Tuesday, November 16, 1999 A NASCAR racing pioneer and legend has passed away. H. Clay Earles died this morning after a yearlong illness. Earles spent 53 years making Martinsville Speedway one of the nicest facilities in...
Tuesday, November 16, 1999
A NASCAR racing pioneer and legend has passed away. H. Clay Earles died this morning after a yearlong illness. Earles spent 53 years making Martinsville Speedway one of the nicest facilities in racing. Earles and friends Sam Race and Henry Lawrence opened the speedway in 1947 on a 30-acre site just south of Martinsville. Racing, at that time, was done mostly on fairgrounds and a facility specifically for racing was unusual. When Earles ran his first race on September 7, 1947, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) had not even been organized. William H.G. "Big Bill" France, who helped Earles promote that first race and later become a partner in the speedway, organized NASCAR just months after Martinsville's first event. Despite having only 750 of a proposed 5,000 seats ready, the initial race drew 6,013 paying fans. Today the speedway covers more than 300 acres, will have a capacity of 86,000 seats in 2000 and continues to grow. Earles was born August 11, 1913 at Axton, Va. on a tobacco farm, one of Jennie Ruth Allen Earles and Samuel Tilden Earles' four children. He was educated in a one-room schoolhouse and earned his first money, at the age of five, selling the unwanted leaves off his father's tobacco crop. Despite those humble beginnings, his dedication to work and desire to succeed made him a major force in the growth of NASCAR. H. Clay Earles began his career as a salesman, promoter and innovator by selling leftover tobacco leaves. A lifetime of work included several occupations such as a grocery clerk, furniture factory laborer, owner of a pool hall and the Boat Landing Service Station. He later opened the Travelers Inn, which was the first drive-in restaurant in Martinsville. Next, he bought the Spot Service Station, ten houses and speculated in real estate. Believing that everyone should serve their country, Earles enlisted in the Naval Air Corps and served a two-year hitch during World War II. He received an honorable discharge, as a Petty Officer Second Class, at the war's end in 1945. Earles was an innovator of speedway comfort. He was among the first to have permanent concession stands, attended restrooms and first-aid stations. Earles also worked to beautify the facility with boxwood and azaleas in the turns and trees and flowers around the facility. "We like to see a man bring his wife and children to our events and be comfortable," Earles had said. "Racing appeals to all ages and many of our most avid fans are young folks and ladies." Earles worked tirelessly at the speedway over the years as the last time he took a vacation was in 1959. "Work is never finished at this track," he said. "Everyday brings new challenges and ideas. And if we're not going forward, then we are going backward and that's not going to happen." Earles' diligence paid off as he developed innovations such as the first air-conditioned press box, and giving away items to fans from diamond rings to new cars. He even gives a grandfather clock to race winners. Earles was married to the late former Mildred Warren of Martinsville and they have two daughters, Mrs. Dorothy E. Campbell and Mrs. Mary E. Weatherford; two grandchildren, Mrs. Sarah C. Fain and William Clay Campbell; and three great grandchildren, Campbell Fain, Mary Dorothy Fain and Will Campbell. His daughters and grandchildren are all members of the speedway's board of directors with Clay Campbell as President. Earles appeared in the 1973 film, "The Last American Hero," later re-titled "Hard Charger," which was partially filmed at Martinsville Speedway. Honors Earles received came from NASCAR, Winston, The Virginia General Assembly, Virginia's Governor, the Department of Justice, the City of Martinsville, The Navy, the Air Force with its "American Spirit" award and he was honored in 1994 by the Martinsville and Henry County Chamber of Commerce. In 1975, he received the Myers Brothers Memorial Award, the highest award presented by the National Motorsports Press Association. The Award read, "Earles is one of the strongest advocates of increased purses, fair dealing with racing participants and the comfort and entertainment of spectators. He is a pioneer in the mushrooming growth of stock car racing to major league status." In 1984, the H. Clay Earles Scholarship for Automotive Technology at Patrick Henry Community College was established. In 1998, he was honored for 50 years of service to the American Legion. Turning a dirt track into one of the most respected speedways in NASCAR hasn't been easy, but Earles believes there is a key to his success. "The secret to success in our business is giving the customer what he wants," Earles said. "When a man plunks down his money, he deserves the best. You try to make him comfortable, give him a great show and make sure he gets his money's worth." Most importantly Earles said that he felt he provided well for his family and he loved them. "The day the Lord decides that I leave here, my family knows how I feel about this place," Earles said several years ago. "We're in shape for them to protect themselves and the speedway will operate as it always has. We don 't owe a dime. Earles said he never retired because he built a family operation. "Everyone involved is like family and I would miss being around them," he said. "And I think I have the best family in the world."
-Martinsville Speedway- http://www.martinsvillespeedway.com