experienced enough of them, I think, to be hired by the much bigger Roanoke World-News after a year at Martinsville. It was, in a two-paper city, the afternoon edition and has been gone for years.

I continued to cover motorsports in Roanoke, but now, things were a bit different. The paper had – gasp! – expense accounts and company cars.
The big thrill for me was that I was now able to cover more races than ever. There was Martinsville, of course, but there were also Richmond, Bristol, Darlington, Rockingham, North Wilkesboro, Atlanta and, if I got lucky and the bean counters approved, Daytona.

I also had a traveling partner. He worked for the sister paper at that time, the morning Times. His name was Bob Adams and rest assured, his knowledge of NASCAR, and the contacts therein, were far, far greater than mine.

His nickname was “Boomer.” Reckon that was because he had both imposing size and voice. I also have to think it was because of his prodigious appetite.

I once asked him, “Boomer, how far is it from Roanoke to Daytona?”
He answered, “About 11 Dairy Queens.”
Once, Boomer, at the Gangplank restaurant in Florence, S.C., ate over 400 steamed shrimp. Thompson counted ‘em.

Boomer could have held me in complete disdain as a rookie beneath his attention. He never did. During our travels we always talked, laughed and spent time together away from the track.

He gave me advice and taught me lessons.
When we went to Martinsville, we had our jobs to do but we always found time to spend with Thompson and Earles, who also were, at several races, cocktail (not Thompson – drinks for him were tea and Pepsi) and dinner partners.

Boomer and I weren’t stupid. We always knew that our cordial relationships with Earles and Thompson could have been cultivated for a purpose, which was to make us, shall we say, allies and provide as much positive news as possible.

However, we became convinced it was never that way.
There were two important reasons. First, we all genuinely liked one another and enjoyed our company.
Second, at no time were Boomer and I asked specifically to write something in a positive light for, or in favor of, Martinsville Speedway.
I recall all of this because, at a very early stage of my career, I was fortunate. I had positive influences where I might not have had any.

I might not have been shown any direction, any friendship and, ultimately, any motivation to provide readers with the best I could offer. But I did.

So again excuse me for a personal indulgence, but when I return to Martinsville, I am always reminded of how much the speedway, and two of its most important and influential people, has meant to my career.

Clay Earles passed away on Nov. 16, 1999. Dick Thompson departed on Oct. 28, 2009.
“Boomer,” I know you are still out there, buddy. “Nutsy” says hello and thank you.

Kimi Raikkonen To NASCAR? Hell Hath Frozen Over

It’s stunning enough that Kimi Raikkonen, a Formula One World Champion is coming to NASCAR. What’s more stunning is that he’s doing it with Foster Gillet of the “Run the Petty Team Into The Ground” Gillet’s. What’s more Raikkonen can drive like hell…but he doesn’t communicate. Good luck!

Biffle, Yes Biffle, Shows His Stuff On A Dragway

On March 29, NASCAR driver Greg Biffle won, what was for him, a most unusual race on a most unusual track.

On top of that, to earn the victory, Biffle had to beat a superstar who has 15 championships to his credit.

“Well, I’m still trying to beat the guy who has won five championships,” Biffle said. “But today I went right past him and beat a guy who has won 15 championships.”

The scenario was created by officials at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C., located across the highway from Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The Speedway Motorsports Inc.-owned drag strip was promoting its VisitMyrtleBeach.com Four-Wide Nationals, scheduled for April 14-17.
It thought it would be nifty to pit John Force, the 15-time NHRA Funny Car champion and easily drag racing’s most recognized competitor, against some NASCAR regulars.

Chose to compete against Force were Roush Fenway drivers Biffle, Matt Kenseth and David Ragan.
In identical Ford Mustangs, they would drive in a series of eliminations. The last man standing would be the winner.
Now I admit that my knowledge of drags is minimal, although I’ve reported on several events, but given that I’ve spent my career covering NASCAR.

But even I knew that Force should easily whip up on the Roush Fenway trio.
That didn’t happen. Ragan was the first to be eliminated and, surprisingly, Force was the second.
I thought he just threw the race. Turns out he goofed and it cost him.
On the final run, Biffle nipped Kenseth and, as the victor, received a handsome trophy from Force.

“Am I better than Kurt?” Biffle asked, referring to Kurt Busch, who made a foray into drags at the Gatornationals and was eliminated in the Pro Stock first round.

“OK it’s all for fun,” Biffle added. “Don’t get me in trouble.”
Fun, Biffle said, is exactly what he had.

