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‘The Kid’ Turns 50, But Wanted A 49 Flat

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, July 26 2009
At 50, Mark Martin became the oldest driver to take the pole at IMS. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

At 50, Mark Martin became the oldest driver to take the pole at IMS. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By  Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Indianapolis – When he smiles, Mark Martin’s face has more wrinkles than the NASCAR rulebook.

Known as “The Kid” during his days a teen sensation in the American Speed Association, Martin has come a long way since he raced cars out of barn-like shop in North Liberty, just up the road from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In qualifying for the AllState 400 on Saturday, Martin became the oldest pole winner at the storied Speedway. After climbing from his Hendrick Motorsports Chevy, he declared, “Nobody in NASCAR is having as mucy fun as me.”

But how does it compare to those heady days when he won 11 poles and five races in a 15-race ASA season in 1980?

“That was pretty much fun,” he said with a laugh. Much of the joy resulted from doing so much with so little while working in collaboration with chassis builder Ray Dillon. “My first winter in that shop in North Liberty, it had a tin roof with no insulation, and we heated it with a space heater, kerosene. I was a teenager. Out on my own making it, without parental supervision, so to speak. It was the first chance to be out there in the world doing it on your own. It was really fun.”

Martin and Dillon built chassis that won races with their own front-end suspension design, then sold the same chassis or adaption kits to others in the hotbed of short track racing in the Midwest. The approach was so successful their chief competitor in the chassis business, Ed Howe, began selling kits to convert his cars to the “Mark II” style of Dillon and Martin.

“We had tremendous success,” said Martin, who sported long curly locks in place of his current crew cut. “But there’s been a lot of days since then. A lot of the fun finally either dwindled away or was taken for granted. Some of it was taking for granted how much this sport means to me, how little I want to do (other than race).”

Driving for Hendrick Motorsports in his first full season since the winless 2006 campaign with team owner Jack Roush, Martin realized all he wanted to do was drive race cars, just like when he campaigned cars out of North Liberty. When asked if he had followed 59-year-old Tom Watson’s bid to win the British Open, Martin was polite but not enthusiastic. “If it doesn’t have wheels on it,” he said, “I don’t know much.”

The wheels have now turned full circle with NASCAR racing at the Brickyard, reserved exclusively for Indy cars back when Martin took a leap of faith at age 18 and accepted Dillon’s offer to move to Indiana. Little did he know at that time how much he would cherish that opportunity to build and race cars from the ground up.

“I could tell you every pothole and crack that was in the roads, the beltway around Indy here, the road that goes up to North Liberty, all that stuff,” said Martin. “When I look back on that, I can’t relive those days. The only ones I can live are the ones going forward.”

“I happen to have the same fire and desire that I had 30 years ago,” he continued. “Not everyone, you know, has that. Maybe three years ago I didn’t have as much either.”

As usual, the firebrand perfectionist wasn’t satisfied with his qualifying lap. But unlike recent years when he tended to be pessimistic under all circumstances, Martin was smiling broadly after a circuit of 182.054 mph that handily beat the next-quickest lap of Juan Pablo Montoya aboard the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevy.

Martin clocked 49.436 seconds, but had hoped to turn 49 seconds flat. “When (crew chief Alan Gustafson) told me the lap time,” he said, “I was like, ‘Well, okay. I guess that’s acceptable.’ But it was not really what I was looking for. The lap I made at the end of practice yesterday was all of it, all of it. The lap today, the car could have been better, and therefore I could have maybe done a better job with my judgment in the turns.”

The flaw was a fleeting image in his mind’s eye of his No. 5 Hendrick entry on the tow truck as he approached the last corner. Unlike the first three turns on the 2.5-mile circuit, which he described as “adventurous,” Martin opted to get through the final corner smoothly. “When I came off of Turn Four, not a tire on the car slipped,” he said. Martin was disappointed he had not squeezed all the speed out of his Chevy. “I was like, ‘That’s disgusting.’

The preceding Turn Three, on the other hand, was different. “I went in there young and dumb,” he said of a car that was perilously loose.

Martin was not alone in leveraging his experience on a day when steady rain left the track green for the qualifying session, which was postponed by four hours. Former Brickyard 400 winner Bill Elliott, 53, was fourth fastest in the Wood Brothers Ford, just a tick behind the third-placed Hendrick Motorsports Chevy of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jonathan@jingrambooks.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, July 26 2009
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