Fans who appreciate Martinsville Speedway also greatly appreciate short-track racing. They will tell you it is the best NASCAR has to offer.
And they will also likely say NASCAR desperately needs more short tracks. I’ll be honest. If the sanctioning body did have more events on half-milers, I don’t think it would suffer at all.
That, however, is highly unlikely to happen.
There was a time when short tracks, either asphalt or dirt, were the staple of NASCAR. That’s because they were built to entertain the locals and, as such, they were there for the sanctioning body’s picking.
In the pioneer days a NASCAR schedule could consist of a many as 52 races, conducted anywhere from a Wednesday through a Sunday.
So it wasn’t strange to see a 100-lap “quickie” race run at Macon, Ga., Columbia, S.C, Greenville, S.C., Hampton, Va., or even Ona, WVa., of all places.
That began to slowly change after the 1959 construction of Daytona International Speedway. The 2.5-mile monster provided the fastest stock car races ever seen. Heads were turned and minds were changed.
Afterward began a deluge of new “superspeedway” construction in larger venues, including Charlotte, Atlanta, Rockingham, N.C., Brooklyn, Mich. Pocono, Pa., College Station, Tex., Ontario, Calif., Dover, Del., and at the end of the 1960s, Talladega, Ala.
All of this dramatically changed the perception of NASCAR’s environment. The prevalent thinking was it belonged on big high-speed tracks – not on half-milers in podunk towns.
NASCAR was somewhat hesitant to make changes. It wanted to keep what it had because it didn’t have the resources to make drastic changes – or that the least it didn’t have the nerve to do so.
It was done for it. In 1972, R.J. Reynolds was in its first full year as the sponsor of what became the Winston Cup Series. It put up $100,000 in points money.
That hefty boost to NASCAR meant Reynolds could dictate policy. And it did so. It wanted the schedule to be streamlined, costs reduced and races held in places that offered the best exposure for its product.
So in 1972 the era of as many as 52 races per season was gone; cut to 31.
And short tracks virtually disappeared. Only five remained in 1972 – Martinsville, Bristol, Richmond, Nashville and North Wilkesboro.
Races at the half-milers were hugely popular. Sellouts at Martinsville – and at the high-banked Bristol track – were not unusual.
But, in time, the short tracks dwindled. Nashville was the first to go. North Wilkesboro hung on until 1995 and when it disappeared many bemoaned the fact NASCAR had lost the speedway that best linked it to it past and tradition.
But North Wilkesboro simply could not keep up with the NASCAR popularity boom that was the ‘90s.
Tracks were adding seats to accommodate increasing attendance. More amenities were added. Speedways spent a lot of money expanding with the thought that doing so was the only way they would remain part of NASCAR.
Martinsville, Bristol and Richmond kept up. Martinsville added seats and VIP lounges. Bristol increased its seating to mammoth proportions and converted itself into a stock car racing coliseum.
Richmond changed dramatically. It went from a half-mile speedway to one three-quarters of a mile in length, complete with many more seats. It remains the only track of its size in NASCAR.
Over the years NASCAR expansion has indeed absorbed larger markets – but not a single short track. Most of them are 1.5 miles in length and are known, derisively, as “cookie cutter tracks.”
Martinsville, Bristol and Richmond are dealing with the problems that face all of NASCAR today, such as dwindling attendance, falling television ratings and the ongoing struggle to acquire needed sponsorship.
But for those who like the type of racing the short tracks provide – slam-bang, push-and-shove, root out the other guy – there’s no better time of any season as when their events roll around.
And they will let you know it.
I am convinced Martinsville, Bristol and Richmond will remain on the NASCAR schedule. My opinion is the sanctioning body cannot afford to lose them.
Fact is, I agree with those who say it could use a few more like them.
Again, unfortunately, that is not likely to happen.
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