“Doing this is a lot of fun,” Biffle said, “and it’s exciting. But I tell you I was more nervous at the line than I was getting ready to roll out for qualifying at a stock car race.”

Several of today’s Sprint Cup drivers fooled around with drag racing when they were younger. It was something of a rite of passage.

“Yeah, I did it, but just a little bit,” Biffle said. “It was just a hobby. It was high school drags and stuff like that. My brother and I messed with it before I got into oval-track racing.”

Apparently Biffle knew enough about drag racing to follow some critical rules.
“You don’t want to mess up at the line,” he said. “If you do, it’s all over, especially with cars that are equal like we had today.
“It’s all about reaction time and then shift time – and who can do it all the quickest.”
Like everyone else, Biffle was surprised Force didn’t win it all. But he added there was a reason for that.

“It was very intimidating racing against him and I’m surprised he didn’t whip us every time,” Biffle said. “But he doesn’t do this in stock cars and one thing I know about them is that if you hit the rev chip, the car just dies. And he did that.

“He hit it and the car just shut down. It does it to protect the engine. I learned that on my car and I shifted a couple of rpms short of the red line just to make sure.”

Biffle admits it takes a different driving ability to win in drag racing as opposed to stock cars, but he adds there are some shared traits.

“Yes, it takes a different set of skills for this, but there are some similarities,” Biffle said. “There’s reaction time, the feel for the car and things like that.

“Bottom line is it takes a lot to do this.”

Martinsville Television Ratings Should Climb

Bristol and Fontana brought the averages television ratings down, but in the aggregate not by much. Bristol was a fan revolt and Fontana was only slightly down. Martinsville should climb in the ratings as it’s close quarter and physical. Just what the fans want to see. www.motorsportsunplugged.com

Unlike Last Year’s Start, The Numbers Improve For Dale Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. got a lot of positive media attention prior to the Auto Club 400 and for a very good reason.
As the Sprint Cup season moved to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., Earnhardt Jr. was ninth in points with finishes of 11th, eighth and 10th in three of four races.

It was abundantly clear that Earnhardt Jr. was off to a good start, although, to be frank, it wasn’t much better than in the one in 2010 – and more on that later.

However, whenever Earnhardt Jr. gives at least a hint of restoring his lost competitiveness, it’s always duly noticed.

And it’s understood why. His last victory came on June 15, 2008. He missed the Chase that year and again in 2009. The past two seasons have been the worst of his career.

This year Earnhardt Jr.’s start cooled a bit after he finished12th in the Auto Club 400 and fell to 12th in points. And he’s now gone 98 races without a victory.

However, before the green flag fell for the Auto Club 400 many speculated that Earnhardt Jr.’s confidence was on the upswing and that, perhaps, he might believe again that good things could happen at long last.

Asked if his Rick Hendrick-owned team was capable of top-10 finishes every week, Earnhardt answered in the affirmative.

“We’re capable of that,” he said. “We’re good enough for that. You should come to the race track and expect to run around the guys who are in that position.

“I feel like we’re legitimate, yes sir.”

What has been most often credited for Earnhardt’s competitive turnaround, this early in the season, is the team-wide personnel swap Hendrick made at the end of last season.

That brought Steve Letarte, formerly Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, to Earnhardt Jr.

It appears the chemistry between Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. is brewing nicely.

Hendrick noted that every driver feels a loss of confidence at some point, but, very often, it’s restored with the support of the crew chief.

Hendrick added he thought the Earnhardt Jr.-Letarte combination was the best in the garage area.

That’s certainly up for debate. But Earnhardt Jr. apparently feels the arrangement is working.

“Steve and I have a lot in common and our personalities make it where it seems like it’s easy for us to have a conversation,” he said.

Earnhardt Jr. added he hangs around the hauler much more because he enjoys talking with Letarte.

“Just sitting around long enough, eventually something is going to pop up and I want to be there for that conversation,” he said. “I don’t want him texting me on the phone while I’m on the bus going, ‘Hey, I think I know what we can do.’

“I want to be there so that I can understand it and talk about it.”

Now, I could be very wrong, but last year I don’t recall Earnhardt Jr. offering any quote that remotely suggested he wanted to hang around the hauler and talk to his crew chief.

While Earnhardt Jr. has had a good start, it must be said that it is much the same as it was in 2010.

After the first five races of that year Earnhardt Jr. also had two top-10 runs, including a second at Daytona, and was an even higher eighth in points.

He has two top-10s through five events this year – again – and is 12th in points, obviously lower than a season ago.

The numbers tell us that after five races, he’s worse off now than he was a year ago – really.

But there’s a very big difference. It’s one that should not be ignored.

