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NASCAR's Helton on Martinsville Speedway: 'This is where we started'

10/18/2008 - NASCAR

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- The Chase is more a pilgrimage this weekend, back to NASCAR's deepest roots -- its smallest, oldest, oddest track.

Whenever NASCAR president Mike Helton brings younger officials here, where the parking lots are grassy hillsides, inevitably, Helton says, "Somebody asks, 'How did Martinsville ever even get a [race] date?'

"I tell them, 'What you have to understand is that Martinsville built NASCAR. NASCAR didn't build Martinsville.'"

Going into Sunday's race, the 119th for Cup cars at Martinsville Speedway, there is again much talk of the bedlam sure to come of cramming 43 cars onto a tiny track that is only 0.526 of a mile around, flat, narrow, shaped like a paper clip and built in 1947, before there was a NASCAR.

"The shorter the track, the more hostile [the racing] becomes, because it has to," says Jeff Burton, who's second in the Chase, and who grew up 60 miles from here and has loved this place since childhood.

The drivers are again calling this the Chase's second wild card -- the little one, as opposed to the big one already turned at Talladega. Here, as there, the risk is that Chasers can get caught in other drivers' pileups, scrambling the playoffs.

The difference is, Talladega features wild bump-drafting and crashing on NASCAR's biggest track. Racing here looks more like bumper cars at a county fair.

But this is no amusement ride. This place punishes cars and drivers as much as or more than any on the Cup tour.

"It requires a great deal of aggressiveness, and at the same time a great deal of patience," Burton says.

Drivers' right legs cramp up from alternately jamming on the brakes and flooring the gas pedal -- 1,000 repetitions in a 500-lap race.

Brakes are sure to glow, even catch fire, from hard work slowing off the long straights into the tight corners. And Burton says, "Engine problems occur because of the low RPM [through the corners] to the high RPM [on the straights]."

Burton ought to know. In 2006 he came here leading the Chase, but his engine blew early. He dropped to fifth in the standings, ending his championship hopes that year.

And again for the umpteenth time, there is much talk that rustic Martinsville could lose a race date to a bigger market.

This time the supposed benefactor would be Kansas City, where the speedway is expected to get a second Cup date annually as part of a big-business scheme to combine the attractions of Cup racing and casino gambling.

This place has weathered worse than that.

The first time NASCAR tried to move Martinsville race dates, the reputed bootlegger who built the track, Henry Clay Earles, stuck a .38 revolver in his pants pocket, drove across the state line to Greensboro, N.C., and boarded a plane for Daytona Beach, Fla., NASCAR headquarters.

This was before airports had metal detectors. And besides, Clay Earles packed heat everywhere he went.

Big Bill France, founder and first czar of NASCAR, meant to usurp Martinsville's lovely spring and autumn race dates for his new track in Talladega, Ala.

Earles, who died in 1999, used to tell how he walked into Big Bill's office, pulled the .38 and calmly said, "Bill, if you don't give me back my race dates, right now, I'm going to kill you."

One tough old cuss knew the other meant business. France, as Earles recounted, immediately picked up the phone and ordered his lieutenants to restore the dates to Martinsville. Matter settled.

Forty years later, the business of NASCAR is not run that simply.

Clay Earles is nine years gone, and for the past four years the France family has controlled the track he built.

His grandson, Clay Campbell, remains as track president but is now employed by the 12-track International Speedway Corp. empire controlled by the France family, which also owns NASCAR outright.

The 2009 schedule is set, and Martinsville will have two races.

Beyond that, the only substantive part of reports and rumors is that Kansas Speedway is likely to get a second date in the foreseeable future.

The speculative part is that the date will be taken from Martinsville from within ISC, which also owns Kansas.

I think it's important that we've moved our sport into bigger venues, bigger parts of the country. I also think it's very important to remember what has put us here.

-- Jeff Burton

Campbell, whose family sold its interest in the Martinsville track to ISC in 2004, is now something of an ISC insider. He says, "We have not been approached by anybody at ISC stating that Kansas is going to get a second date and, boom! -- 'It's coming from your place.' Nobody has given me any indication that would happen."

"We have not had any specific requests from ISC to make any changes," says Helton, who makes out each year's schedule for NASCAR.

"All we can do is continue to upgrade what we have," says Campbell, who has spent $3 million of ISC money this year on improvements, including a new pit road, a dazzling scoreboard and an expanded media center.

All through NASCAR's expansion out of the South and into bigger markets the past 15 years, Martinsville losing a Cup date has generated the most rumors.

And so again this weekend, virtually by ritual, there is a unified outcry of homage to the little track from drivers and officials alike.

Perhaps the most reassuring defense of the place comes from Helton himself: "This is where we started. And that has a place in NASCAR today, and in the future."

"I think it's important that we've moved our sport into bigger venues, bigger parts of the country," says Burton. "I also think it's very important to remember what has put us here. Having an understanding of the history of our sport, I think, is very important."

"I think it's important for us to be here, if you look at the history of the sport and the role that Martinsville has played in that history," says Jeff Gordon, who has won more races here (seven) than any other active driver.

Kansas is Clint Bowyer's home track, and, "hell yeah," he'd like to see a second Cup date there. But not at the expense of Martinsville.

"I don't want to get in trouble, but look at California," Bowyer says of the track owned by ISC near Los Angeles. "We're not filling the grandstands there. This place is rich in history and it's been a part of NASCAR for a long, long time."

"I don't think history and tradition should be your ticket to eternity," Campbell says. "But I also think that you can't overlook history and tradition."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.