If it isn’t rough, it isn’t right.
For well over 20 years, those words used to sum up a Mark Martin day perfectly. If there was a tire to be blown, an engine to burn a piston, a caution flag to fly while pitting, or a meteor to fall out of the sky, you could safely assume that it would land squarely on the hood of his car.
But 2009 has so far proven to be a completely different experience in more ways than one for the newest addition to Hendrick Motorsports. Sure, there were some rough spots earlier in the year; back-to-back engine failures at California and Las Vegas, followed shortly thereafter by a wreck caused by a blown tire at nearly 200 mph entering turn 1 at Atlanta. They were scenes that looked eerily reminiscent of a time thought long since passed for Martin – episodes that not long ago would have haunted and tormented him, only until they were erased by the next unexplainable disaster.
But for every disaster, there’s a recovery that follows: and rest assured, at 50 Martin is not only healed but whole in his quest to keep driving at racing’s top level of competition. How did it happen?
You’re about to find out.
Walking through the garage area Friday as the teams were unloading and preparing their cars for the first practice session of the weekend, I strode over to the No. 5 hauler, where Martin was finishing up a promotional shot with Sprint. He was as you would expect – sponsor’s shirt tucked in, hat in place and nary a wrinkle in his jeans. He noticed me standing by a stack of tires, speaking with his PR Director, Kendra Jacobs, and motioned me over enthusiastically.
“Hey Vito, how’s it goin’ man?! Come on over here!”
I asked Martin how he had been. I had spoken with him on two prior occasions; once over the phone in 2007, and briefly last year at MIS. “Oh, great man,” he replied. Never better. This year has just been unbelievable.” The mood was jovial and relaxed, a smile so persistent it seemed a natural expression. Meanwhile, the Mark Martin many had grown to know and love was nowhere to be found in the lounge area of his transporter. You know, the one who looked like he was going to literally explode following a Twin 125 qualifying wreck at Daytona in 2005, leading Jimmie Johnson to remark, “I have never seen a man that mad, and I don’t want to see Mark Martin that mad again.” It’s the same one giving a short and curt statement following the 2006 Daytona 500, where the TV reporter interviewing him said, “Was there anything else you wanted to add to that, Mark?” to which he offered only a slight head shake and replied, quite matter of factly, “Nope.”
“I’m finally able to enjoy it, and not get so wrapped up in everything surrounding it,” he admitted early on in our talk. “I’m loving life right now, man… my Cup is running over. I can’t ever see doing something else, this is so great… I’m just… happy.”
The ups and downs, ebbs and flows of the seasons – and a career spanning three decades of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing can wear heavy on an individual, so much so that they nearly drove him away from it three years ago. To compare what he’s going through to where he’s been, Martin has three wins so far this season – a year that isn’t even half over yet. Prior to 2009, he posted three wins from 2001 to 2007; and realistically, none of those years matched the 1998 season that saw him have, statistically, his best year ever with seven wins and a third runner-up points finish at the time. A spinal fusion prior to the 2000 season followed a year of Martin being physically shoveled into the seat of his car before each race, coupled with a broken wrist and knee following a practice crash at Daytona that July.
For a man who has always said that he races to win and run up front, not just to go fast or drive around in a circle, languishing in the mid-teens or 20s had to be agonizing for him.
“Those years really weren’t that bad for me, actually,” Martin says of a decade-long duel with average cars that required a superstar’s patience. “The hardest time was probably in 2004 and 2005… 2006. I was certain at that point, that my chances to win were going away, and I wouldn’t be able to do this anymore.”
To say that was puzzling is an understatement. During that time period, a number of memorable finishes came to mind for me. Atlanta and Darlington in 2004, when in both instances, late-race pit stops meant he had to blast through the field in the closing laps, led him to nearly catch Johnson for the wins on both occasions. His crew chief Pat Tryson at the time got so excited cheering him on at Darlington, he nearly lost it going into Turn One, which may be the first documented case of a driver having to calm down the crew chief on the radio.
“Well, you gotta remember,” Martin said. “Typically your skills and your career… take a path like this… (making a bell curve gesture with his finger). I was over here… (the downward slope of the curve) on this side of things. I thought that was going to be it.”
It nearly was… although that “ending” could have been so much better. Looking back, the 2005 season saw Martin with a Chase win at Kansas, along with Chase victories in hand at Dover, Texas, and Homestead – only to have them fall to the wayside by his stereotypical bad luck. The requisite Big One at Talladega that October left him with a 41st-place finish, and that race would prove to cost him the title that year by 105 points.
