Frustration by Thomas Martins

I was apprehensive at Bristol. If you read my last blog, you know why. 

We didn’t have great speed in practice – or so we thought. Our fastest time in second practice was a 15.60, only good enough for 30th place & nearly eight tenths of a second off the top of the leaderboard. But, when we looked at the best 10-lap average speeds (a better judge of race speed), we were 7th out of the 21 trucks that ran 10 consecutive laps. We never changed tires during practice. Our fastest laps came on 50-60 lap old tires. I allowed myself to be optimistic about qualifying.

We knew we’d have to run a great time in qualifying to make the race. The top-27 qualifying times in a NASCAR Truck Race are guaranteed into the field. The next 5 positions are given to the trucks with the most Owners Points that aren’t already in the field on time. If you’re in the top-27, you’ve got nothing to worry about. We weren’t in practice. We were worried. 

If it came down to points, our struggles this year haven’t given us many to fall back on. There are teams in front of us in points that we’re routinely faster than, but because of their cushion in points they’ve been able to cruise by, never worry about qualifying in on time, and take a provisional on most weeks. Or they’ve been able to rent out their guaranteed number to faster, better-funded teams to help pad their lead. Daytona crushed us. We finished dead last. Those guys had top-10 runs. It immediately put us 20-30 points down to our direct competition. They’ve taken advantage of that.

Whenever there’s a competitive field like there was at Bristol, those teams bring their worst truck, knowing they can take a provisional and force us to qualify in on speed or go home. During the race they’ll cruise around, disregard overall speed, and move up when other teams have problems. So, even when we finish ahead of them, it’s usually only by a few points. When we have an issue, even if they’ve pulled off track as a start & park, they’ll come out of the garage and do enough laps to pass us. I’m not mad at the guys on those teams for what they’re doing. They’re still working extremely hard to get their trucks ready every week. The owners are just playing the game.

It leaves us no margin for error. I made several errors in qualifying.

When I first headed out on track, there was a caution on my come out lap. That threw my timing off & heated up the truck. When I went back out, I completely overdrove it. Rather than just letting the tires & qualifying trim add speed, I tried to force it. I drove into the corners harder. I moved the wheel around a lot more. I pushed and pushed and when I didn’t hear the team call out a time on the radio after the 5th lap, I knew it had to be slow. On the cool down lap they told me we only ran 15.50, still 2 tenths off of the top-27. 

I tried to calm myself down in the truck. Just try to focus on the next run & getting a good, clean lap in. Kevin asked me what we needed to make the truck a little faster. I thought it was a little tight at the end of our first run. We raised the track bar and loosened it up. That was the wrong call. I got a better lap in, 15.43, but then the truck got way too lose. I was sideways on both ends. With the clock winding down, we were still out of the race & helpless to go any faster. The #63 team of MB Motorsports was in our same situation. They had run a 15.36 but someone nipped them by .03 seconds and pushed them back to 28th place. They ran as many laps as they could, but wound up 1 spot short. 

Mike Mittler, the #63 owner, and my father have become close over the course of this year. MB Motorsports is only 1 spot behind us in Owners Points. My heart broke for them. We’ve been on their side of things several times. Even though they out-qualified us, they went home and we got to race. I didn’t feel like we deserved it. I let the team down. It was my job to put our truck in the top-27 and I didn’t get it done. We should’ve been on the trailer and it was my fault. We only made the race by dumb luck.

The race started late, and we were very loose in the early laps. I fell a lap down. We got a caution because of rain and I came down pit road so we could tighten it up. On the restart, I knew I was battling with four other trucks for the lucky dog spot. I got a great jump. I was able to clear a few of them, and get up to the back bumper of the #16 truck of Stewart Friesen before the caution came back out on lap 40. The next restart was the same thing: a dogfight. I ran side by side on the outside with Austin Wayne Self battling for the lucky dog spot for about 6 or 7 laps. I was finally able to clear him, and the caution came out a few laps later. I was pumped. Our truck was starting to show the long run speed we had in practice. It was time to start moving forward.

We got another good restart, and tucked in behind the #92 of Parker Kligerman. Friesen ran wide and Parker got under him in Turn 3. When I tried to follow, Stewart chopped down on me in Turn 1, and we made some slight contact. My spotter Toby Whealdon said his spotter apologized. It was an accident. Stewart didn’t mean to come down on me. I told Toby to tell him it was no big deal. 

