Racing Legends: The Martinsville Clock

Racing Legends
“The Martinsville Clock” Written by Toby Christie

Trophies play an important role in all sports. The Lombardi trophy is what keeps players in the NFL battling through injuries all year long.

The green jacket at Augusta is the unique prize for golfers. Boxers take home championship belts, while Hockey players tote around the Stanley Cup, which in essence is a monsterous drinking glass.

In NASCAR there are many, many awesome trophies. If you win the Daytona 500, you take home the iconic Harley J Earl trophy. If you win the series championship, you are awarded the ginormous Monster Energy NASCAR Cup. All of these trophies are cool and all, but there is just one Martinsville clock. 

This is the story of one of the most unique trophies awarded in any sport for any reason.

Martinsville Raceway was built and opened before NASCAR was even a thing in 1947. When NASCAR opened it’s first Grand National – now Monster Energy Cup Series – season, Martinsville made it onto the schedule.

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The then dirt – now paved — half-mile paper clip that is nestled in a slew of trees and amazing landscape off of highway 58, is the only track to be on the schedule in every season of NASCAR’s existence.

In the early years, Henry Clay Earls’ creation was a showcase of who would eventually become legends in the sport of NASCAR.

The first NASCAR race at the track was the sixth event of the 1949 season. The 200 lap contest was eventually won by NASCAR’s first champion, Red Byron. Byron would finish ahead of future three-time Cup Series champion Lee Petty.

The driver who became the first true Martinsville ace, was Curtis Turner. Turner, who would win a total of 17 races in the NASCAR Cup Series, took wins at the Virginia short track in 1950 and 1951.

To this point, Martinsville had handed out a generic trophy with a wood base and a gold cup design on top to their race winners. It was just what tracks did back in this era.

However, with the trophies being so cookie cutter, and drivers like Turner winning so often at the local short track level and at the top levels of NASCAR it created a real big problem.

In 1980, Earls told the Daytona Beach Journal, that a conversation with Turner after his win at the track in 1951 helped spark the idea to change the track’s trophy.

Turner reportedly told Earls that he had earned too many trophies. As a result Turner was going to pack a bunch of his awards away in storage, whatever was left he was going to give away.

For a race track owner, it stings to hear that drivers may not covet your trophy for years to come. But what could Earls create that would create a lasting impact inside the trophy room for a driver?

That was the serious question. Would it need to be a ten foot tall cup? Would that leave a lasting impact? How about something different? Maybe something carved from wood?

Earls then had a brilliant idea, and he had realized the reason it was perfect is that his new plan for Martinsville’s trophy would not give it a prime placement in a driver’s trophy room – instead it would be a mainstay inside their actual living areas of their house.

Earls decided the true award for surviving a grueling knock out, drag out fight at his short track would be a massive grandfather clock.

The clock as it turns out has been a hit with drivers for more than 50 years. In an interview with GoRiverDan.com, Jeff Burton described the clock as, “A symbol of conquering something.”

Yes, spoiler alert, the final product would eventually be well received, but in order to get to that point a lot of work had to be done.

Earls sought out for a company that could build such a trophy.

After all of his searching, Earls would end up just three miles from his race track at a company named Ridgeway Clocks.

Earls explained that he wanted a seven-foot tall grandfather clock to be used as a trophy at his race track. At which point I’m sure the guy at the counter began to wait for a punch line.

When no punch line followed the request, it seems that the Ridgeway Clocks employee agreed that the company could make Earls’ vision a reality. The now famous Martinsville Clock was born.

For the fall Martinsville race in 1964, everything was all set. 500 laps would be contested between 40 drivers and for the first time ever, somebody would leave the state of Virginia with the sport’s newest, and most unique trophy – a grandfather clock.

The 1964 Old Dominion 500 was a battle of attrition. 18 of the 40 cars had mechanical failures on the day and the race saw as many cautions as it did lead changes, six.

There were some huge names battling for the lead – and win – throughout the day. Richard Petty started 21st and led five laps on his path to a runner up finish, This good finish clinched Petty’s first of seven Cup Series championships.

Junior Johnson led a lap and finished third, while Ned Jarrett also led a lap and came home fifth.

Nobody had anything for Fred Lorenzen though. Lorenzen led 493 of the race’s 500 laps, en route to his third-consecutive win at Martinsville.

For his efforts Lorenzen took home just over $4,700, but nothing matched what the Martinsville clock meant.

Lorenzen would go on to win the next race at Martinsville in 1965, to make it four in a row at the half-mile track. Lorenzen would win for the final time at the track in the fall of 1966 for his sixth total win.

