NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Mark Martin’s Last Hurrah

One of the most storied careers in motorsports came to an end Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. After 882 starts in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Mark Martin has (presumably) competed in his final race – and done so on his terms. Ready to move onto the next chapter of his career, the owner of 40 Cup Series wins, 5 IROC Championships, 4 ASA titles, and the fastest 500 mile NASCAR race in history will not be seen regularly in competition going forward, following over 25 years of service in the premier racing series in North America.

His impending absence from competition really is an action detrimental to stockcar racing.

Martin came up the old fashion way, by way of dirt tracks and short paved ovals, competing at such far flung and exotic locales as like Locust Grove, Arkansas, Marne, Michigan, and Bolivar, Missouri. While today’s youth have learned through iRacing simulators and go-karts, Martin learned from men like Larry Phillips, Bob Senneker, Mike Eddy, and Dick Trickle. From an era where drivers didn’t just work on their own cars – they were fabricated and engineered from scratch.

You break it, you buy it; you flub it, you fix it.

A trip to the Daytona 500 to view as a spectator was inspiration enough for Martin; as he puts it being on the other side of the fence, “looking at the cars and the drivers….just made me sick at my stomach. I just thought man…I could do that. I know it, I could do that…I just never knew if I’d get the chance.”

He would get that opportunity in April of 1981. In his very first race he qualified 5th at North Wilkesboro, before succumbing to a rear gearing failure before halfway. Two starts later he’d win poles at both Nashville and Richmond, scoring his first top 5 in his next start at Martinsville, a third place run. Fitting perhaps considering his name; improbable however since he was driving a car with the equivalent of passenger car brakes; not even what was deemed generally acceptable for the demanding short track, even by 1981-standards.

In 1982 he attempted running the full season, despite a sponsorship arrangement with Apache Stove that basically bankrupted him. His goal of running for Rookie of The Year honors (finishing second to Geoff Bodine) and do well in the points, forced him to auction off all of his assets at year’s end, and for the general public to ask, just what the hell is an Apache Stove anyway?

After a handful of starts for the unsavory Jim Stacy, Martin was forced to return back to ASA and rebuild his career from the ground up. It’s a scene that likely would not repeat itself in today’s climate. If Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, or Joe Logano were to somehow fall on hard times, they would not have to return to a regional racing series and start from the bottom for a second time; even Kurt Busch’s very public episodes were not enough to dispatch him from Cup competition. A fourth ASA championship with Jimmy Fennig as crew chief in 1986 propelled him back into the NASCAR discussion again. During this time Martin began an association with Ford, who was trying to rebuild their oval track program on the strength of Bill Elliott’s speedway dominance of the era.

This was the in that Martin needed, winning two races in 1987 in the Busch Grand National Series, catching the eye of longtime Ford stalwart, racer, and engineer Jack Roush. He also gained the endorsement of another driver who had to come up the hard way – Bobby Allison.

Roush had a short list of people to pick from when building his burgeoning racing empire, including established SCCA hot shoe Scott Pruett. When General Manager Steve Hmiel and Crew Chief Robin Pemberton were asked who they would pick, they too said Martin. When Roush Racing was a fledgling operation in 1988, Martin wasn’t just a wheel holder, but a wrench turner as well, helping to prepare the cars in the shop on a regular basis. Name any driver in the Top 10 who would have to – or even know how to perform such tasks – in today’s NASCAR.

This isn’t a knock on the drivers of today, but illustrates why losing the last bridge to NASCAR’s past is a chink in the sport’s armor. Very few drivers have a working knowledge of the mechanics involved in setting up a racecar; even less have actually physically done so with their own hands.

From his time running and working on his own equipment, as well as getting a second shot at his dream and not wanting to ruin it, Mark Martin has always raced with a code of not wrecking people, or abusing his equipment, or that of the competition. In the 1990’s when he ran a limited schedule in the Grand National Series driving the familiar No. 60 Winn-Dixie Fords, it was regular practice to see him pull over going down the backstretch to let a line of faster cars by.

Ten laps later, he’d pass them all back and check out on the field – Tire Management 101.