Stewart ran really wide into Turn 1 a few laps later. I gave him a chance to gather it up, and got a run on the inside on the way out of Turn 2. I had my nose to the inside of his rear quarter panel down the backstretch. As we entered Turn 3, he chopped down again, this time making much harder contact. I tried to stay off of him, and dropped down onto the apron to avoid more contact. When it started to slide, I hammered the throttle and did what amounted to a 360 with a ton of tire smoke, but was able to keep the truck off the wall & rolling in 2nd gear.

I was furious. I wouldn’t have been as mad if he hadn’t gotten on the radio and told me sorry for doing the same thing a few laps earlier. When we headed down pit road, our truck was smoking. It was hard to turn. I figured it was from RF damage during the accident, but it turned out to be coming from under the hood. Our power steering pump had a leak. The fluid was getting onto the headers, causing more and more smoke. NASCAR told us to send it to the garage, effectively taking us out of the race.

We went back on track with no power steering, but I’ll admit I couldn’t drive it. If I had the whole racetrack to work with, then maybe I could. But with the traffic at a track like Bristol, there was no chance. I could barely turn the wheel. I had both arms up on the right side of the wheel trying to crank on it as much as I could, but we kept coming dangerously close to swerving in front of lead lap cars. Plus, we were under minimum speed. We pulled off and finished 31st.

For the 6th time this year in 12 races, Tommy Joe Martins scored a DNF. I’ve only finished on the lead lap twice (Pocono & Gateway). We’ve got the stats of a start & park team, but we’re trying as hard as we possibly can. I’m doing everything I can do inside the truck. But through all of that effort, we still don’t have much to show for it.

I’ve had plenty of people on twitter and other forms of social media tell me how bad a racecar driver I am. Maybe they've got a point. I’m known more from this blog than I am from my results on the racetrack. That bothers me. I’ve complained too much this year. I don’t want to come across as a guy that rants and raves every week. Believe me, I’d love to be able to write about how great our year has been. But it hasn’t been great. It’s been really damn bad. But still, rather than focusing on the circumstances I’ve found myself in, I should start focusing on what I could’ve done to change them.

It would be very easy to say that we’ve had some bad luck this season. We absolutely have. Running over debris in Kentucky was bad luck. But I’m tired of blaming every bit of adversity we’ve had this year on bad luck. Luck plays a part in everything. All you can do if you want to get better is worry about the things you can control. I haven’t controlled my part of the job very well this year. And as a team we’ve made mistakes in preparation & maintenance that have resulted in parts failures and bad finishes. 

We all have to do a better job, and it starts with the decision making of the guy driving the thing.

The middle of the pack is a bad place to be in a NASCAR truck race. Generally, the guys up front are good drivers in good trucks. The back is made up of people in poor equipment, whether they’re talented or not. But, the middle has a weird, wild dynamic. You have good drivers in good cars that are struggling, and mad they’re having a mediocre day. You have average drivers in great equipment.  You have great drivers in average equipment that are forced to overdrive to keep up. You have inexperienced drivers on one race, give it everything you’ve got, try to make a name for yourself type of deals. 

It’s a dangerous mix. 

Unfortunately we’re stuck in the middle every single week. So, I need to do a better job of recognizing trouble & not put our truck in dangerous situations. Racing is racing, sure. Stuff happens. But I shouldn't have tried to pass Stewart when I did. That was a bad decision. Yeah, he pinched me, but I didn’t have to go for that spot. It was still early. I could’ve waited. 

When I got dumped at Iowa, that was my fault for not getting past a couple of trucks that held us up and allowed the #02 truck to get to our bumper. At Atlanta I felt a vibration but didn’t immediately bring it down pit road. Eventually we corded a right front tire. I’ve made several mistakes with adjustments this year that got our setup going in the wrong direction.

Like I said earlier, as a small team with no points cushion we don't have ANY margin for error. I’ve made my fair share of errors this year, and it’s cost us. I’m sure I’ll make more. But I’m going to try to limit them as much as I can. I want to be able to climb out of that truck every week knowing I did the best job I could possibly have done for us. Right now, I don’t feel like I have. 

I can do better. That’s what upsets me the most. I’m frustrated with myself.

We’ve made a big change for Michigan. It wasn’t a smart financial decision for our race team, but we’re hoping it gives us a better chance to compete for solid finishes. We hope it allows us to showcase our team to potential sponsors and the rest of the garage. I hope it gives me a better chance to show what kind of racecar driver I can be.