Last season Earnhardt Jr., with his Daytona run, found himself second in points after one race. He steadily slipped from there and fell out of the top 10 after race No. 8. Thereafter, as a contender, he was merely an afterthought.

This year he was 24th in points after Daytona, where he was involved in an accident. But, unlike 2010, he has steadily risen in points from the first race of the season until the slip at Fontana.

In other words, Earnhardt Jr.’s season began to fade from the start in 2010. It has done quite the opposite, for the most part, in 2011. It’s a much different trend.

Credit Letarte, the resulting boost in Earnhardt Jr.’s confidence, or anything else you wish.

Earnhardt Jr.’s season, so far, is obviously headed in a different direction. It’s something with which he, and his Hendrick team, has been unaccustomed in past years.

We will see where it goes from here.

 

From Strokers To Start-And-Park, It’s Nothing New For NASCAR

I think it bears repeating, in the light of the highly-publicized refusal by Jennifer Jo Cobb to have herself labeled as a driver who starts and parks, what this all about and how it’s a part of NASCAR history.

The news she generated at Bristol Motor Speedway fueled a lot of attention, again, about the practice. It’s one in which drivers and teams qualify for a race and then run only a few laps before the car returns to the garage area and is listed as a DNF.

What this does is save money. The car doesn’t bear the strain of anything close to hard racing. The odds of it being involved in a wreck are reduced. It likely isn’t on the track long enough for that to happen.

There isn’t much spent for pre-race preparation. If the car survives the few laps intended, there won’t be much spent for the next race, either.

Many times a pit crew isn’t needed because it will all be over well before a stop is even necessary. You can just imagine how much money is saved.

The purchase of one set of tires, if that, is all that might be required. That, too, certainly helps the bottom line.
There’s more – but you get the idea. Hey, I surely haven’t told you anything new.
But the interesting thing about the start-and-park philosophy is that it can be very profitable.

I’m just one of several who have already figured out that if a team can qualify for most of the races and then call it quits after a few laps, it can make some good bucks.

I added up the least amount of money awarded in each of the 36 races in 2010 – and not all for last place, by the way – and if a start-and-park team was fortunate to qualify for all of them, it would earn nearly $3 million, or even more. Not bad at all.

Stack that against its significantly lower expenses and it’s obvious the result is a healthy profit.

I admit all of this seems simplistic. But it’s obvious there’s something to it, because the start-and-park practice continues, as it will this weekend at Auto Club Speedway.

Most teams adopt the strategy because it’s the only way they can survive.

They simply don’t have the finances required to be competitive, much less win. But at least they have the means to go to races. Their only goal is to qualify. That accomplished, well, it’s all about profit.

I recall that NASCAR told us it was going to take a hard look at the practice. I surmise it didn’t want it to cheapen the sport.

But really, what can it do about it? There’s not much it can. I’m not sure it cares to. Teams have even announced their intention to start and park and NASCAR hasn’t even attempted to “punish” them.

And, after all, does not the practice continue?

I suspect the sanctioning body doesn’t want to take actions that could, ultimately, put teams out of business. In these times it’s hard enough for it to attract enough of them to fill a field. That’s just one man’s opinion, of course.

NASCAR has dealt with similar situations before during its history.

For example there was an era in the 1970s when, during a race, some drivers simply drove around in hopes they could stay out of trouble and finish as high as possible. That way they made as much money as they could.

They had to do it this way. They couldn’t simply start and park because, unlike today, a last-place payout was usually a paltry four figures (or less if you can believe it), not five or certainly not six.

To start and park meant financial ruin.

These drivers were called “strokers.” They competed for years on comparatively miniscule budgets. Many of them made it work. Ask Richard Childress. He did.

In time, though, they rebelled. They demanded that NASCAR relieve them of their plight and make racing more financially worthwhile. Otherwise they would simply leave the sport.

NASCAR had a problem. The “strokers” made up the majority of every racing field. If they disappeared altogether, what fan would care to watch a race among, say, 10 or fewer cars?

It evolved that NASCAR created “plan money” for drivers who competed on the full schedule. Every time they showed up and qualified for a race, they got bonus bucks beyond what they won in the race.

It also realigned the rewards throughout the point fund. It made it worthwhile, financially, for all drivers to finish as high as possible in the final standings.

It did more but, in the end, NASCAR created a system that provided the “strokers” the means to make much more money.

They could do this only if they entered, and qualified, for every race to earn bonuses. Afterward, they needed to complete as many laps as possible to earn points – and thereby finish as high as they could in the final standings.

If all of this sounds familiar it should – because it remains in effect to this day.

