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Opinion: Breaking down the changes to the Martinsville 300

Martinsville Speedway track president Clay Campbell sat down with his staff during the off-season and formulated a plan to systematically address each of the problems born from the aftermath of the 2018 ValleyStar Credit Union 300.

At least on paper, mission accomplished.

The ValleyStar Credit Union 300 is the most prestigious race in the discipline, and rightfully received its largest exposure yet last fall, just in time for everyone involved to make a fool of themselves.

Race director Lynn Carroll changed engine rules right in the middle of the event weekend, engaged in verbal conflicts with several drivers and the race itself wasn’t exactly the most telling example of what these guys do on a weekly basis across the Carolinas and Virginias.

There were three wrecks for the lead in Turn 1 off a restart in the second half and the race ended under caution under the most frustrating circumstances imaginable — CE Falk winning on the third and final green-white-checkered attempt only because he led at the line when taking the green flag, despite Corey Heim leading at the time the decisive caution waved.

It was a clusteryouknowwhat, and it seemed as if there was some embarrassment emanating from Ridgeway, Virginia.

“We spent a lot of time talking about the race last year… we want exciting racing, we want the fans to be pleased, but we don’t want it to get out of hand,” Campbell said. “Some of the things we have done here are I think in the best interest of these guys sitting up here and the fans. We’re not taking anything away from anybody, but we try to make it where it’s a legitimate best of the best show, and that’s really what this is.”

The format and purse increase revealed on Wednesday was a statement that the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 is a big deal motorsports event and should be treated as such.

Gone are the hillbilly days of an automatic 10-lap to go caution that ensured the leaders would play Bowman Gray in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Gone are last minute engine gear changes on the morning of the race.

Gone are the very brief days where a CARS Tour race at Orange County Speedway featured the richest purse in the discipline.

The ValleyStar Credit Union 300 intends to feature the best short track drivers racing for the most money in an authentic way that doesn’t feel like a complete joke.

And the changes revealed of Wednesday should do just that.

PURSE INCREASE TO $32,000-TO-WIN and $110,000 OVERALL

Most took this decision as a shot across the bow to the CARS Tour race at Orange County, which briefly boasted the largest prize in Late Model Stock racing, but this was a matter of pride. There’s also a purse increase for every position inside the top-five.

With all due respect to the Old North State Nationals, the VSCU 300 is the most important race for the Late Model Stock community and it should have a purse that reflects that sentiment.

There’s also a $25-per-lap led payout, which should create intensity throughout the race.

“When they said they were going up some on the top money, I’m a fan of that,” Peyton Sellers said. “I’m glad to see that stepping up some, it helps everybody through the field. Now we’re paying a lap leader award for twenty-five dollars a lap, that’s huge. That means more to me because that makes the guys race up front. Nobody’s riding, nobody’s saving tires, you want to get up to the front and accumulate as many of those twenty-five dollars as you can get. I’m a big fan of that, I’m a big fan of them spacing the money to third and fourth and on down the row there.

“I hear so many of the guys talk about dirt racing and how much money they pay and how much they do this. They don’t realize that dirt races don’t pay back more than five, ten positions. All the money’s so heavy on top.”

SINGLE CAR TIME TRIALS RETURNS TO MARTINSVILLE

This might be the addition I’m personally the most excited about. I have long written that the Snowball Derby enjoyed the most exciting qualifying procedure in motorsports — with roughly 65 drivers placing two laps in the hopes of cracking the top-30 for a starting spot. Everyone else goes to a last chance race.

Now that excitement will come to the Half-Mile of Mayhem. There will be at least 75 cars going for 20 guaranteed starting spots. That’s pretty significant change from years past as the VSCU 300 used to feature a group format that only protected the front row and sent everyone else to dangerous heat races.

“This is the way this deal was run when I first started coming here,” Lee Pulliam said. “There was a prestige of just making this deal. I remember it being a big deal for the fans. I looked forward to watching it just to see who got locked-in and which big names might miss it.

“It’s going to put a lot pressure on drivers to perform.”

Falk has a similar upbringing and resulting opinion.

“I really love the top-20 deal,” Falk added. “I grew up coming here and it was the 20 baddest dudes in Late Model racing showing up and you’ve got three laps to do it and it’s a lot of pressure and you can kind of psych yourself out just waiting for your turn out there on the front straightaway. I’ve seen a couple guys had the fastest car bar none in the morning practice and then just lose it… it’s always a big thrill to be in the top-20.”

On one hand, some fans may feel cheated because now the heats will not be as chaotic and unpredictable. But that is off-set by what could be a truly exciting show the night before if big names miss out in time trials and then watching those drivers race their ways in.

This makes it a more legitimate event too.

50-LAP SHOOTOUT

Over the years, Martinsville has tried to walk a tight-rope between legitimacy and entertainment with the Late Model race. There were several years where there was an automatic caution with 10 laps to go, regardless of circumstances. That inevitably bred chaos, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. even once threatening to pull his cars if Campbell didn’t eliminate the practice.

In recent years, Campbell has opted for a 25 to go caution, which didn’t feel too egregious.

For 2019, there will be two stage breaks on Lap 75 and on 150 — 50 to go. Teams have four tires available to them to take at any point during the race, opening up strategy, and each stage pays a $1000 bonus.

The end result, according to Pulliam and Sellers is less chaos and a more authentic result.

“I think we’re going to see the cream rise to the top,” Pulliam said. “I think these tire rules are going to separate the elite from the field and create some really good racing at the end. We’re going to have to manage tires and somebody might choose for track position instead of tires.