I just hope I'm a good one.

Bristol by Thomas Martins

When I was 12 years old, my dad won three tickets to the Bristol spring race at our school fundraiser auction. Bristol tickets were nearly impossible to get in those days. Every race was a hard sellout. At the time, I had only been to two other NASCAR tracks, Atlanta & Daytona. When I found out we had three tickets, and that my friend Michael would get to come with us, I was incredibly excited.

I remember hearing the muffled sounds of the cars while we walked through the parking lot. It sounded like everything was happening a mile away from us until we walked through the gate to our seats. It was deafening. The sound is trapped in there with you. We had to communicate with hand signals. You could see every inch of the track. I got to see Kyle Petty every second of every lap as he battled to a top-15 finish. It was one of the most fun racing experiences of my entire life.

Bristol Motor Speedway has it’s own mythology in southern culture. Along with Talladega, Daytona, Atlanta, & Darlington, Bristol is one of the places that encapsulates NASCAR in my mind. I never thought I’d get a chance to be a NASCAR driver, but I’ve been fortunate enough to race at each of those historic venues…

Except for Bristol.

In 2014, Martins Motorsports got off to a miserable start in the Xfinity Series. After a tumultuous offseason of scratching and clawing to get our cars prepared, we took two teams to Daytona and missed the race with both of them. Daytona paid $50,000 to start in the Xfinity Series. It was a crushing financial blow to our new team. We had to explain to our sponsors (including Diamond Gusset Jeans) how we could’ve missed the race. We were forced to lay guys off. In the aftermath, we decided to consolidate into a start & park effort for the west coast swing of Phoenix & Las Vegas. We figured we could make about $10,000 back, and be able to keep at least a few crew members on full time. 

We also handed over our best car to Willie Allen, a Nashville late model racer & former Truck Series Rookie of the Year. The plan was for Willie & his crew to take the car to his shop for a few weeks and focus all their efforts on Bristol. Willie had run well there before with another small-time Nashville team, Wayne Day Enterprises. We wanted Willie to be our primary driver for the season, with me piloting a start & park effort in our second car, mixing in a few full races whenever we got the opportunity. That plan went out the window when we missed with both cars at Daytona. But, Bristol paid really well - $20,000 to start. We knew if we could go to Bristol & get both cars into the show, we could get things back on track.

The west coast trip went well. We made both races, I got some seat time, and our small, three-man team got two weeks on the road to gel together. I had a lot of fun, and we accomplished our goals. They weren’t lofty goals by any means, but it was the first taste of success we’d been able to have as a team. Willie & his crew had been giving us updates on his end of things, and even though they had some extremely late nights, and struggled to find all the parts & pieces they needed, we all felt like they’d be well prepared heading into the race. We had to turn my car around from a 1.5-mile car to a Bristol car in only two days. It was a thrash effort from my guys, but they got the job done. We loaded my car up the night before practice day, and planned to have Willie & his guys bring their car over to load up first thing in the morning.

The morning came & there was no Willie. They still weren’t done working on the car. They had been awake the entire night trying to finish things up. Our hauler wound up leaving about four hours late. We missed hauler parking. Everyone was in a rush. Our primary car, the #76, struggled to get through tech. My Crew Chief (Joey Jones) and I were the only ones left to get my car, the #67, through tech and ready for practice. I’m not a mechanic. Joey basically had to prep the car by himself, with me helping where I could.

Luckily for us, my car had just been inspected the past two weeks, so we made it through tech easily. After I got into my firesuit for practice, I went to check on the #76. They couldn’t get it to start. They had about ten guys checking every wire in the car trying to fix the issue. It was frantic. As I went back down to my car, I tried to block out the distractions. I had a job to do. I needed to get my car in the race and make our team some money.

I was comfortable. I was in the same car I had driven the last two weeks. I was confident. My dad was spotting for me. After I fired up the car, he and I talked about the struggles of the #76. As I rolled out on track and up the banking, everything felt solid. I got off Turn 4 okay, and drove into Turn 1 a little harder. I was trying to get an idea of just how deep you could drive into the corners at Bristol.

As I finished my first lap, I made a critical error. I assumed I had it. That after only one lap on track, I had Bristol Motor Speedway figured out. I dove into Turn 1 pretty hard, got back to the throttle early, and the car stuck. As I made my way off Turn 2, the car got a little tight. I turned the wheel more stayed in the gas. I came off the corner in the high line, and the car snapped loose as I crested the banking on exit. I realized there was another car blending on track underneath us. I panicked and overcorrected. We shot back up the track and smashed the wall with the right front.