When Martin pulled back to focus on Cup Series competition after 2000, Tony Stewart lamented the loss, saying the younger drivers wouldn’t have somebody to teach them how to race the right way. When Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was starting his career in the Grand National Series, it was Dale Sr. who would instruct him to, “follow that 60…” when he’d go out for practice.

Some of Martin’s most memorable races weren’t the ones that he won, but those that he finished second, exchanging a win, for respect, honor, and integrity.

On the final lap at Watkins Glen in the midst of a frustrating 1991 season, Martin was in position to pass Ernie Irvan going into Turn One on the final lap. Realizing he drove in a bit too deep and likely would have ran into the side of him, Martin intentionally spun his own car to avoid taking out Irvan. At 1997 at Dover, he followed Ricky Rudd for the final five laps less than a foot off his rear bumper, never making contact or moving him out of the way; Rudd won, Martin finished second. Four times at Bristol, a track where dumping somebody has generally become acceptable as simply “rattling his cage”, he was in position to move Davey Allison, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, and Kyle Busch coming to take the checkered flag – and didn’t.

There’s a reason why you’ve never seen anyone horse collar him in the middle of an interview, throw a water bottle, or make disparaging comments while walking away in a huff to hide in the hauler. Respect is a two-way street; something earned through sacrifice – not given simply because of some tin trophies. That was something learned racing against the true legends of the sport – today’s generation doesn’t have that – and will never know that connection to the history and foundation the sport was built upon.

Playing hurt is the mark of any champion, and Martin is no stranger to the physical or emotional scares this sport can impart. He was privy to the Tire Wars of the 1980’s and 90’s, where right fronts would let go without warning, sending the car head-on into the wall; this in a time before SAFER Barriers or HANS devices. In 1994 Martin drove his friend Ernie Irvan’s Busch Grand National car at Bristol, after visiting him in the hospital with a 10% chance at survival, following a practice crash at Michigan International Speedway. During his career best season in 1998, his father, his father’s wife, and Mark’s sister were killed in a plane crash after he finished second at Watkins Glen. He was back in the car at MIS less than a week later, and had the win in hand before a late race caution dashed his hopes at dedicating a win in their memory.

Two weeks later he dominated the night race at Bristol, dedicating the win to them – and a standing ovation from the over 100,000 in attendance.

In 1999 after battling years of debilitating back pain, Martin blew a tire during final practice at Daytona, slamming into the non-soft wall, breaking his wrist, knee, and a couple of ribs. He started the race, radioing to his crew before the first stop that they were dealing with a one-armed driver, and to give him something to cut the cast off. Hobbled and crippled in pain and physical distress, the rest of the season saw his team picking him up like a sack of potatoes and shoveling him into the driver’s seat. A spinal fusion took place in the off-season, and he was back at pre-season testing two months later as if nothing had happened, besting the recovery period by weeks – if not months.

Martin has long carried the mantle of racing’s low-key workhorse; going about his business with a quiet consistency; no burnouts or hysterics when winning – kind of like Barry Sanders flipping the ball to the ref after blowing out some hapless Safety’s knee during a highlight reel 60-yard touchdown scamper. The glaring omission from the record book however, is a Winston Cup or Sprint Cup title.

Many point to the 1990 season as the most heartbreaking, courtesy of perhaps the most unjust penalties in the sport. An unapproved intake manifold configuration involving a carburetor spacer – which had been ran for the past year, and essentially endorsed by a technical bulletin – was deemed illegal after Richard Childress protested his second career win at Richmond. The result? A 46-point fine, and a championship that came up 26 points short. Ouch.

Fun fact: At Charlotte that October, all of the wheels fell off Dale Earnhardt’s car after a pit stop. The crew was allowed to work on the car as it sat on the apron. No penalties or fines issued; no whining or finger pointing from Martin.

The next 20 years were filled with just as many close-but-no-cigar moments. In the 2007 Daytona 500, Martin was denied a nice consolation prize when for the first time since 2003, racing back to the line when there was an accident was suddenly allowed, with the track blocked and entire filed wrecking behind he and Kevin Harvick. Martin had pulled down to the yellow line exiting Turn Four to break Harvick’s side-draft and wait for the yellow to fly – which never did.

As has been his hallmark, Martin simply said in his post-race press conference, “nobody wants to hear a grown man cry” and thanked his team for the opportunity.

