H. Clay Earles, owner of Martinsville Speedway and one of NASCAR's pioneers, died Tuesday after a yearlong illness. He was 86.
Earles was remembered Tuesday for his role in the early development of NASCAR, now the fastest-growing sport in America.
"Clay Earles was one of the original pioneers of stock car auto racing. Before there was even NASCAR, he believed in racing," said Mike Helton, senior vice president and chief operating officer for NASCAR. "Clay and the Martinsville Speedway played an integral role in the early years of NASCAR's development."
In 1947, Earles carved a half-mile dirt track out of the red clay near Martinsville, packed the track down with oil and other materials and advertised the race as "dust-free" to an eager crowd, many of whom came dressed for a big occasion. More than 6,000 fans came to the first race at the track, which had just 750 seats ready.
"It turned out to be the dustiest place I've ever seen," Earles recalled last year. "When the race started, it looked like someone had dropped the atomic bomb."
The promoter for the race was Bill France, who told Earles he planned to form a racing association of stock car owners. A year later, France founded NASCAR, became Earles' partner in the speedway and the track became an original venue in the circuit's first year.
The .526-mile asphalt speedway was paved in 1955. It covers more than 300 acres, seats more than 70,000 people, has six corporate suites, a 115-seat press box, high-rise grandstands and a medical center.
"He was a huge supporter of my father and everything that he did to establish stock car racing in this country," said Bill France Jr. "Clay was part of the original group of believers in NASCAR."
Earles grew up in the Depression, the son of tobacco farmers. He dropped out of high school to help his family, making 25 cents an hour working for a furniture maker.
He went into business for himself, opening a billiards parlor, service stations and a restaurant before building the track.
He is survived by his daughters, Dorothy E. Campbell and Mary E. Weatherford, two grandchildren and three great grandchildren. A funeral will be held Thursday.
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