It was the most embarrassing moment of my entire racing career. I wrecked a start-and-park car at Bristol only two laps into practice.

Instead of making $20,000, I had just cost our fledgling team another $5,000 in repairs. I was heartbroken. When Joey told me there was no way to fix it at the track, I broke down. I couldn’t breathe. I went back to our lounge in the trailer and cried. There were 42 cars on the entry list for 40 spots. We had to withdraw my entry.
Things weren’t a lot better for the #76. After they finally got it fired up & on track, it was obvious they had other problems. It was the tightest racecar I’ve ever seen. Willie would drive into the corner on the bottom and wind up in the third groove. He was a full second and a half off pace. They kept trying to free the car up and nothing could fix it. Since they got on track so late, they quickly ran out of time in practice and had to pack it up for the day.

When we got to the hotel room, my dad and I had a talk with Willie’s Crew Chief. He had a plan for qualifying and the changes they were going to make. He knew they had been frazzled, but was confident they’d make the race. After all, all they had to do was beat one car. The back of the Xfinity field in 2014 was riddled with underfunded teams. We were reeling from my disaster, but Willie, along with the sponsorship he had for the Bristol race, could’ve still made it a profitable weekend for Martins Motorsports.

I got to the track the next morning and met with David Hall, the owner of Diamond Gusset Jeans. We spoke about the commercials he bought to go along with his sponsorship of our car, as well as his plans in NASCAR moving forward. I apologized for the mess at Daytona. He was very understanding. He was looking forward to seeing Willie race at Bristol. It was a bucket-list experience for him.

As soon as qualifying began, I knew we were in trouble. When Willie drove into turn 1, the car shot up the racetrack again. He was a second off pace. We were 40th out of 41 cars. Not good enough to make the field on speed. They made some adjustments but nothing helped. With the clock winding down in the first round of qualifying, I could tell on the radio that Willie and the crew were starting to panic. He went out for his last run and drove into the corner so hard he smacked the wall & pancaked the right side. We didn’t make it. 

Forty-two cars showed up to Bristol. We were the only two that missed the race.

Willie was emotional as he climbed out of the car. We all were. As he got to the hauler, he smashed his helmet in frustration. Willie knew his best & possibly last chance to get back into NASCAR was done. He cried. I couldn’t blame him. I was speechless. My dad was speechless. We thought our race team was done. We were all so embarrassed.

Our team didn’t immediately shut down. We ran a few more events that year. Bristol was the biggest nightmare we have ever experienced in racing. The team never fully recovered from it. We missed three more races in 2014. Bristol was the beginning of the end for Martins Motorsports that year. 

As we get ready to load up and head there again, it’s hard for me to shake those memories. We find ourselves in a similar situation. We’re a small team struggling to find support. We desperately need a clean weekend at a place that gives no quarter to racecars. As wild as the truck series has been this year, a clean race anywhere is longshot. At Bristol, it’s basically impossible.

I’m anxious. My attitude for this race is stuck somewhere between excitement, uncertainty, & dread. I don’t know how to feel. Our guys have done a great job with short track setups this year, but we’ve struggled at high-banked speedways. I’m a better racecar driver now than I’ve ever been, but when I think about how bad I screwed up the first time I drove at Bristol, it shakes my confidence. Martins Motorsports is having the best year in the history of our company, but a few mistakes could put us out of business. It’s hard to race at 100% with things like that on your mind.

When I pull off pit road for practice, I will be making my 3rd lap at Bristol Motor Speedway. I want to make at least 200 more laps Wednesday night. If we can finish the race, that’ll be a small victory for myself and our team. I’m ready to get out on track, make a few laps, get the negative stuff out of my mind, and focus on getting the best result we can this weekend. I want to be able to treat Bristol like it’s just another race.

But, Bristol isn’t just another race. It’s Bristol. It means more. And it certainly means a lot to me.

The Problem, Pt. 2 by Thomas Martins

NASCAR is fighting a battle of perception. 

Long-time fans are disenfranchised. They feel like they’re losing their grip on a sport they love. It's hard to attract new fans to the sport. The stereotypes towards NASCAR are carved into American pop culture. So, how do you strike a balance of marketing the sport to new viewers while still staying loyal to your diehard fan base?

