Commentary

Observations: ValleyStar 300 under the new LED lights

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There was a brief moment, approaching dusk at Martinsville Speedway on Saturday night, where a wave of disappointment descended upon me prior to the ValleyStar Credit Union 300.

This was a very cool moment in the history of stock car racing, but it also signified that nothing was ever going to be the same way again.

I’ve spent countless Sunday afternoons at the Half-Mile of Mayhem watching the final laps unfold, hoping the checkered flag would wave before darkness blanketed over the south Virginia speedway. My first time at the old venue was in 2013 when Tommy Lemons Jr. won the VSCU 300 on a controversial restart over Dillon Bassett.

I was there in 2015 for Jeff Gordon’s final victory, spurred on by Matt Kenseth intentionally crashing Joey Logano in retaliation for an incident that took place earlier in the Chase for the Championship. While I only have 11 Martinsville races on my overall resume, the looming threat of darkness and what happened as it approached was part of the appeal of going to races at NASCAR’s oldest Cup track.

So I felt a tinge of sadness watching the lights come prior to the Last Chance Race on Saturday night. Someday, I’ll tell my (hypothetical) children that we didn’t always have lights at Martinsville, and that crazy things always happened under dusky conditions before they were installed.

They were moments that I will always cherish, even if I can’t share them with anyone moving forward.

Beyond that, the debut night race for the Martinsville Late Model Stock race was a resounding success. Between the packed frontstretch grandstands and the sold out backstretch campgrounds, at least 30,000 fans were in attendance for Timothy Peters’ second triumph in the $25,000-to-win classic.

At least 18,000 more tuned into the Motor Racing Network radio broadcast.

Having the Late Models turn the first laps under the new LED lighting system was a masterstroke by promoter Clay Campbell. No doubt, there were NASCAR fans that attended the ValleyStar 300 just to experience racing under the lights, even if they’ve never watched a Late Model race until Saturday.

Hopefully the product during the 200-lap main event convinced them to attend a weekly show at South Boston, Motor Mile, Hickory, Myrtle Beach or Southern National.

Maybe they recognize Peters from his NASCAR days or embraced Josh Berry because he drives for Dale Jr. Hopefully they walked away with a new appreciation for motorsports’ most underrated and underappreciated discipline.

Overall, it was a brilliant platform for Late Model Stock Car teams. With that in mind, here’s the good, bad and ugly from a memorable night of racing at Martinsville Speedway.

The Good

The 200-lap main event produced spectacular racing under the lights. The first 75 laps went caution free and the added grip of night racing generated two equal lines on the usual one-grooved flat short track. Granted, Martinsville has always been a groove-and-a-half for the Late Models but there was a difference at night.

Much was made of the constant gear rule changes in the weeks leading up to race weekend, but NASCAR’s Lynn Carroll and Shayne Laws crated a great package to level the playing field between crates and built motors.

Watching Trevor Noles in a Chevy Built struggle to clear Jake Crum in a Ford crate from the high side near the end of the ‘second stage’ was just plain fun.

The Bad

The race pretty much ended the moment the caution waved with 25 laps to go for the scheduled ‘entertainment caution.’ After running the first 175 laps on the same tires, drivers were allowed to turn 25 qualifying laps on new tires.

Where’s the fun in that?

If you want to sell tires, let them bolt them on at the 100-lap caution so drivers have to manage their wear and grip throughout the second half. It’s impossible to race at Martinsville when everyone is on equal footing.

Meanwhile, I live in Huntersville, North Carolina, just under two hours away from Martinsville and I got home at 3 a.m.  The night race was great first-year experience but it’s hard to sell people on an eight hour show that ends a 12:07 a.m. on a Saturday night year-after-year.

That’s something that likely needs to be addressed moving forward, which brings me to …

The Ugly

The heat races and Last Chance Race needs a revamp.

Each of the three 25-lap heat races took an average of an hour to complete. The 25-lap Last Chance Race only made it 12 laps in one hour before NASCAR put it out of its misery. As a result, the main event began one hour after it was scheduled to start.’

Next year, NASCAR would be wise to simply put a time limit on each of those races. Something like 25 laps or 40 minutes would suffice and that would allow fans to leave the track before the clock strikes midnight.

Looking Back

Overall, the first prime time ValleyStar 300was a huge success. Martinsville drew 90 entrants for the event and the entire weekend was replete with drama, excitement and fun. History was made and memories were established.

Let’s hope the race maintains this momentum years into the future.

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About Matt Weaver

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.

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