News & Media

Retro Racing: A way to keep score at Martinsville

October 25, 2012, Mark Aumann,

There was a time, in the not-so-long-ago past, when racing fans didn't know they needed luxury boxes, scanners, mobile-phone apps or massive video monitors to enjoy an afternoon at the race track.

Surprisingly, it didn't even matter if the track had electricity. Consider Martinsville Speedway, which has been a staple on the Cup circuit since the inaugural season in 1949. Martinsville featured a manually operated scoreboard, even after the original dirt surface was paved.

Until the late 1970s, a pair of workers perched on a catwalk updated the top five positions and laps completed by hand on Martinsville's backstretch scoreboard, similar to how the scoreboards are still operated inside the Green Monster at Boston's Fenway Park and the one behind the centerfield bleachers at Chicago's Wrigley Field.

However, because the pace of a NASCAR race is quite a bit faster than even a Nolan Ryan fastball, the Martinsville Speedway scoreboard didn't use individually numbered metal plates that slid into metal slots. Instead, the plates were hinged in the middle and attached to a single spindle, much like many roadside gas station signs.

The scoreboard operators could then quickly flip to the correct numeral and hook it in place. While one person kept fans apprised of the running order, the other kept up with the lap tally. That may not seem like much of a chore, but consider that Richard Petty's victory in the 1970 Old Dominion 500-lapper took more than 3 1/2 hours to run.

That doesn't create a lot of time for many bathroom breaks.

When it came to the numbers on the Martinsville manual scoreboard, the No. 43 got more than its share of wear and tear, as Petty won 15 races. During a conversation with Mike Harris of The Associated Press in 1992, Kyle Petty remembered that once the race was over, the ladders to the scoreboard were usually unguarded.

"Back in those days, we'd get together with the kids of other drivers -- mainly David Pearson's boys and Bobby Allison's sons and daughters -- and play in the infield," Kyle Petty said. "After the races were over, while our fathers were signing autographs and doing the other things they had to do, we had a game.

"Me and my sisters would rush to that scoreboard and put Daddy's No. 43 in all five spots. Then the Pearson boys would come over and cover the scoreboard with David's No. 17, which he was running back then for the old Holman-Moody team. Then, here would come the Allison bunch, that Alabama gang, and they'd take the 17s down and replace 'em with No. 12s."

However, the No. 43 eventually won out, Kyle Petty said.

"When my family left Martinsville, which almost always was around dark, No. 43 usually was up there," he said. "That's because Daddy always stayed until the last fan that wanted one had gotten an autograph. We were the last people to leave the track."

Unfortunately, that didn't work out so well on at least one occasion, according to Lynda Petty in a 1999 interview. While Richard was busy signing autographs in the infield after one Martinsville race, mom and the kids were waiting in the car.

"Electric windows in cars were new then," Mrs. Petty said. "Kyle and the girls had the windows in our car going up and down during the whole time we were waiting. Finally, Richard finished meeting fans and came over to drive us home. He was hot and tired and the car wouldn't start. The kids had run the battery down.

"It's funny now, but at that time Richard wasn't happy at all."

North Wilkesboro Speedway generally is credited with having the last manually operated scoreboard in the Cup Series. It was replaced not long after Martinsville's came down.

Petty's kids win out: Richard Petty and David Pearson, prior to the 1979 Virginia 500 at Martinsville. Petty scored the last of his track-best 15 wins that day. Pearson only won once at Martinsville. Bobby Allison never won there; it was the only track where Allison made double-digits starts (44) at which he didn't win. (Smyle Media)

The manual Martinsville scoreboard may be history, but fans there still have the ability to check the running order at a glance. In 2008, the track added a 100-foot tall scoreboard pylon in the infield with three state-of-the-art video display screens.