Southern stock-car racing, the rough-and-tumble sport born out of moonshine runners in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is big business now and threatens to leave its roots behind.
They started running races at Martinsville in 1947 but the half-mile track today is part of a vanishing breed as NASCAR, the sanctioning body, seeks new venues in high-media markets like Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
NASCAR has already abandoned small tracks in Rockingham and North Wilkesboro and even eliminated the traditional Labor Day race at the legendary Darlington, South Carolina, track where Floyd County native and stock car legend Curtis Turner dominated so many races.
So far, Martinsville has managed to hold on to the two races on the Nextel Cup schedule, but a lot of empty seats marred the grandstand view Sunday while the more showy half-mile track at Bristol sells out months in advance.
NASCAR also wants to expand races in big media markets like Chicago and build a new track in New York City. Already hit hard by collapse of the textile market in the Southside and declines in the town’s showcase furniture industry, Martinsville struggles to just hold on.
The minor league baseball team moved out last year because the declining tax base could not fund a new stadium demanded by its owners and the Spring and Fall races at Martinsville Speedway remain the town’s two annual big moneymakers. But track builder and founder Clay Earles sold the facility to NASCAR last year, a move many see as the first step to cutting Martsinville back to one race a year to make room on a crowded schedule and eventual abandonment of the facility.
With gas prices climbing and ticket prices starting at $40 each, NASCAR may soon be out of reach to the fans who built the sport and a sanctioning body that puts money above loyalty may leave one of its original, and few remaining, homes in the Blue Ridge Mountains where it all started.