By Mike Mulhern
If Bristol, Tennessee – population 42,000, in a Tri-Cities market of around 480,000 on Virginia-Tennessee border – can pull in 160,000 fans twice a year for its NASCAR weekends, then why not Martinsville – population 15,000…in a Piedmont Triad market of more than 1.5 million?
Certainly it’s not the market that’s limiting.
In fact, within a 120-mile radius of this legendary Blue Ridge foothills track are the Charlotte-area’s two million and the Raleigh Triangle’s 1.5 million.
So perhaps it’s time for Jim France and Lesa France Kennedy to give NASCAR CEO Brian France a little more to work with here: by taking a page from the Bruton Smith playbook and bringing in the bulldozers, the big Cats, and do a major rebuild….just like Paul Sawyer did up in Richmond a few years back, turning the quaint Fairground Raceway into a first-class facility that now draws well over 100,000 to each of its two annual NASCAR Sprint Cup events.
Over the years, Clay Campbell, the grandson of Martinsville Speedway founder Clay Earles and now running this track for the France family’s International Speedway Corp., has chaffed – angrily, to be sure – at any hint that perhaps the sport of NASCAR racing has outgrown this place.
And with good reason. After all the Triad itself, just 30 miles south, is the 30th largest metropolitan area in the U.S. Throw in another 100,000 in nearby Roanoke.
After all, this is heartland stock car racing country too.
If the Frances did get up off the family billfold and write some big checks for capital improvements – hey, rebuild the entire layout, make the track itself a seven-eighths-mile Bristol or Richmond, put up 100,000 seats and luxury suites – maybe they could give Smith and Speedway Motorsports a little competition.
Look at what Bruton Smith has done at Bristol since he bought it 10 years ago.
Look at the $200 million improvement project underway at Smith’s Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
Look at what Smith has done at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
And consider the big plans Bruton Smith has for his new Loudon track.
Maybe it’s time for the Frances to do something equally dramatic here.
If Brian France is really sincere about ‘back to basics,’ to regain those lost core fans, what better way to make up for dumping North Carolina Motor Speedway and North Wilkesboro Speedway and moving the Southern 500 out to Los Angeles?
Remember, these fans here this weekend are some of the people who made this sport what it is for the Frances and Smith.
Redesigning and rebuilding NASCAR tracks is nothing new, of course. Homestead-Miami is on its third or fourth redesign.
And with the Seattle, New York City and Denver projects seemingly dead in the water, why not shore up the sport’s core?
Campbell is rightly proud of his track’s heritage: “This is our 61st year, and it speaks a lot for what we have done at Martinsville…and it speaks a lot for our relationship with NASCAR.
“Obviously the fans still love this type of racing. If you look at the speedway, nothing has changed on the track itself—shape, size, from the very first day it opened back in 1947.”
But then the world has changed a lot since 1947, the sports world too, and the NASCAR world. And Sunday’s Goody’s 500 may not be a sellout, even if this is the smallest stadium on the tour.
Perhaps it’s time for a little change…..
Of course this spring Campbell concedes the soft U.S. economy is hurting NASCAR ticket sales across the board: “The economy has affected just about everything and everybody. Yes, we still do have tickets available. And normally we do up to this point.
“But it’s been soft this year.”
The price of gas he says is a major issue: “The biggest reason track operators have a challenge, versus other professional sports, is our people have to travel such a great distance to see our events.
“It’s not like a professional sports team where the majority of the fans are local.
“It’s a challenge for fans to come in via campers, or flying in, or driving. I haven’t seen it like this in a long time.
“That’s our biggest challenge now—getting people to travel.
“Then you tack on the accommodations and ticket prices, it’s just tough times.
“We have actively promoted the event, we always do. But we have gone outside that box this year trying to reach other markets.”
Martinsville Speedway is not only the smallest track on the Cup tour but also has the least seats. But Campbell insists he’s not worried about the future of Martinsville Speedway.
And he points to some improvements planned.
“We have numerous things on our wish list,” Campbell says. “I can’t really announce what we’re doing, but there are numerous things we’re looking at.
“We hope to get our pit road resurfaced, either concrete or asphalt.
“We’re redoing the cross-over gate to a Safer barrier system, extending Safer barrier coming out of turn four. That will start probably the week after the event.
“In the grandstands we’re putting in stadium seats, fold down seats.
“As we go forward into our five year plan, you’ll see considerable changes.”
However, maybe Campbell and the Frances aren’t thinking big enough yet, to really significant changes.
But then Campbell says the, well, quaintness of this place is part of the charm.
“We’re pretty close to everything around here,” Campbell says. “It’s a small town, and when we have the events our population is doubled—We put more people in the speedway than we have in Henry County and Martinsville.
“But I think that’s the appeal. Our location, with the Blue Ridge mountains close by, we have a lot of scenic things to see and places to go.
“You’re not out in the middle of nowhere.
“It’s a pretty neat place. It’s not a big city, by any stretch of the imagination.
“As far as the track, people like when you sit in the grandstands you get to see the action up-close and personal.
“It’s old fashioned racing, like it used to be.
“This track is unique—drivers either love it or hate it. Number one, it’s not an easy track. It makes for a long day. It’s a lot of work.
“You put 43 cars on a half mile track you’re going to be in traffic most of the day, and it’s mentally demanding and physically demanding.”
But then Texas Motor Speedway, next week’s NASCAR tour stop, is mentally and physically demanding too….and that 500 will draw a crowd close to 200,000.