News & Media


HOF: Martinsville founder Earles lived life reinventing, modifying, improving

December 14, 2011, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

After paving Martinsville in 1955, H. Clay Earles continued to make improvements, eventually adding grandstands that seat 70,000, corporate suites and an infield care center.

Martinsville Speedway founder Earles lived life reinventing, modifying, improving

The words that founder H. Clay Earles used to describe his vision for Martinsville Speedway -- "work is never finished at this track" -- still ring true today in the way current president Clay Campbell handles the position.

That's because when he wasn't picking up trash, cutting the grass or working in the maintenance shop, Campbell was busy listening to his grandfather's words of wisdom. After all, Earles knew the value in a hard day's labor. And he lived his own life in the same way -- always reinventing, modifying and improving.

"When a man plunks down his money, he deserves the best. You try to make him comfortable, give him a great show and make sure he gets his money's worth."

--H. CLAY EARLES

"The secret to success in our business is giving the customer what he wants," Earles once said. "When a man plunks down his money, he deserves the best. You try to make him comfortable, give him a great show and make sure he gets his money's worth. And we've always tried to do just that.

"Your customers are your greatest asset. And that will never change. You actually sell the customer a memory as much as a race. If his memory of Martinsville Speedway is good, he'll keep coming back. Racing will change, continue to grow, and you can thank the fans for that. They are the best fans in the world."

From humble beginnings, Earles grew to be one of racing's most respected promoters and track owners. And for that, he was one of five persons nominated this year for possible induction into NASCAR's Hall of Fame.

A 21-person nominating committee made up of representatives of NASCAR, the Hall of Fame and track owners voted to add Earles, Bobby Isaac, Cotton Owens, Les Richter and Leonard Wood to the list of candidates. The Class of 2012 -- which will be inducted into the Hall in January -- includes Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Richie Evans, Dale Inman and Glen Wood.

Earles seemingly had a gift for business right from the start, both in making -- and saving -- money. Born in Henry County, Va., in 1913, he grew up on a tobacco farm and made his first nickel at age 4, gathering leaves in the fields. Instead of spending the nickel, he kept it. And eventually had it mounted onto a tie clip that he wore on occasion.

By the time he was 10, he was working after school at a country store, bringing in $1.50 a week. He eventually quit high school as a freshman and took a job at a furniture factory, making 25 cents an hour.

He eventually saved up enough money to buy a billiard hall, which went bust after only six months. It was a rare failure for Earles, who had enough left to buy a service station. After three years, he used the profits to secure a bank loan to build the first drive-in restaurant in Martinsville.

By 1938, Earles had sold the restaurant at a handsome profit and purchased another service station, which he continued to own for the next 16 years. After the end of World War II, Earles saw a growing interest in stock car racing and thought he'd build a track south of town on a 300-acre piece of property he owned.

He budgeted $10,000 for the project, which wound up costing nearly $60,000 before the first race was even scheduled. That may not seem like much now, but at a time when the average price of a new home was $13,000 -- and a good yearly wage was around $3,500 -- that was a princely sum.

"When we finished building the track and filling in the lake, we had only about seven to ten acres left for parking, enough to accommodate about 1,400 cars or about 4,000 people," Earles said. "And we had completed only 750 of our proposed 5,000 seats."

Eager to try and recoup his expenses, Earles picked Sept. 7, 1947 for the first Modified Stock Car race -- three months before NASCAR was founded. He posted signs on telephone poles and had local businesses put out signboards on street corners, advertising what Earles claimed would be a 'dust free race," since the track had state-of-the-art oiled straightaways.

A part of history


A 21-person nominating committee made up of representatives of NASCAR, the Hall of Fame and track owners voted to add H. Clay Earles, Bobby Isaac, Cotton Owens, Les Richter and Leonard Wood to the list of candidates. The Class of 2012 -- which will be inducted into the Hall in January -- includes Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Richie Evans, Dale Inman and Glen Wood.

Imagine Earles' delight when more than 6,000 fans jammed the ticket booths on race morning -- with another 3,000 or so watching for free. And imagine Earles' horror when the race began.

"We advertised in good faith," Earles said. "Then, by 30 minutes after the race had started, it looked like the atomic bomb had been dropped here. Red dust everywhere, 100 feet high.

"We had people who came here right from church, ladies in their Sunday best. It seemed like a month after that, every time I took a bath, the water turned red. I thought I'd never get the dust off me. I've never been so embarrassed in my life."

But fans returned, and Martinsville was added to the NASCAR Modified schedule the following season -- then hosted one of eight Strictly Stock races in 1949. Martinsville remains the only original track left from that inaugural year.

Earles eventually paved Martinsville in 1955 and continued to make improvements to the facility, eventually adding grandstands that seat 70,000, corporate suites and an infield care center. He prided himself on being a leader in fan-friendly options: better concessions, cleaner restrooms and an experience second to none in the sport at that time.

"We like to think of our track as a family-type facility," he said. "We like to see a man bring his wife and children to our events and be comfortable. Racing appeals to all ages and many of our most avid fans are young folks and ladies."

Richard Petty won 15 times at Martinsville, and he said Earles' track was special in many ways. For example, Earles wanted a trophy uniquely suited to his track, so beginning in 1964, he had a local company manufacture grandfather clocks to be given to the race winners.

"He saw quite early, before any of the rest of them promoters, that he had to make it comfortable for the fans," Petty said. "He started doing better seats and he did that asphalt deal and had good concession stands and he planted flowers. He tried to make a stadium out of a racetrack."

Much of that came from being a hands-on owner. How much so? Earles lived in a mobile home behind the Turn 1 grandstand until his death in 1999. Ownership of the track passed to his two daughters and eventually was purchased by International Speedway Corporation in 2004.

And it's Campbell who now keeps the family connection alive. After graduating from high school in 1978, he began working at the track full-time under the guidance of Earles.

"My grandfather played many roles in my life, all of which helped me mature," Campbell said. "He was foremost family, but also my boss for 21 years. I was fortunate to have him to look up to for all those years."

And Campbell is living proof that when it comes to Martinsville Speedway -- past, present and future -- the work is never finished.

First in a weekly series on the most recent nominees to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

* More: Martinsville Track Page | 2012 Tickets | Travel | Cup Schedule