“Oh I was so mad, I could’ve spit fire man,” said Martin of falling short during what was the first of several abandoned “final seasons.” “You have no idea. I thought those were my last chances at winning, and we weren’t winning; and that made it just that more frustrating.”
“But you know, after going through all of that… I am just damned grateful for what I have now.”
The next year, in 2006, Martin was coaxed into returning to a full-time Cup schedule to help out his car owner who gave him a career. At the time, Jack Roush was in the precarious position of finding somebody to take the place in the cornerstone car of Roush Racing. Kurt Busch had vacated the No. 97 to take over for Rusty Wallace, who retired in 2005, while Jamie McMurray was stuck in contract limbo at Ganassi Racing and could not leave – even after articles were published in noted racing publications by Mark Martin himself naming McMurray as the successor to the flagship No. 6. Whenever either one of us mentioned the [No.] 6 car, I could see a piece of him was still attached to that machine.
As part of a plan to scale back his schedule, Roush began busily preparing a Truck Series car with Martin’s name on it. But while running the Truck Series part-time through 2006 – and nearly winning every event he entered that season – Martin could tell that he would need something more in his semi-retirement – a balance.
“When I was doing the Truck Series, I could see it was not going to give me the fulfillment that running in the Cup Series would,” he said. “I needed to find something to supplement that, but still step away, reassess, and see things from a different perspective…you know?”
That would mean looking elsewhere than the organization he had been a part of and helped cultivate for 18 years.
“You remember how the announcement came about – my phone started ringing and I had no idea there were that many people interested – but they all were for full-time rides, and I had decided I did not want to do that,” he continued. “I needed to step away. I was burned up, man… burned out.”
Along from those ashes came Bobby Ginn – a real estate developer who, with a quick infusion of cash into the MB2 Racing organization headed by Jay Frye, had in a few short months elevated the No. 01 Army car to a weekly contender. After nearly winning the Daytona 500 – which, if you go by the NASCAR rulebook (if you can find one) he did – Martin assumed the points lead in April, the earliest he had done so in his career.
Not bad for a part-time job.
Shortly thereafter, though, things started to go sideways. The Ginn team was on life-support early on in 2007, and even after nearly winning the biggest race on the planet and investing in some state-of-the-art equipment, the team was running out of money.
When word broke out that Ginn was going to be gone, many were shocked – but none more so than Martin.
“I had no idea that was going to happen,” he explained. “None. I really started squirming right about the end of April… early May (2007). I didn’t know what was going to happen. Then, the No. 8 deal came about (Dale Earnhardt Jr. leaving to drive for Hendrick Motorsports). I didn’t know if I wanted to do 15 races or a full year, but I didn’t want to hold up Aric [Almirola] so I said, ‘Okay, get Aric in there first and get his stuff figured out.'”
“Then, I stepped in.”
Martin has had the luxury of working with some of the biggest names – and best people – in the business of auto racing. He built his career and legacy largely with Jack Roush – both were relative outsiders to NASCAR at the time, with Martin being a midwestern ASA driver from Arkansas and Roush whose engineering business and SCCA teams were situated in Michigan. Now aligned with Rick Hendrick, I wondered how it was driving for each of them, who seem like such divergent personalities.
For those who may think a bridge was burned between Martin and Roush following his departure in 2006, it isn’t so. He smiled, laughed, and spoke warmly of The Cat in the Hat, who publicly took the blame for Martin leaving the organization and Ford – a company that he had become identified with since his return to the ASA series in 1984.
“Jack Roush was responsible for and had so much to do with the infancy of my career, and he is a great friend and always will be a great friend,” he explained. “Rick Hendrick has come along at this time in my life and both – both are just great, great motivators. When you get to the bottom line – they’re the same. They’re competitive, they’re great motivators, and they want to win. Everything in between might be different, but when you get down here, to the bottom line, they’re really the same.”
The relationships and friendships built in racing clearly mean as much or more to Mark Martin than just the trophies. The foundation of Roush Fenway Racing was built on the backs of Martin and then crew chief Steve Hmiel – a name that brought an assertive nod of approval when I mentioned him, along with Jimmy Fennig, who Martin won his fourth ASA championship with in 1986, as well as the seven-win 1998 season. Martin is also quite fond of Tony Gibson as well, his crew chief last year with DEI. Alan Gustafson is Martin’s crew chief this year – who grew up with Martin as his childhood hero, and has said that if he could bring Martin the title he’s never won (yet), there would be nothing more he could do professionally that would equal it.
How does he rank Gustafson to those he has worked with in the past?
