Martinsville is my favorite track and it has absolutely nothing to do with the hot dogs. It’s a short, flat track out in the middle of nowhere. It doesn’t have the high speeds and pack racing of Daytona and Talladega. It’s not located near a major metro area like Las Vegas or Chicago where there’s plenty to do outside the track. But it holds a special place for me.
When I was writing The Physics of NASCAR, I arrived about 6am, before the Sun was up, to make sure I wouldn’t hit traffic and miss the opening of the garage. I sat in my rental car and read through my notes from the last day… and scanned the weather forecast because there was likely going to be rain.
There weren’t a lot of cars there in the parking lot just off the midway. Three generations of a family were setting up their breakfast opposite me. The kids were a little sluggish — apparently not used to getting up quite this early on a Sunday. Before long there was a grill running and the smell of food that was much better than the McDonald’s I’d picked up along the way. I enjoy the quiet of the early morning because it’s the perfect time to think – to get yourself oriented for the day.
At first, it was just the low buzz of the people across the way cooking and drinking the first cups of coffee of the day. And then, off somewhere in the darkness, a low voice started singing a hymn. Other voices joined in and the sound quietly made its way across the parking lot. A religious service was being held near the 31 souvenir trailer and the hollers of Martinsville made the perfect acoustics for a church. A preacher started talking – not a revival-type sermon, but a low, quiet reflection about the importance of thinking about what you do in life and how you treat other people. About the fact that each of us has the power each day to make someone else’s life better — or worse — and that we need to keep that in mind before we act. There was more singing, more people joining in as the Sun started to rise and light spread over the parking lots. I’m not an organized religion person. The year my grandmother took me to get my throat blessed, I got the mumps. But sitting there in my car listening to the singing was a truly spiritual moment and a reminder to take a few moments each morning and think about what you can and should do during the rest of the day.
There is a lot I remember about that weekend. I actually never ate a hot dog. I was too busy running around trying to keep up with everything. I do remember the thrill of standing in the qualifying line on pit road with the car already on the track whizzing by us fifteen feet away. You know how Kenny Wallace always talks about ‘Kenny Wallace the race car driver’ not being anything like Kenny the television guy? It’s 100% true. Wallace started out joking with everyone and as the car crept up to the front of the qualifying line, he got quieter and quieter, focusing only on the qualifying effort. Walking pit road with Josh, Elliott Sadler’s crew chief at the time, as he gestured with a cup of coffee (the 19 team had the best coffee!) at cracks in the pit stall that might cause a pit crew member to slip during a stop. Watching Kirk, Elliott’s crew chief, crawl over the little half wall that forms one side of the garage stall and stand a few feet from the track trying to see how the car was transferring weight as it came out of the corner for as long as he could before a NASCAR official told him to move back. Learning that the best place for me to stand so I’d be out of the way was inevitably wherever the trash can was. The best National Anthems of any track. The quiet competence of the head engineer, Chad Johnston — who is now Martin Truex, Jr.’s crew chief — instructing the crew to get a canopy up over the tires when it became clear it would rain. How nice everyone on that team was to me while I was following them around asking annoying questions. Watching how hard a disappointing finish affects the driver and the crew. Seeing how much sheer love of the sport and competitiveness everyone associated with NASCAR has.
Martinsville may not have fancy suites and garages, the best toilets in the series, or the poshest hotels — but if anyone asks me what tracks they ought to make sure they get to, Martinsville is right up there in my top three.