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Exhibit showcases 65-year history of Martinsville Speedway
Martinsville Speedway President Clay Campbell (left) and collector Dink Gardner talk about momentos from past races at a new exhibit at the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Center & Museum that celebrates the speedway’s 65th anniversary. A majority of the items were provided by Gardner. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
Several collections of memorabilia are gathered under one roof to trace the history of the Martinsville Speedway from its humble dirt track beginnings to the grandeur of the present day.
The new exhibit at the Martinsville-Henry County Historical Center & Museum celebrates the speedway’s 65th anniversary, according to Debbie Hall, executive director at the historical center.
The free exhibit will run through mid-April at the museum in the former county courthouse in uptown Martinsville, and Hall said the center will be open special times as needed to ensure everyone gets the opportunity to experience the memorabilia.
Exhibit items come from a variety of sources, including the speedway, avid collector David Minter, the families of drivers Jimmy Hensley and Johnny Bryant, and Scott and Cameron Sharpe and family who has been involved in racing for years, Hall said.
However, a majority of the items were provided by Dink Gardner, a retired probation officer who holds the distinction of being the first community leader added to the speedway’s 500 Committee, a group of area residents who assist the speedway during race weekend.
Gardner said he has spent years amassing his collection after getting bitten by the racing bug early in life.
Although he has programs from earlier races, the one from 1956 is among his prized possessions, Gardner said. That race was his first at the speedway.
“I had been badgering my father” for months to take him to a race, Gardner said. His dad finally consented, but it was after what normally was the final race of the year.
At the time, Gardner said convertibles and hard tops raced in separate events at the track.
He recalled that H. Clay Earles, who was among the three speedway co-founders, also was “a consummate promoter,” and while Earles knew there would not be enough of either autos to field a race, he thought there may be at least 25 of each so he would have about 50 cars on the track, Gardner said.
In October 1956, Earles scheduled the first Mixed 400, which included convertibles and hardtops, Gardner said.
His father kept his word and took Gardner to the race, he said, and noted that at the time, new cars made their debut in September.
Gardner’s father had just bought a new Dodge that year, and the two rode to the speedway in the new vehicle, Gardner said.
As an extra treat, “it just so happened a Dodge won the race,” he said.
Gardner’s collection includes programs from 1950 (three years after the speedway opened in 1947) and the next several years, with few exceptions.
For instance, he does not have a program from 1958 and is missing a couple of “generic programs.” Gardner said generic programs were used when there were several races in different areas the same week. The programs could be adapted to fit individual racetracks, with advertising sold in all of the areas near a race track.
Gardner’s collection includes a series of five photos of the 1952 race in Martinsville that were copied from originals that belong to “a nice lady in Bassett,” Gardner said. The pictures were taken with a “little Brownie camera,” he added.
He recalled that each year beginning in 1953, Earles rode around town in a new vehicle that was given away at the race.
For many of those years, Gardner said fans spent $5 “for a ticket to see a big-time NASCAR race.” They would “take their ticket stub and put it in a big barrel,” he added.
Stubs were collected in a “big chicken wire turnstile,” and a name was drawn to select the winner of the new car, Gardner said.
The exhibit includes everything from books that feature the speedway to movie posters, patches, pins, banners, photos and even the bumper from the car raced by Richard Petty during his “Farewell Tour” in 1984, Gardner said.
“I’m really proud of the spring race bumper,” he added.
The historical center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.
Hall said the exhibit also will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the Mondays following the fall and spring races. She said she will work to accommodate groups and/or other showings as needed.
For more information, or to schedule a showing, call 403-5361.