“Alan is a really, really, really bright guy. He’s very technical, and has a great understanding of these cars. I try not to get as involved with these cars as I have in the past. It’s a different time, you know? The cars are much different than they used to be. The group of people he has around him and the support is just incredible.”
That type of personnel has proved the difference from the up-and-down, roller-coaster existence of Martin and his cars in the post-Bobby Ginn era over at the former DEI. With as different as the new car is from the previous generation, where does Martin fit in with the Car of Tomorrow today?
“The biggest contribution I can make is to prepare myself physically and mentally. When we have a day where we finish 19th (at Pocono the week before), I can tell myself, ‘OK… 19th is going to be OK… today…’, where as in the past I would be like, ‘Oh, 19th, well, I’ll just go slash my wrists now,’ and get all bent and twisted over it. That is just part of me evolving, changing… growing.”
Having listened to the scanner chatter this season, it sounds remarkably different for Martin than in years past. There used to be negotiations or discussions about what to do with the car, that would sometimes result in sounds – squeaking sounds – of exasperation from the driver. Have Gustafson and company shouldered a burden that in the past the driver was being forced to carry?
“No, I wouldn’t say that,” he clarified. “It’s just more of me having been just so immersed in the technology of the old cars, versus today – I try not to get too involved in it. 75% of the time, I’ll make the wrong decision, you know? “I mean – statistically you would think I should have a 50/50 shot at getting it right, but me, for whatever reason, I’ll be wrong 75% of the time. I can only see what I’m seeing from where I’m sitting – driving the car. I can’t see – I don’t know all of the other factors that are going on around me.”
“When we go over adjustments and setups, it’s more conversational – I try not to put myself in the position to make a wrong call. Alan opened the door for it at Phoenix this year, and I was like – woah – no… you don’t want me to… don’t do it… don’t… (chuckling).”
“But that mental preparation… that is the key to it. Physically, you know, I’ve always done what I can there, but mentally… that has been the biggest change for me.”
The new Car of Tomorrow has brought change and new challenges for the teams. The declining trend in ratings as well as criticism of the product on the track as well as the sanctioning body itself moved NASCAR to hold a Town Hall-style meeting, taking input from drivers and teams. I asked him what he thought of the meeting and what impact it might have.
“It was good – they listened,” Martin said. “They didn’t say a lot, but they listened. I would be VERY cautious about making changes to this car. I don’t know that they will make major changes, but I believe there will be some small changes coming. The double-file restarts are some of that. I don’t know if I like everything about that, but I do understand how it would be better from the fans view – making the racing more exciting.”
I was always one who believed that this car was solely responsible for the decline in the side-by-side racing that NASCAR had become synonymous with. Not so says a guy who drives one every weekend.
“You can’t blame this car. Yeah, we can’t change as many things on this car as we could the old one, but what people don’t realize is, if we still had the old car, it would be aero-pushing worse than this one does by now, the way it was going.” I brought up the Nationwide Series, and the relative lack of passing in that series as well, which has been using the previous style car all along. He concurred adding, “…and they don’t have any horsepower (due to the tapered spacer) to help overcome it either.”
I recalled the days of the ’80s and mid-’90s – the time many including myself thought racing was at his best. What could be done to make it like it was back then?
“I don’t know that you can,” he said in a sobering admission. “In the ’80s or early ’90s, you might have a guy have a bad pit stop and come out 15th, and he’d drive up through the pack. That’s not going to happen now – the cars are too good and too close, and the drivers… these guys are all good.”
So, what gives? Is it the tires?
“No, it isn’t the tires either. We are… we are just going really, really fast, and the cars are so close and the drivers are so good – you have guys up here – like Jeff Gordon – then everyone else is just down here… there is not that much difference between them anymore. It used to be you’d have the haves and have-nots. It isn’t like that anymore.”
With as much as changed for Martin since he had been away from the series in a full time capacity, some things still remained the same – particularly trying times and how the “new” Mark Martin would deal with them.
“The problems we had early in the year were a good test. After California, I was devastated, and again at Las Vegas – more so Las Vegas because I felt we really had a chance to win that one.”
The last three weeks have been a struggle as well. Traditionally, even in years when the sky was falling, one could always count on Lowe’s, Dover and Pocono to be tracks where Martin could rebound and contend for a win. Rain at Charlotte, a bad set of tires at Dover, and at Pocono a leaking right-rear shock (“You’d want to say it was that, but I don’t know… I’m not a big excuses-guy.”), saw top-five cars relegated to also-ran status.
While he has resisted any talk about a possible championship this year, the points that had been surrendered in recent weeks were beginning to weigh on him, as they had in years past. Not so much for himself – but because of how much he wanted to provide his team and car owner Rick Hendrick – the group that has allowed him to race, win, and be happy for the first time in years – the opportunity to compete for a title.