Within such a system, you would think start and park wouldn’t cut it financially.

However, given the changes in circumstances, apparently it can.

Many believe the practice of start-and-park cuts against the grain of competition. It’s not what racing is supposed to be about. It’s hard to argue with that.

But, at least for now, it exists and there doesn’t seem much NASCAR can do about it.

 

I Didn’t Get My Sponsor, But NASCAR Got A New Era

Although he didn’t intend it, when Junior met with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. to see if it would be interested in sponsoring his NASCAR efforts, he helped usher in what would be a new era for stock car racing.

At the time, four decades ago, Junior’s racing was at a standstill because Ford had pulled out of NASCAR – again – and thus all his manufacturer support was lost.

He couldn’t race without a sponsor. So he targeted Reynolds. Of course, he had no idea how things would ultimately evolve.

 

Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

 

 

I get the credit for bringing R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. to NASCAR, which led to the creation of the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit that lasted from 1971 through 2003.

I’ll take it. But I can assure you that when I met with R.J. Reynolds, early in 1971, it wasn’t to extend the company an invitation to join NASCAR.

I was there for myself; for my business interests. At the time I was a NASCAR team owner without a team.

Let me give you some background. Back in 1966 Ford pulled out of NASCAR because it felt the rules were against it.

John Holman had a Ford team. He was stuck, just as the other Ford team owners. He asked me to build a car for Fred Lorenzen to race at Atlanta. He wanted a car that could compete with the Chrysler products, which seemed to benefit most from the rules at that time.

Bill France wanted to know what it would take to get Ford back into racing and I told him to let me build that Ford, race it in Atlanta and, well, he could take it from there.

When that car showed up at Atlanta it raised a ruckus. As I remember, the front end sloped downward, the roof was cut very low and the rear end was raised. Let’s just say it didn’t look anything like a Ford out of Detroit.

Because it was painted yellow – the primary color of Holly Farms, my sponsor – the car was called “The Banana.”

That car had a heckuva time getting through inspection. We had to take it to body shops all over Atlanta to make changes.

We ran the race. I recall, though, that we didn’t finish because a tire blew and Fred crashed.

But the point was made. Sure enough, France gave enough concessions to Ford that it got back into NASCAR.

The next three years with Ford were good ones for me – especially the 1969 season withHolly Farms I look forward to telling you that story.

But by 1970, Ford pulled out of NASCAR again. I did have support from an IndyCar guy who made parts for engine companies. He was around for two years.

But he decided to go back to IndyCar racing and so I didn’t have anything. I built a few cars and engines in my shop for other guys.

You might remember that in 1970, the tobacco companies were under fire from the government, which wanted to ban cigarette advertising on television – and it did.

When I learned that, I wanted to get a meeting with R.J. Reynolds – located in Winston-Salem, N.C., just a short drive from Ronda – as quick as I could.

I needed a sponsor and I knew that, since it could not advertise on TV, Reynolds would have plenty of money.

I started talking with Reynolds late in 1970 and got a meeting in 1971. I presented my thing and, to my surprise, they sort of laughed at me when I told them how much money I needed.

I had asked for $850,000. Were they giggling at me because that was too much? Nope, it was just the opposite. They told me they had a $570 million advertising budget.

I admit I was a bit taken aback. It occurred to me that NASCAR was struggling somewhat at the time and I just told the Reynolds officials, “You need to be with NASCAR because it is bigger than me.”

I had no idea what would happen. R.J. Reynolds, with NASCAR, created the Winston Cup Series, a point fund, a new schedule and a lot more.

It ushered NASCAR into a new era.

Me? I didn’t get that $850,000.

NASCAR would not allow any team to have the same sponsor it had. It would create a conflict of interest.

I was tore up. I needed the money more than NASCAR did.

NASCAR even told me that, although I had helped it get the Reynolds deal, it could not cater to me when it came to competition.

Thinking back, it kind of hurt me a little bit that a lot of people thought I got favors out of NASCAR because of the Reynolds deal. That was never the case.

So, for a while, I was right back where I started.

But then I got a phone call from a man named Richard Howard, who was the promoter at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

He thought that, if he could put a competitive Chevrolet in the World 600, people starving to see the most popular car in America race would come to his track in droves.

He asked me if I would build one. I agreed.

What happened after that is another story.

 

Bristol Wasn’t Boring, It Just Wasn’t Bristol

The fans are placing Bristol in a box called boring. It’s true the track has changed, but the racing was great. The fans want the bump and run from this track. What will Bruton Smith and NASCAR do about it? Only they know, but they had better listen to the fans. www.motorsportsunplugged.com

NASCAR Not In Atlanta This Week? Blame It On The Weather

The Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., is the fourth race of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, something I don’t think I need to tell you.

