Veteran driver remains a NASCAR contender
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."
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