“I think you’ll see a real straight-up battle.”

Sellers agreed.

“You’re going see your better cars kind of cycle back to the front,” Sellers said. “It’s not going to be a 20-lap shootout with four new tires or two new tires. Before, they bunched everybody up late in the race and that bred a bunch of wrecks and that sort of thing. Where now in a 50-lap run, more than likely you’re going to see guys settle out, race, and you’re going to see the best guy win the race.

“Obviously if something happens and we have a green-white-checkered you’re going to see some guys make some banzai moves and do some things they’re not proud of on Sunday morning, but that’s the excitement of NASCAR, you see it every Sunday… that’s part of the sport we’re in and guys know that going into it.”

UNLIMITED GREEN WHITE CHECKERS

This will be a crown pleaser, especially after what happened last fall. This race will absolutely, no matter what, finish under a green flag. There will be unlimited attempts and the yellow flag will not determine the winner of the race under any circumstance.

The ending to last year’s race, in addition to everything else, left a sour taste in many fans’ mouths.

At the same time, if there’s a late caution, the Martinsville 300 is going to turn into a Royal Rumble, where the last driver standing may emerge as the winner.

But, of course, this kind of carnage is what Martinsville is often about according to its track president.

“I think when we have three attempts at a green-white-checkered — and we saw it last year — when two attempts are gone and you have one to go I think that breeds as much chaos as unlimited attempts at it,” Campbell said. “We saw that last year when everybody knew ‘This is my last shot. ‘I’ve got to go for it.'”

That won’t change, and there’s probably more fans at this race than any other because of it.

For what it’s worth, many of the expected contenders believe the 50-lap shootout format should actually off-set the potential of unlimited overtimes, making it a much cleaner race.

“Getting the last stop in with 50 to go is going to be huge in preventing that,” Pulliam said. “And no inverts is going to be huge. A lot of times with inverts the best cars are back in seventh or eighth where they’ve got to claw and fight to the top and by the time they get there they’re aggravated. I think it’s all positive.”

Sellers knows there could still be the potential for a messy incident, as was the case with himself and Josh Berry late last year, if a caution falls within the final 20 laps.

“Obviously if something happens and we have a green-white-checkered you’re going to see some guys make some bonsai moves and do some things they’re not proud of on Sunday morning,” he said. “But that’s the excitement of NASCAR, you see it every Sunday… that’s part of the sport we’re in and guys know that going into it.”

THE ONLY CAUSES FOR CONCERN

Again, these changes should be awesome for the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 but there are two blemishes that stick out early based on Wednesday’s press conference.

Campbell said the same staff from last year will remain in place, including Carroll. His arguing with David Gilliland in the drivers meeting, not to mention the constant rule changes, was an embarrassment to the race.

But Campbell believes in him and his vast experience.

He told reporters on Wednesday that the problems were addressed internally and that he felt confident that the theatrics would never happen again.

Martinsville Speedway will also retain the rule that prevents more than one driver from having the same number in Saturday’s main event. Numbers (and garage spaces) will be granted based on order of entries received.

Last year’s race featured teams starting with taped numbers, which was a visual metaphor for how ugly that entire weekend was and shouldn’t have been retained.

The track says it was trying to make it easier for casual fans to avoid confusion born from drivers with the same numbers, but numbers are part of a driver’s identity.

Both Bubba Pollard and Peyton Sellers utilize the No. 26 and that’s okay. That’s nothing a good track announcer can’t explain over time.

If it works for Dirt Late Models, and races like the Snowball Derby, duplicate numbers are perfectly fine for the ValleyStar Credit Union 300.

CLOSING REMARKS

All told, the changes were a major home run. Drivers are happy, and fans are going to be happy.

The Martinsville 300 has always been a marquee short track event, and now the track intends to regulate it like one, hopefully without losing its edge.  

“I love to see grassroots racing growing,” Pulliam said. “I think this was the biggest event in the country as far as late model stock car racing, and they just made it that much bigger.”

“It’s already a great event. Don’t tell Clay but I think we’d all show up anyway without the money,” Falk said. “But the money incentive, the grandfather clock, everything about it, racing against the best, that’s what it’s all about. That’s why I come back to Martinsville every year. Just appreciate the opportunity to come back and do it again.”

The 2019 ValleyStar Credit Union will take place on October 4 and 5 this year.

Matt Weaver is the owner and founder of Short Track Scene. Weaver grew up in the sport, having raced himself before becoming a reporter in college at the University of South Alabama. He is also the associate motorsports editor of Autoweek Magazine and its website, which allows him to cover the highest levels of the sport.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Donald

    June 12, 2019 at 8:29 pm

    Banzai, Matt. Bonsai is a plant. Other than my wincing over that, good writing.

    Q. What about timing and scoring. Will Clay use the NASCAR T&S scoring loops and transponders? You know, modern technology. Or will he score like they did at Hickory in the 50s?

  2. Van

    June 14, 2019 at 12:23 pm

    I am a Saturday night/touring show race fan. I did not go to the LMSC at Marinsville for many years because I did not like 1) the extremely long show 2) two many cars got into the show on pre-race speeds. Half of that was addressed last so my family of fans went to the big show at Martinsville. The racing was great, sometimes over the top but a really good Saturday night race show that lasted to long and killed too much time between races. Now the track has gone back listening too much to the car owners and not the fans. Won’t be back this year.

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