But for many years in the past – during which Auto Club Speedway didn’t exist, by the way – the fourth race of every season was held at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

What was once known as Atlanta International Raceway used to have two races per season. One was nearly always in late March, usually the fourth of each season, and the second, well, it moved around a bit.

It was once held in July and then, after another shift or two, moved to mid-November, where it gained notoriety as the last race of the season at which, many times, the champion was crowned.

But then that second race was transferred to Labor Day weekend last year – a date, ironically, taken from Darlington and given to Auto Club Speedway, only to be presented to Atlanta for 2010.

Got all that?

This year, Atlanta has only one race date, the one on Labor Day weekend. Gone is its long-standing March event that was nearly always the fourth of a season.

If Atlanta had kept its March date, well, the competitors would be headed there about now.

Atlanta seemingly always struggled to attract fans to its March races. It was much easier to lure them in November, especially when a championship was on the line.

In March it seemed weather was always an issue. On the verge of spring in the Southeast, anything can happen, and it seemed it did at Atlanta.

Bitter cold, freezing rain, windstorms, snowstorms, ice storms – you name it, it hit Atlanta.

I could tell you stories about how media guys in the press box had to wear parkas and three pairs of socks to fight the cold. Atlanta’s public relations staff was very accommodating, placing space heaters where possible.

If it was like that in the press box, imagine what it was like in the grandstands. Fans weren’t about to spend good money to sit outside and freeze or perhaps get soaking wet. Richard Petty may be in town but to hell with it.

To be fair it must be said that Atlanta wasn’t the only track plagued by weather issues at the start of each NASCAR season.

Richmond was traditionally the second or third race of the year and NASCAR often swapped its dates with those of North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham, N.C.

Both were located farther north than Atlanta so, obviously, they were beset by weather problems of their own.

As it was for Atlanta, both endured the same things: cold, snow, rain, wind, ice. Like Atlanta, the two tracks had to postpone races because of huge blizzards more than once.

And, like Atlanta, they had trouble attracting weather-wary fans.

For years it was asked why NASCAR held three of its first four races of each season – Daytona was first, of course – at tracks located in areas where weather was likely to be a factor.

At the time NASCAR had nowhere else to go. There was no Las Vegas, no Phoenix and no Fontana.

Now, those tracks play host to three of the first five races of the season, which betters the weather odds considerably.

Only Bristol, which held its Jeff Byrd 500 on March 20, remains a track at which weather could – just could – have an adverse effect on attendance.

In fact, Bristol’s first race of the season probably had its worst attendance in years. It was announced at 120,000 and was probably less than that.

Still, a six-figure crowd at any sporting event is huge. Can’t get that many folks into the Super Bowl.

Bristol’s problem this year wasn’t the weather. As has already been said by so many, the track likely fell victim to the economy, rising gas prices and the fact that its reconfiguration has created a style of racing that is a departure from the bashing and gouging once prevalent – and necessary for passing. Fans loved that.

At Atlanta, however, it was different. Weather was its biggest challenge every March.

The racing, though, was often well above par. I can remember Darrell Waltrip’s victory, by inches, over Petty as they sped toward the race-ending caution flag (for rain, of course) in 1982.

There was Bill Elliott’s first win at his home track in 1985, which he achieved despite a severely broken leg he sustained two weeks earlier.

There was also journeyman Morgan Shepherd’s improbable victory in 1986 with the second-tier Jack Beebe team. There were many others, of course.

The point is that times change. The season now starts in Daytona, then moves to Phoenix and Las Vegas and follows Bristol with Fontana.
Richmond now conducts its events in late May and September. Rockingham hasn’t been part of the Sprint Cup schedule for years.
Atlanta stages its only race on Labor Day weekend. It’s traditional, and troubled, March date is gone.
Weather is now less of a concern at the start of each season than it has ever been.
I am sure Atlanta would love to have two races each season. Any track that had so for decades, and has no longer, certainly has to feel a loss.

But I know the folks at Atlanta well. Like their compatriots at Darlington, who have persevered nicely with the loss of a traditional date, they will make the most of it.

And fans will benefit.

Jennifer Jo Cobb Wins!

Jennifer Jo Cobb, a Nationwide Series hopeful, was faced with a tough decision. Her team owner wanted her to start the Bristol race and park the car thus earning starting money for the team and saving the car for a less physical race. She refused and walked away. Good. www.motorsportsunplugged.com

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