When Mark Martin was growing up in the 1970s in Batesville, Ark. (pop. 9,445), he tried all the usual team sports-football, baseball and basketballwithout success. It wasn't until he got behind the wheel of a fast car at age 15 that he found his true calling.
"When I started driving race cars, I found something I was good at," says the clean-cut, gray-headed Martin, 50, the oldest full-time driver in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series.
Now after 35 years of racing cars and trucks on dirt and pavement, Martin finds himself in the desirable position of driving for one of NASCAR's elite teamsHendrick Motorsportsalongside superstar teammates Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., and he remains a contender in a sport in which the average driver's age is 32.
Yet despite his decades of racing experience and recent good fortune, Martin still measures his self-worth by his triumphs on the track. "I'm embarrassed about that," he concedes. "It's pretty immature, but I can't help it. When it doesn't go good on the racetrack, I struggle with things. When I don't go to the racetrack at all, I feel lost."
Long-time friends and associates hail the wiry 5-foot-6-inch, 135-pound Martin for his humble demeanor and rock-solid work ethic.
"He's like a 50-year-old guy in a 35-year-old body, a fitness fanatic," said racing team owner Rick Hendrick last summer when announcing Martin's signing to a two-year contract. "When you mention his name, it's immediate respect and admiration. He'll make us all better."
For his part, Martin didn't want to miss the opportunity to drive for Hendrick. "I was very concerned about regretting that decision for the rest of my life," he said about accepting the offer to drive the No. 5 Kellogg's/CARQUEST Chevrolet. "I'm pretty sure that the last breath I took on my death bed would have been, 'I should have drove Rick's car when I had the chance.' I didn't want to regret that."
Martin, who owns a Ford-Mercury dealership in Batesville, has been a local celebrity since winning the Arkansas State Championship on a dirt track in Benton (pop. 21,906) in 1974. Recently, when Batesville boosters solicited donations to renovate a "Welcome to Batesville" sign, many residents insisted that the sign mention the town's most famous native son.
"Most people weren't interested in contributing if it didn't say something about 'Home of Mark Martin' on it," says Ernie Pectol, 56, business manager of Mark Martin Ford-Mercury. "He put Batesville on the map."
Martin planted his racing roots on the dirt tracks of rural Arkansas in a car built by his late father, Julian, who owned a Batesville-based trucking company.
"Dirt-track racing was really the only racing that was local to us where I grew up," Martin recalls. "We had four or five race tracks within a 100-mile radius of Batesville that we could go to and get a variety of racing and competition."
Before graduating from Batesville High School in 1977, Martin began traveling outside Arkansas to race on paved tracks and pursue his dream. "When I was 17, I wanted to be a NASCAR driver someday, and I knew that NASCAR wasn't run on dirt," he says. "I didn't particularly prefer one surface over the other; it was a means of getting where I wanted to go."
That route took him to the American Speed Association (ASA) circuit, where Martin claimed three consecutive championships between 1978 and 1980, and traded paint with future NASCAR notables Alan Kulwicki and Rusty Wallace on tracks across the Midwest and Southeast.
Wallace, the 1989 Winston Cup champion, recalls his favorite story about Martin as a racing innovator. "Mark showed up at a short track in the early 1980s with a car so advanced, it only had three springs," says Wallace, 52. "He showed up with a right front spring, left front spring, and one big left rear spring, with no spring in the right rear. That developed a lot of left side weight. The car was incredibly fast. When he showed up and kicked everybody's butt, the ASA immediately put a rule in that you had to have four springs. I said, 'This guy is so far ahead in his thinking, he's in a different century.' Who would ever think to come to the racetrack with three springs instead of four? But he did it."
Martin's enduring competitiveness and career has earned him respect on the racetrack. As the senior driver in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, Martin is following in the path of legends such as Bobby Allison, Harry Gant and Richard Petty, who raced competitively into their 50s.
"I don't know of any NASCAR driver that has as much respect among his peers as Mark Martin," says Larry Cothren, 48, a veteran sports writer in Harrisburg, N.C. "This is a guy that's out there mixing it up with guys who could almost be his grandchildren."
Martin began his NASCAR quest in 1981, debuting on the Winston Cup circuit and performing well for a rookie on a limited schedule. But after a personally disappointing 1982 season, followed by his firing the following year, Martin hit a crossroads.
"I didn't expect to ever come back to NASCAR," he says of his three-year hiatus from the stock car racing's premier division. "I didn't leave saying 'I'll be back.' I left saying, 'I've got to rebuild my career.'"
After returning to ASA racing and winning his fourth title, Martin's fortune took a turn for the better in 1987. At the invitation of NASCAR team owner Jack Roush, he raced in the Busch Series, NASCAR's junior division. The Roush-Martin union prospered for the next two decades, during which Martin logged 35 Winston Cup/Nextel Cup victories, plus an all-time Busch/Nationwide Series record 48 wins. In all, the sport has yielded Martin four runner-up Cup titles, and some 125 paved-track victories in 2,600 career starts.
Normally that would earn a racecar driver some well-deserved down time with his wife of 25 years, Arlene, and five children at their Daytona Beach, Fla., home. But retirement is on hold, and the road ahead is not without pressure. Burdened by media expectations that this might be his best and perhaps final chance to capture an elusive championship, Martin instead focuses on being a contender every time he crawls behind the wheel, pitting his skills against drivers half his age.
"For right now, I don't want to come to a race that I am not driving in," he says.
Mark Martin's Teammates
Although NASCAR drivers are primarily solo competitors, most drivers count themselves as part of a larger organization. Mark Martin drives the No. 5 car for Hendrick Motorsports, which is owned by Warrenton, N.C., native Rick Hendrick and boasts superstars Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on its team.
NASCAR teammates share equipment, resources and technical know-how. They also look out for each other where it counts-on the track.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., 35
Hometown: Kannapolis, N.C.
"Dale Jr." became NASCAR's only third-generation champion (following grandfather Ralph Earnhardt and father Dale Earnhardt) when he won the 1998 and 1999 Nationwide Series titles. The six-time winner of NASCAR'S Most Popular Driver award has 18 Sprint Cup victories under his belt, including his 2004 Daytona 500 win.
Jeff Gordon, 38
Hometown: Pittsboro, Ind.
A four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion,
Gordon was born in Vallejo, Calif., and started racing quarter midget cars at age 6. His family moved to Pittsboro, Ind., the heart of sprint car country, when Jeff was 13. Today, after 17 years with Hendrick Motorsports, Gordon is sixth on the all-time NASCAR wins list, with 82 Sprint Cup victories.
Jimmie Johnson, 34
Hometown: El Cajon, Calif.
Last year, Johnson won his third consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship, an incredible feat for any driver but especially impressive for a competitor who has raced for just seven full seasons. Johnson is only the second driver in NASCAR's 60-year history to win three in a row (Cale Yarborough won in 1976, '77 and '78).