Lorenzen’s win total was impressive, but nobody has won more at Martinsville than Richard Petty. In all, Petty captured 15 wins at the track, including 12 during the Clock era… Can you imagine how noisy the Petty house gets every hour of the day?

The closest anyone comes to Petty’s 15 wins at the track, is Darrell Waltrip who took home 11 wins at Martinsville. All of Waltrip’s wins came with a clock.

As far as modern day drivers go, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon lead the way with nine clocks each. Gordon’s 93rd and final Cup Series win came at Martinsville in 2015.

Martinsville Speedway as we mentioned earlier, began as a dirt track on the NASCAR circuit. The first 12 races at the track were on the dirt surface, but in mid 1955 the track was paved.

The 500 lap race distance became the standard at Martinsville in 1957.

Now that we know the story behind the clock, Kerry, how about we look at some classic Martinsville moments? Over the years, this track which is basically two drag strips connected by sets of turns, has put on some amazing shows.

One controversial race that comes to mind is the 1997 Hanes 500.

This was during Rusty Wallace’s days of dominance at the track.

Yes, although in the early going of this one Wallace didn’t look super dominant. He started from the seventh position, and in the first 200 laps he had yet to lead a lap.

But that would change quickly, as he would knife past Jeff Gordon on lap 213. Wallace wouldn’t look back as he led a total of 226 laps before the end of the race.

It was Wallace’s race to lose. And lose it he did on a restart with just 22 laps left in the race.

Wallace was deemed in a judgement call by NASCAR to have jumped the start. Out came the black flag, and Wallace was ordered to pit road.

The No. 2 Miller Lite Ford would finish a disappointing 15th after a great performance. As Wallace fumed in the garage, Jeff Burton celebrated in victory lane.

Wallace tore into NASCAR on his team radio for the decision, which led to a $5,000 fine from the sanctioning body.

Wallace was so mad about the black flag and subsequent fine, that he reportedly sent an armored car to NASCAR headquarters with 500,000 pennies to take care of his fine.

Classic stuff there, you just don’t hear stories like that anymore.

No you don’t. I wonder how much 500,000 pennies weighed and how long it took NASCAR to count it all in?

Another one that comes to mind for me, from just browsing around YouTube over the years is the 1987 Goody’s 500.

Okay, you’re going to have to enlighten me on this one.

It was an epic duel between three NASCAR Hall of Famers, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte in the closing laps.

Wow that sounds awesome.

Yeah, over the final three laps they are bumper to bumper to bumper, and they are the only three cars on the lead lap.

Earnhardt leading, Labonte in second and Waltrip in third. You’ve got my attention.

Earnhardt seems to be the slowest of the three cars at this point despite being the leader, so he keeps blocking Labonte. Labonte keeps shoving Earnhardt. On the final lap things came to a head.

What happened?
Labonte and Earnhardt spun, which gave the win to Waltrip. That’s incredible.

Yeah but the funny thing is, in the YouTube video I’ve seen the drivers all have a different telling of what happened on the last lap when quizzed about it afterward. Waltrip swears that Labonte finally got mad enough at Earnhardt that he slammed into the back of the No. 3 Wrangler Chevy which sent them both spinning.

What did Labonte say?

Labonte said that he was sizing Earnhardt up basically when he got a huge shove from behind from the No. 17 Tide car of Waltrip. This sent Labonte into Earnhardt which crashed them both.

Alright, and what did Earnhardt say?

Earnhardt simply said, that wasn’t a good race.

Well there you have it. That’s good stuff.

Yes, so this track has put on incredible shows for more than 60 years, and I have a feeling they will continue to do the same over the next 60 years.

and I have a feeling that they will be giving out grandfather clocks for each and every one of those races.

Racing Legends is a production of The Final Lap, written by Toby Christie, with audio wizardry by Kerry Murphey and stars Toby Christie and Kerry
Murphey. Join us on social media on Twitter and Facebook @RacingLegendsHQ —— Special thanks to AudioDirector by Russell Nash for the awesome music we use. Don’t forget to subscribe on Apple Podcasts

& Google Play, keywords Racing Legends, with more podcast directories coming soon. Subscribe to our other show The Final Lap Weekly for all the latest in NASCAR and we’ll see you next time. As always, thanks for listening.

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Toby Christie is the Editor of TheFinalLap.com and Social Media Director of all things @TheFinalLap. He is the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly radio show and podcast, and he is the writer and co-host of the Racing Legends podcast. Additionally, Christie is a NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) award winning writer, and has covered the sport as a media member since 2007. Christie began his love for NASCAR as a fan in 1993. You can Tweet Toby at Toby_Christie, or email him at tobalical@icloud.com

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