Martinsville Modified Civil War to Bring Big-Time Excitement & Tradition
The Nextel Cup Series has Daytona. The IRL-style cars have Indianapolis. Even Sprint Car fanatics know they have Knoxville. These are the grand-daddy tracks laden with history for each division of racing. Now the NASCAR Modified Gang has their “Great American Race” back on its schedule.
The “Big Dance” for the Mods at Martinsville Speedway returns Labor Day weekend, Saturday night, September 3rd. But this dance has been given a little extra pizzazz. First, it will be the inaugural race pitting the Whelen Modified Tour (from the North) against the newly formed NASCAR Southern Modified Tour. And the icing on the cake is that the race will take place under the lights at the historic half-mile speedway.
Fred DeSarro (#15) and Ray Hendrick lead the field to green at the famed Viriginia track in 1971. (Martinsville Photo)
Modifieds and Martinsville, two words synonymous with each other for more than five decades, are back together once again. Years ago, the Northern folk would mark the date on their calendars months before even packing to make the trek down south. Southerners would await the arrival of the Northern contingent, anxious to defend their turf. Once both groups hit the track, the battle was for pride in who hit that coveted checkered flag first.
“This is NASCAR’s first division so it’s perfect that we are the ones to run under the lights first at Martinsville,” said defending and four-time NASCAR Modified Tour champion Tony Hirschman. “With the way the lights reflect, it makes the cars looks faster. It will be exciting.
“It might be a little scary to the drivers though; to see those brake rotors as bright as they will be. It will be a wake-up call. Plus, we’ll see all those sparks coming off the cars, it’s going to be a little scary for us, but fun at the same time.”
“We have never run anything here under the lights so this is going to be special,” commented six-time
From left to right: Eddie Flemke Jr, Junior Miller, Jerry Cook, Brett Bodine, Don Hawk, Clay Campbell & Tony Hirschman. (51 Photos)
NASCAR National Modified champ Jerry Cook, who is now part of the top-brass that makes up NASCAR. “A lot of Modified races are run under the lights up north and down south, but here at Martinsville it’s never been done. What the lights do is they focus on the track and the cars. The infield is dark and so are the grandstands, so it really sets everything off in a different way than it does during the daylight and that’s going to be neat.”
“The Modifieds get to kickoff night racing at Martinsville,” echoed former Modified driver Brett Bodine, who now works for NASCAR. “Its only fitting that the Modifieds get to do that here because of their history here.”
That history began on September 7, 1947 when Red Byron won the very first race ever held at Martinsville Speedway; a 50-lap Modified show in front of 6,013 fans.
From there, many Modified greats put the pedal to the medal on the concrete of this Virginia speedplant; names like Evans, Bodine, Hendrick, DeSarro, Stevens, Jarzombek, Sacks and Stefanik. But Jerry Cook is one if the Mods all-time winner there, with seven trips to Martinsville’s elusive victory lane.
“Martinsville was the place to go,” explained Cook. “I started coming here in 1968 and they were racing long before I
Martinsville is a racing town and the Mods have been there since the beginning. (51 Photos)
came here. At that point if was the first race of the year and almost the last of the year too. And we ran with the Cup cars in the spring too.”
“You wanted to come down here and run those races for the exposure and stuff,” said Hirchman, who first raced at Martinsville in 1980. “Since then we have gone on to other tracks, like Richmond (Int’l Raceway) and New Hampshire (Int’l Speedway) and those are great places for Modifieds, but this is still the place all the veterans remember as the place everyone wanted to race every year.”
“Everything was larger than life,” commented second-generation Modified driver Eddie Flemke. “We got to come here and see Morgan Shephard and Harry Gant and maybe Richard Petty might show up; or maybe the Allison brothers might be here. It was exciting. Back then if you were at a hotel, you could swim in the pool with Buddy Baker or Bobby Allison. For me, this rekindles all those feelings and all those emotions.”
“My first professional stock car race was here at Martinsville in 1979 in Modified,” added Bodine. “It was the first time I ever got paid to race a car. This racetrack is always what the Bodine family considered home.”
And it was home for the Modifieds too until 2002 when LW Miller won what many thought would be the final Mod show at the historic track. That’s why there was not a face without a grin from ear-to-ear when it was announced Wednesday at Martinsville that the Whelen Modified Tour (from up north) and the newly formed Southern Modified Tour would combine for a two-day event.
“We are going to be here for two days and that’s great,” continued Flemke. “Part of the mystique and the hype of going to a Martinsville or a Pocono or a Richmond is that it is an event in itself. We used to bring motor homes
down here and six or eight people would stay there for three, four days. It’s part of those rites of passages we always talk about. I remember the first time I was able to go to a bar once I grew up was here in Martinsville.
“This was the place to go. Any driver that’s worth his salt does well here. You could win everywhere else you want and you’ll still be a pretty good driver, but it’s not like winning at Martinsville.”
“Modifieds here is like Daytona for the Cup boys,” said Advance Auto Parts Mod driver Junior Miller, a seven-time Southern Modified champion. “This is big for us and I love coming here. We’ve won every place in the country but here and I want one here.”
Part of the hype surrounding the event is the fact that it will pit the best in the northern modified world against the boys from the south. LW Miller, who has won the last two Modified titles in the south, may have won the last race at the track for the division, but his roots are firmly entrenched in the north. “Satch” Worley is actually noted as giving the south its final victory at Martinsville in 1992, but even he was driving the Bob Garbarino northern Modified. And “Satch” had been competing on the northern tour at that point in his career. Even Junior Miller will tell you, the last true southern boy to win at Martinsville was Johnny Bryant in 1985, in a machine prepared by David Riggs, who ironically prepares Junior’s cars now.
The Mods lined up for one of their shows at Martinsville in the late-70s. Look closely and you can see the NASCAR Grand National cars on pit road as well.
“Johnny Bryant won it for us and it ticked me to death,” said Miller with that southern smile out of the side of his mouth. “Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the northern boys had a lot better car and a lot better motor, but the boys in the south have stepped it up a notch or two and we are a lot more competitive with them now then we used to be. A good ol’ southern boy beat those guys from the north when Bryant won, now we’ll see if we can do it this year.”
The past two years, the independent group C&C Race Promotions promoted its own version of the North vs. South Shootout with much success. That event is still on for this year (at Concord Motorsport Park on Nov 4th & 5th) and NASCAR insists they are not trying squash that race.
“I don’t see this as deflating that race at all,” insisted Don Hawk, who heads up NASCAR’s racing development program. “We are just trying to be another asset to Modifieds. If it’s a diamond, we are just trying to add another facet to it. If somebody else wants to have a race and they invite the north guys and the south guys and they do it on another weekend, we hope they have a great show. In our mind, we did not do it to dethrone anybody or put it anybodies face; we did this because it made good business and competitive sense for the industry.”
Nevertheless, this event, after all, is at Martinsville, a place entrenched with Modified history.
“Even before the big grandstands and all the things that have gone on here since it’s been ‘Cup-ized,’ back when it was just concrete with the covered grandstands, it still had an awe factor,” Flemke surmised. “It was Martinsville and it still is. It’s part of the heritage, now let’s start a new tradition.”