MARTINSVILLE, Va. — The trophies NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winners get at tracks all over the country have become more and more creative, from the engraved boot at Texas to the cement monster for prevailing on the concrete Monster Mile at Dover International Speedway.
Richmond last year gave a working electric guitar mounted inside a metal frame made to look like flames, and Atlanta gave a 10-foot carved wooden bear at a race in 2006.
The trophy for winning at Martinsville Speedway has been the same since the mid-60s, and the grandfather clocks that go to race winners are among the most cherished in the garage.
“There’s no other trophy like it,” said Jeff Gordon, who won the first of his seven clocks in the spring of 2003. “The history of this track goes back so far, and the history of the grandfather clocks as well, so it’s something that you’re very proud to achieve.”
Unlike the polished tabletop trophies drivers mostly receive, it’s also useful, which makes the mementos produced by Ridgeway Clock Company more likely to be kept in a driver’s home than stored with all the other awards received for taking the checkered flag.
“It’s the only trophy that I have that’s in my house where other people can see it,” said Jeff Burton, a Virginia native who grew up about an hour from NASCAR’s oldest and smallest track in the elite series. “It’s a really cool thing because you see it every day.
“When you look at it you remember what it’s all about.”
And that, track president Clay Campbell said, was the intention of his grandfather and track founder H. Clay Earles’ all along when he decided to team up with the local clock company.
“He wanted something unique and something that would be special to the drivers, and something you wouldn’t put up in a trophy case and let it collect dust,” Campbell said. “It just kind of grew to be special and the grandfather clock and Martinsville became synonymous.”
Drivers like Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who earned his sixth clock by winning the Goody’s 500 on Sunday, don’t keep them all at home. Gordon said he has given clocks to car owner Rick Hendrick and several past crew chiefs or other team members critical to his success.
Johnson said he keeps one of the clocks in his house and four others on display in a large trophy room in a warehouse with individual lights shining on each of the 7-foot clocks.
“They’re just awesome. I think the size of the trophy really gets our attention,” Johnson said. “It could be a $4 plastic trophy, but if it were 8 feet tall, we’d all love it.”
Since size matters, as Johnson said, the drivers should all thank Richard Petty, who said he is responsible for the “upgrade” from a grandmother clock to the much larger version.
Petty said he’d already won 14 grandmother clocks, each about 4 feet tall, when he won for the last time on the 0.526-mile oval, and he approached Earles about doing something special.
“I said, ‘Clay, I’ve got 14 of these little things. I want one of those great big grandfather clocks,’” Petty recalled, holding his arms out to indicate something enormous.
“And he said, ‘Darn, I don’t know about that. If I give you one, then Cale (Yarborough) will want one — Cale had been winning a lot of races up here — and I’ll have to give (Darrell) Waltrip one,’ and I said ‘Just tell them when they win 15 races, they can have a big clock,’” Petty continued. “And he said ‘OK’ and he got me one of those great big ones.”
When drivers fawned over the larger version, he said, Earles made the upgrade permanent.
In Petty’s time, before teams used 18-wheelers to carry their cars, he often came to the track in a pickup towing his race car behind him. That gave him a place to put the boxed-up clock for the ride back to Randleman, N.C., but his problems had just begun.
“I had a tough time figuring out how to set it all up, but after I figured out how to hang all the stuff and put the chains on it and all that, it got to be easy,” he said. “I tell these guys that when they get ‘em home, if they don’t know how to work ‘em, call me.”
These days, the manufacturer ships the clock directly from its shop to the driver, and Campbell, who worked for his grandfather at the track until Earles died in 1999, said he’s grateful that no clock was ever given to a driver whose victory was later overturned.
“That would have been a challenge,” he said, “to get the clock back.”