The mecca of racing that is Martinsville

Martinsville may be a throwback track, but it's definitely a current favorite among NASCAR fans. Photo courtesy Martinsville Speedway

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It's shaped like a paper clip and, compared to superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega, it's not much bigger than one.

It's all part of what defines Martinsville Speedway and why it has become a mecca for race fans.

The motor sports pilgrimage continues this weekend, as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes a whistle-stop at Martinsville for the Tums Fast Relief 500. Race time is 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

Tucked away in the mountains of south-central Virginia, the 0.526-mile bullring has brought them in every year since 1947, making it the oldest track on the Sprint Cup circuit. It first held a NASCAR race in 1948 and a year later staged the sixth race in what was to become the Cup Series.

"It's the best track on the circuit as far as I'm concerned," said NASCAR follower Mike Persinger of Buena Vista, Va. "I've been going there since I was 9. Mom and Dad took us every year. It's a tradition. I was there back when Clay Earles would come out and feed the ducks there at the track."

Earles started building the track in 1946 and later was found of presenting race winners with grandfather clocks instead of trophies, according to the New York Times. Richard Petty took home a dozen of the clocks.

Half the size of some of the mammoth tracks on the NASCAR circuit, Martinsville's layout has been described as two drag strips with short turns, according to Earles' obituary by the Times in November 1999.

For Virginia native Eddie Wood of Wood Brothers Racing, it's his home track. But it's special to him for more reasons than just proximity.

"It's still racing like it's always been," said Wood, who watched his father race modifieds and even a convertible there as a child. "Racing's changed everywhere else. Whether it's the Car of Tomorrow, the one we used before or modifieds, the racing here has always been the same."

Which means the races are typically tough on both brakes and tempers.

David Pearson, one of the sport's all-time greats with 105 career victories, got to Victory Lane only one time at Martinsville.

"I didn't have a short track car when I ran there, but I was lucky enough to win there once," he said. "Funny thing about that track, it seemed the harder I tried, the slower I'd get. But it's a fun track to drive."

And it puts on fun races to watch, which is why fans come back to it again and again.

"The fans there are great," Pearson said. "They really get into it there. I think there are more NASCAR fans from Virginia than anywhere. And Martinsville had good places to eat, I remember that. Good bologna sandwiches."

The hot dogs are more famous. As Wood recalls, the track once changed the hot dogs, or tried to, before the teams all went to the NASCAR hauler and demanded the old ones back. They got their wish.

"They make a lot of changes in this sport, but when they mess with the Martinsville hot dogs, they've gone too far," said Wood, who has been eating them "since I could hold one." He claims he had five while testing there once.

The teams aren't the only ones who crave them, though.

"I get a couple of the hot dogs every year," Persinger said. "They have a hint of spice to them. I think that's what makes them so good."

It's only fitting, since the action on the track can get spicy, too.

"The best ending for me was in the fall of 87 when [Dale] Earnhardt, [Darrell] Waltrip and [Terry] Labonte were three wide on the last lap," Persinger said. "Darrell won, and I believe it was his first win in the Tide car."

Fellow fan Andrew Bulakowski of New Jersey did not get to savor the Martinsville experience until more recently.

"I go to about 10 races a year -- Dover, Charlotte, Daytona, Homestead -- but until recently I had never been to Martinsville," he said. "They were so cordial. It started with the ticket office and continued to the camping area. The fans have parties around the track area, and we were invited to every one of them.

"It was like people had known us for 100 years. The experience we had around the track, we never wanted to leave.

"It was the most unique experience for me as a race fan I've ever had. There was action on every inch of the speedway. Something is constantly going on."

Teresa Adams makes the 300-mile pilgrimage from Mount Clare, W. Va., with her girlfriends twice a year. She echoes Bulakowski's sentiments about Martinsville.

"I like the size of the track," she said. "It's not as fast as Atlanta or Talladega but it's just as exciting. There's not a lot of space for them to hurry up down the front and backstretches. I go to Bristol, too, but I like Martinsville best. The camping area is great. My girlfriends and I feel safe there. We've never had any problems."

Persinger and his brothers camp out for tickets all night long.

"We used to wait starting at 6 in the morning," he said. "But now we get there around 6:30 or 7 the night before. We're usually the first ones, and it's worth it."

For Persinger, it's the style of racing that makes it so worth it.

"It's side-by-side racing," he said. "The beatin' and bangin' is the best thing about it. And you're close enough to the action that if the drivers wear white gloves, you can tell if their car is handling well by watching them move their hands around on the wheel. When those cars come around, you can feel the aluminum grandstands shake."

It's an experience that's brought fans back for more than 60 years.