Stock car racing should be about action. Beating and banging. Tough racing on tough tracks with tough drivers. Guys like Waltrip, Petty, Yarborough, & the Allison’s set the precedent for what a NASCAR driver is supposed to be. Earnhardt became the most popular driver in the sport because of his hard charging, take no prisoners attitude. Even in the 90’s and early 2000’s, guys like Ricky Rudd, Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, & Dale Jarrett looked, spoke, & acted the same as the fans that loved them so dearly. They were real people. Sponsors were drawn to NASCAR because they felt like the drivers and the sport connected to the average, hard working, middle class American.

Right now we can’t touch fenders without cutting down a tire. We drive racecars that are so aero dependent it restricts passing on most tracks. We’ve gotten rid of short tracks like Rockingham & North Wilkesboro on the NASCAR schedule because they were, “poorly attended,” and replaced them with indistinguishable tri-ovals that spread the fields out and reward equipment more than skill. The cars cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to research & build. Race shops look more like hospitals than garages.

Tell me what the average fan has in common with the NASCAR stars of today. The answer is not much. Drivers themselves mostly speak in PR jargon rather than actual sentences. And that’s nothing against them. They’re told to push their products and not say anything that would get them in trouble. I’ve met several of them. They’re normal people. But, they fly around on private jets. They speak at corporate functions. They live out of million dollar motor homes. They get wrecked, get out of the car, shrug their shoulders and walk away. It doesn’t matter as much to them as it used to. How could it? At the cup level, we have a bunch of millionaires driving for billionaires, and yet the sport relies on making money off the average Joe.

At the lower levels of Trucks & Xfinity, we allow kids to drive these racecars. No one wants to watch a bunch of 16-year olds race in NASCAR. And 18-year olds are still a stretch. Nobody likes hearing about young, successful people. They’re not relatable. People will watch one kid compete against the wily old vets, but an entire field of kids isn’t compelling. And how does that look for a national series? NASCAR has a Coors Light pole award and the kids can’t even take a picture with the beer. They don’t fight, and nobody can fight them. I can’t even yell at them without looking like a jackass. Even if they total my truck, what am I supposed to do? Assault a minor?

There’s a reason guys didn’t get into good rides until they were in their late 20’s or early 30’s. They had to pay their dues. They had to earn the right to be in a front running car at the highest levels of the sport. Guys would compete for years in sprint cars or late models before finally earning a break. Now kids buy rides and immediately take off to the front of the field. It’s not their fault! They want to be there, and the rules allow them to be there. But, no matter how humble, well spoken, or talented they are, it’s going to rub a lot of people (especially racers) the wrong way.

Fans aren’t stupid. They see all of this. They talk to me about all of this.

We’ve allowed a blue-collar sport, probably the most blue-collar sport in the history of America, to become entirely white collar at the highest level.

Fans aren’t skipping out on races because it costs too much. Sure, travel costs and hotel costs are more than they used to be, but that’s not the main reason. Attendance is down because they’re upset. They don’t recognize the sport they fell in love with, and everyone in the industry keeps telling them to just deal with it. Fans still care. They watch the races on television. They call in on NASCAR radio. They comment on websites. But they’ve stopped showing up to races and giving their hard-earned money to promoters, teams, & drivers that look like they clearly have enough already. 

When fans see the stands at less than half capacity, they’re getting confirmation that others feel the same way. Then they complain about the attendance because they’re scared. They think the sport they love is dying, and we’re not doing anything to change their minds. When sponsors see empty stands, frustrated fans, & the rising costs of getting into NASCAR racing, it’s no surprise that they stay away.

Look, the competition level is awesome. It’s closer than it’s ever been. There are more good drivers and teams than there’s ever been in the history of NASCAR. So think of how great it would be if we could cut the costs and allow more sponsors an opportunity to get on the side of a competitive NASCAR racecar. What if we could find a way to make NASCAR ownership a break even business without such a heavy dependency on sponsorship income? That would allow owners to retake power over their teams and select the drivers they thought would finish the best, not just the ones that brought money with them. What if kids could get into the lower levels of racing without having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to, “build their brand?” 

NASCAR is in limbo.

Rather than embracing the dedicated fans we do have, we’ve altered the course of the sport chasing after fans that might never develop an interest in NASCAR racing. NASCAR is the premier motorsport in the United States. It isn’t even close from a numbers standpoint. So why does it feel like we’re struggling to find an identity?