Sunday morning following the driver’s meeting, there was a chapel service held in the garage, as there is each weekend on the Sprint Cup tour. As most of the media and others were walking in lock step with Kid Rock, who was Grand Marshal of the event, I went to take my seat for the service. I saw Mark across the way, sitting and talking with Bill Elliott. Not wanting to interrupt, I quietly waited for them to finish, and went over to thank him for his time on Friday, and wish him good luck for the day – noting that he had a fast car after posting the second fastest and fastest times in the Saturday practice sessions.
Whatever blessing he may have received would be sorely needed, as the next three hours would be perhaps the most stressful of the 2009 season for Martin – who after qualifying 32nd on Friday suggested that he might just get fired if he kept qualifying as he did.
Only five laps into the LifeLock 400, the steering shaft on the Kellogg’s Chevrolet began to make noises and sounds that were less than confidence inspiring while entering turns at well over 200 mph. If that wasn’t enough, an electrical problem meant having to run the race sans fans and driver cooling aids, perpetually toggling back and forth between batteries like Tom Hanks in Apollo 13. This was all happening at about the same time Martin was faced with the prospect of chasing down the leader, while keeping teammate Johnson behind him – and not running out of gas.
Everything Mark Martin had been working on for the last year was being put to the test: Psychological preparation, physical conditioning and a positive mental attitude personified.
With two laps to go, the Lowe’s No. 48 went dry, shimming across the frontstretch trying to slosh whatever dwindling deciliters of fuel remained into the fuel pickup, while Greg Biffle‘s 3M Ford drew its knees into its chest and gasped one last breath down the backstretch seconds later. As the No. 5 Chevrolet came off turn 4 with the lead towards the checkered flag for his series-tying third win of the year, the call came across the radio.
“It’s out… I’m empty.”
Martin shut off the ignition to coast back around the entire track and down pit road. Even if he were one to do a burnout, he’d have been unable to. The fuel cell held no gas and the batteries no juice – the No. 5 sat lifeless on pit road, parked at a 45-degree angle. It was as if the last 400 miles of tension, stress and abuse had driven the car to the point of exhaustion and finally killed it. In years since passed, it may have ruined the driver as well.
I was standing by the gate to victory lane as Martin’s car was pushed in, his Goodyear Eagle nearly becoming one with my Adidas. I leaned over the hood to offer him congratulatory thumbs up through the windshield. I doubt he noticed, as his eyes were fixated wide open, steeled from doing battle for previous two and a half hours.
About this same time, a 6’6, 350-pound security guard pushed me back out of the way. Refusing to recognize my press pass and media credentials, I was ushered out of the proceedings, while my fellow media members snapped away photographs. I was able to bench press 280 pounds for reps a few years ago before blowing up my shoulder – but I wasn’t going to budge that kind of weight. Eventually I did get to the photographers’ platform, exhibiting some resolve of my own.
Afterwards, I went to the pressroom for the post-race conference after all of the television obligations had been met. As I took my seat in the media center, Martin entered the room.
“Hey Vito, how’s it goin’ man?!”
Following 400 miles of fatigue, fighting a current teammate and a former one, at the same time battling a recalcitrant machine and his own worst fears, his first words were the same as they were following a routine one-liner for a television spot on a Friday morning. I reminded him how I told him a few hours earlier that he did indeed have a fast car today. As he plowed down a sandwich his public relations manager handed him, he chuckled saying, “Haha, and with no time sparring!”
During the press conference I asked him how nerve wracking it must have been the last 44 laps, trying to conserve fuel, keep the leader in striking distance, while wanting to go for the win yet not throw away another solid points effort – all the while in a machine that did not look like it might go the distance. He reminded me of what he told me just a couple of days earlier.
“It’s funny, Vito, the things we talked about on Friday really showed today. The mental toughness is important. I have a lot more of that obviously, which I put to use today – and this weekend, with the disappointment on Friday – as well as the highs on Saturday. Those are the things I can really, really do. My dedication to fitness and nutrition – I don’t really have a lot of other interests – I’m able to give them about everything I’ve got.”
With as much as has changed for Mark Martin his year, some things stay the same. Wins don’t come easy, and each victory is cherished more than the one before, because you never know when that one might be the last. Besides, anything worth having entails some sacrifice along the way, and if it always just fell into his lap, he wouldn’t be the driver – or the person – that he is today.
What did you expect? After all, it is Mark Martin. If it wasn’t rough, it wouldn’t have been right.