Racing at historic Martinsville Speedway like stepping back in time

Jeff Burton on walking into Martinsville Speedway. "... You can't help but think about David Pearson and Richard Petty and the guys who made this sport what it is." AP Photo/Steve Helber

Not so long ago I dared to let my career meander across the invisible line that separates those who cover NASCAR (we, the evil media) and those who underwrite it (they, the evil marketers and advertisers). It was during a dinner with a pack of the latter at a pricey man-I-am-not-dressed-right-for-this-place Vegas restaurant when I realized that perhaps I'd ended up on the wrong side of the sport that I love so much.

"What races do we have coming up next on the schedule?" one Fortune 500 sports marketing executive asked another, his pinkie reaching skyward as he sipped on a $15 cosmopolitan.

"Let's see," replied a sales rep who wore a $500 blouse purchased at the Venetian that clearly was not intended for her body type. "Atlanta ..."

They all shrugged indifferently.

"Bristol ..."

"Ugh," groaned a soft drink suit. "That place is so loud."

"Then ..." she nearly choked on her couscous. "Oh no ... Martinsville."

As she said it, the reaction that dominoed its way around the table was about what I might have expected had the maitre d' tipped over a port-a-john in the middle of the dining room.

"Martinsville! What a waste of a race date! There's nowhere to stay ... there's nowhere to entertain clients ... there's no hospitality village ... there's nowhere to get a good latte!"

"But," I said, raising my voice above the horrified gasps, "you have to love a place with all that history, right? Short-track racing, DW, The King, Dale ... hell, when they first raced up there the track was still dirt!"

"Dirt?" Blouse lady said, doing a spit take with her pinot noir. "They used to run races on dirt?"

That was all I needed to hear. Without getting into any more detail than is needed, let's just say that my evening may have started with the stuffed shirts, but it ended around 2 a.m. at the Barbary Coast eating the $2.99 Big Breakfast with a bunch of guys dressed head-to-toe in Ricky Rudd gear.

The Rudd and bacon boys already knew what I had so unsuccessfully been able to explain to those other folks, the ones who jet out of every racetrack as soon as the green flag is dropped. And based on his "we have to get back in touch with our core audience" speech during this year's preseason media tour, I'd say that NASCAR chairman Brian France is coming to grips with my attempted point as well.

Racing at the Martinsville Speedway isn't something NASCAR has to do -- it's something NASCAR needs to do.

"There are very few weekends left where you say to yourself, 'This is what it used to feel like,'" said 16-year vet Jeff Burton, who grew up just down the road in South Boston, Va. "But when you walk into Martinsville, you can't help but think about David Pearson and Richard Petty and the guys who made this sport what it is."

Actually, Jeff, by the time David and Richard showed up, the 'Ville already had been in business for a couple of decades. It is the last track left from NASCAR's original Strictly Stock schedule in '49. The other seven either have been bulldozed, were replaced with industrial parks, are overgrown with pine trees, or sit quietly in their own rust.

The only other current Cup track even remotely of the same generation as Martinsville is the Darlington Raceway, but the Lady in Black wasn't born until 1950. By then, Clay Earles' .526-mile paper clip already had been in business for three years.

"You'd drive over there and you knew you were close by the dust," said Wood Brothers team owner Glen Wood, who has been coming over from Stuart, Va., nearly since the beginning and drove in the track's final two dirt events in 1953 and '54. "There would be this sky-high cloud of orange dust coming up out of that little valley like a tornado. You'd sit in the grandstand and watch the cars race while the Norfolk Southern train went by down the backstretch. Except for the asphalt on the track, today it looks exactly the same, train and everything."

Sure, there isn't the palatial infield luxury of Vegas or Daytona. There are no sprawling grounds for corporate entertainment like we have in Chicago or Kansas City. It doesn't have condos like Atlanta and Texas or a corporate title like Charlotte. And the cramped garage isn't the kind of place where you can stretch your legs and spread out your gear like, well, pretty much everywhere else.

But what Martinsville does have are the azaleas in Turns 1 and 2, as much a part of early April in the south as their more famous blooming cousins down in Amen Corner. It has those tight-as-biking-shorts corners that crack brakes like walnuts and force 43 cars into a fender-bending funnel twice per lap over 500 laps. And while it may not have Wolfgang Puck serving up Chinese chicken salad like Fontana, it does have little old ladies serving up hot pink Jesse Jones hot dogs by the fistful.

"I don't see how you eat those things," pinot lady told me that night in Vegas. "They look like they might kill you."

You know what, they might. But my indigestion will be the same pain felt by Cale Yarborough, who insisted on downing at least two dogs before each race and went on to win six of them. And at least I'll go down with a smile on my face and my ears still ringing from the sounds of 60 years of short-track racing.

The suits say it's too loud. I say it's just right. The better to drown out their whining.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.