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More than just a snack

The venerable Martinsville hot dog supplier has been changed, but so far few seem to be able to tell the difference. Jason Smith/Getty Images

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- The half-dozen NASCAR Camping World Truck Series crewmen stood in the Martinsville Speedway rain, ravenous and oblivious. Ravenous, as they two-fisted the racetrack's signature concession, scarfing down the first hot dog in one hand as they held a second in the other, at the ready to vanish.

Oblivious, as they were totally unaware of the controversy that had raged around those trademark red wieners in the days leading up to this, Martinsville's 133rd NASCAR Sprint Cup race weekend.

"Whuf duh hail ish you talfing about?" one of them replied, mouth stuffed, when asked how he felt about the new Martinsville hot dog. "Doode, dis if da same dam hot dawfg."

No, actually they aren't. As anyone who lives along the Virginia-North Carolina border can tell you, the most contentious debate here in Henry County hasn't centered on fracking or uranium mining. Even the first hints of a possible NASCAR tire cheating conspiracy failed to unseat the most unsettling topic of the week -- Martinsville Speedway's decision to permanently change hot dog suppliers for the first time in ... well, ever.

"I was wondering why this room was so full," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said jokingly, looking out over Friday's crowded Martinsville media center. As he said it, race sponsor STP was hauling in boxes of those new dogs for the media to try.

Jesse Jones, a Virginia company, had supplied the racetrack's flaunters for nearly 70 years via handshake agreement with speedway founder Clay Earles. They are known for being very pink with a taste that's almost sweet, and for as long as anyone can remember they have been the favorites of everyone from Richard Petty to Dale Earnhardt to their children.

A week and a half ago, venerable motorsports reporter Jerry Bonkowski broke the news that Jones was out, replaced by Valleydale Foods, also Virginia-based, and a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. Smithfield is the primary sponsor of Petty's iconic No. 43 Ford, working side-by-side with his longtime partner STP. This weekend's race is the STP 500, and as has become tradition for them, they sponsor "STP Style" Martinsville hot dogs, slathered in chili, onions and slaw.

At lunchtime on Friday, NASCAR competitors did just as they have since the days of the Eisenhower administration, lining up at the concession stand located just off pit road and beneath the scoring pylon. Eight concessionaires prepared and wrapped stacks of Martinsville hot dogs, selling them as fast as they could throw them onto the counter.

"It hasn't been too bad," one of the designated wrappers shouted from the assembly line, referring to the expected complaints. "It was a lot worse that other time."

That would be 2004, when International Speedway Corp. -- the track ownership arm ruled by the France family, owners of NASCAR -- purchased the half-mile bullring and immediately replaced the sport's most famous food with the same hot dogs it served at its other racetracks.

That move didn't even make it through lunch, as teams lined up to complain to NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr., himself a confessed hot dog connoisseur (during any East Coast flight of the corporate jet, Bill Jr. would insist on a refuel stop in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, so he could run across the street to JS Pulliam's to buy a box for the flight home to Daytona).

But Friday wasn't 2004. Not even close. Why? Because the new Martinsville dog was pretty close. Just ask those trucks crew guys who didn't know the difference. They were in a majority that included the active dean of the stock car racing media, Steve Waid ("I couldn't tell the difference. And they had to restock the supply in the media center, so that's a good sign"), and admitted junk food junkie Clint Bowyer, who gave the new dogs his endorsement earlier in the week.

As a track safety worker, working on his third dog of the day and by his estimation the 300th of his life, explained it: "If you didn't know, you wouldn't know."

The folks at Jesse Jones know. They took to their Twitter account early and often to fire their shots at being left out (of Friday's rain delays: "they were willing to change the Famous Hot Dog, maybe lights are next on the agenda"). The track itself stayed on the high road, politely handling the early-week griping as track president (and Earles' grandson) Clay Campbell made the media rounds, thanking the Jones folks for their years of service, and humbly pointing out "what an honor it is to have a signature food item that people love so much that it is worthy of all this attention."

Campbell admitted that he had been kicking around the idea of changing sausage suppliers for a few years, an investigation that led to multiple taste tests among the speedway staff. The latest came late last year. When a former track employee of 25-plus years picked up a new Valleydale model and declared "this here is the old hot dog," Campbell knew he'd found his new dog.

"You know how we always bring Martinsville hot dogs down to Daytona Speedweeks and feed everybody?" asked Mike Smith, the track's longtime public relations director. "Everyone wolfed them down [this year]. What y'all didn't know then was that those were the new hot dogs. No one said a word."

There will always be holdouts. There always are. ("This s--- ain't the same, don't tell me it is," one engine builder growled as he ate between two stacks of tires.) People enjoy change about as much as they enjoy Novocain-less root canals, especially a NASCAR fan base that's been flogged with changes the past decade and a half. But by Friday night, the red-hot squabble over red hots had set with the evening sun.

Perhaps that small handful who still can't shake it will find solace in the fact that their de facto leader is already on board.

"I liked them before, so if they are close to the same, that's fine with me," said Earnhardt Jr., who explained that Martinsville's close proximity meant he'd spent a lot of his childhood in the infield, eating piles of Martinsville hot dogs. "I'll probably be having two for lunch. And then call it a day."