After two years of recharging and reconnecting with his family and friends who were forced to take a back seat to racing for much of his career, Rick Hendrick made Martin an offer he couldn’t refuse for 2009: a full-time ride with a championship caliber team. The result? Five wins (his second most productive season), and the No. 5 team’s strongest showing since Terry Labonte won the 1996 championship. To date, it was the most wins by the flagship No. 5 team in Hendrick Motorsports 30-year history.

For 2012, Martin moved to Michael Waltrip racing, helping to elevate MWR from an occasional threat, to legitimate championship contender. It continued Martin’s history of making an immediate impact on an organization, and leaving it in better shape than which he found it. From laying the foundation for Roush Racing, rescuing the former MB2/Ginn Racing team for a brief period, providing a stabilizing presence during DEI’s dark days, and helping to elevate Alan Gustafson to the worst kept secret weapon within the Hendrick Motorsports ranks, nearly 40 years of experience, knowledge, preparation, and inspiration, Mark Martin’s influence has spread far beyond the teams he has worked with.

That contribution to the sport extends from the track, to the garage, and to the gym.

What was once viewed as madness and obsession, a training regimen like that which he helped pioneer (including authoring a book) is now considered mandatory for drivers who wish to compete at the highest levels of racing. Okay, Tony Stewart and his soda cookies might be the exception, but as Smoke recovers from a broken leg that was much worse than originally let on, he’s certainly retained the services of the right coach should he so desire.

Approaching 55 years of age this coming January, he still is hoisting iron and pounding steel with the focus and intensity of men half his age. Ask him about his program some time, and his commitment to preparation has not waivered; while coming to grips that this would likely be his last season, he lit up with enthusiasm when I asked him about his training program this August at Michigan.

“Yeah man, I just set my personal best for deadlifting last week! 225lbs…just for one…I hurt my back a year ago trying it, and had to slowly work my way back up.” He then began demonstrating proper form in the midst of the garage area, as teams were preparing cars prior to the first practice. Call it madness – or Markness – but it was a glimpse as to what has made him among the most unique, accomplished, and most importantly to him – respected members of the motorsports community, not just within NASCAR.

Martin’s reach within our sport has extended to those in the media ranks as well. During the past few years with a number of newspapers and publications pulling back due to the changing face of media and economic woes, he would take to Twitter to thank those recently let go for their work, and often would close the 140-characther statement with, “let me know how I can help.”

In the hyper-competitive world of motorsports, very rarely does one see such a public offer of consolation or endorsement.

Back in early 2007, I too was in bit of personal distress having been laid off the previous September, which coincided with a most miserable Michigan economy. With some time on my hands, I began my NASCAR writing endeavors, one of my first articles being about Martin pulling back from a full-time schedule despite leading the points the earliest time in his career. Most in the media were convinced there would be no way he’d bail on things now; like Michael Corleone in The Godfather 3, they would keep-pulling-him-back-in. I opined as to why he would not take the bait, submitted my article, and went onto scouring the internet for new job postings.

The next morning I had an e-mail from Martin’s long-time business manager Benny Ertel. It simply stated, “Mark Martin would like to speak with you. Please provide a number he can contact you at.”

Oh awesome. My first real article and I’ve instantly pissed off the one guy I’d rather not.

I called the number in his signature and was told to hold. Mark picked up the line, and we had a casual conversation that had a profound effect on me. He thanked me for writing the article, appreciated somebody finally, “getting it”, and having the ability to write somewhat coherently. Having been sidelined for six months, coupled with mounting financial strain with little hope in sight, that 15-minute phone call and pep talk helped me get back up, motivated, and back in the game.

A month later I landed a job with a great company that I am still with today, as well as a writing career that has continued to flourish, providing a number of interesting and exciting things that have come to fruition over the past few years. I’m not so sure that many drivers would take the time to do that today, let alone admit they actually read what is written about them. During the coming weeks as your read the articles, Tweets, and postings of people thanking Mark Martin for his contribution to racing, it often has more to do with just having put on a show driving around in a circle for 40 years.

Thank you, Mark – enjoy the time away from the madness. Along with the respect of an entire sport, a legion of loyal fans, and a grateful motorsports community, you’ve earned it.

 

 

 

Share this article

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com

Frontstretch