We’ve changed rules to promote better, safer racing. We created the lucky dog rule. It’s a good rule. We moved to double file, shootout style restarts, which has been awesome. But, we’ve also created the restart box rule, which is dumb, and overtime rules that are even dumber. We change the format of our all-star race & shootout every single year. There seems to be a rule change every month in the season.

Sometimes we can’t leave well enough alone. Sometimes we talk out of both sides of our mouth.

The chase is an example of that. I think it’s a cool concept. The new chase format is much better than the original format. But the way it’s described is completely ridiculous. The pitch from NASCAR is, “we’re not like any other sport. We’re NASCAR. We’re racing,” but yet we’ve changed the championship format to make it more like other sports. Well, which is it?

We’ve got a start/finish line that doesn’t start or finish the race anymore. The flagperson has to wait until the leader goes inside the restart box to even be able to wave the green flag. Why even have a flagperson at this point? Why not just have a light? If there’s a caution, we don’t even race back to the line on the last lap. We routinely rob the fans that actually do show up to the racetrack of the most exciting thing in the whole sport – a close finish!  And good luck trying to explain the three overtime attempts/overtime line rules to someone that doesn’t know racing. Or why Cup drivers and teams are allowed to compete in the Xfinity & Truck Series. If you try to make the major leagues/minor leagues comparison then you’re stuck trying to explain why Albert Pujols would need to smash more homers in AAA. It’s absurd.

The whole sport is a contradiction. We want to have drivers fight and promote crashes on commercials, but also be safe and not race back to the line. We want drivers to speak their minds but also not upset sponsors. We want the Xfinity & Truck Series to develop new stars, but we let Cup teams & drivers compete in them & steal the spotlight. We have a 36-race schedule but run several of the tracks twice, something no other pro racing series does.

Until we find that new identity, we’re going to be stuck in purgatory as a league and a brand.

One of the worst things NASCAR ever did was let Will Ferrell make the movie Talladega Nights. It was a hilarious movie. It’s one of my favorites. But it gave an entire generation of people the impression that NASCAR is a redneck, no talent, joke of a sport. It took a stereotype many people had towards us and cemented it as fact. As I just covered, nothing could be further from the truth.

NASCAR drivers aren’t stupid. We’re well spoken, brand ambassadors. NASCAR fans aren’t stupid. We have fans from every different background & socioeconomic level. NASCAR isn’t easy. It’s not driving around in circles for hours. It’s hard as hell to drive one of these cars at a high level.

But we need to stop trying to counteract the stereotypes by promoting drivers & pit crews as athletes. That’s not the answer.

I hate that debate. We’re not athletes! Driving a racecar doesn’t make me an athlete. Changing a tire on pit road doesn't make someone an athlete. We’re daredevils. Which is infinitely more interesting! A marathon runner is an athlete, but there’s nothing interesting about watching a marathon. A weightlifter is an athlete, but people aren’t packing the stands to watch people bench press.

Rallycross gets it. Drifting gets it. They don’t promote Ken Block or Vaughn Gittin Jr. as athletes. They promote them as lunatics! They slide their cars around on YouTube videos. They do jumps during races. They bang into each other. They tear each other up. Their races are shorter, but action packed. Their disciplines translate better to highlight reels, pictures, & video clips. All of this happens at roughly half the speed of NASCAR racing. 

NASCAR isn’t an action sport. It’s THE action sport!

I slid a truck sideways at Pocono at 150 mph, an inch away from another truck. That’s crazy! Three guys crashed right in front of me at over 100 mph and I had to weave through it! That doesn’t make me an athlete. That makes me an idiot! Why else would I put myself in those situations? But people love to watch idiots like us do crazy stuff like that. Fans want to see us push the boundaries of what a person and a racecar can do together. That will never stop being entertaining to every type of person in the world.

I wanted to be a racecar driver because I thought it was cool. I’m a showboat, by nature. Racing gave me an outlet to show off in a car in front of other people. I thought I’d be good at it, and I am. Also, I was right. It is cool. Going 190 mph in a car is always going to be cool. That part hasn’t changed. Everything surrounding it has.

We’ve got to stop confusing people and changing what made the sport so popular. We’ve got some of the best drivers & best racing in the world. We need to make it simpler to follow, change some of the ways we cover and market the sport, and give new and old fans a better way to connect with the people they see on the racetrack. We need to correct the balance between money and talent is crushing a sport that I fell in love with, and still love deeply to this day.

NASCAR has some problems, sure. But no other sport can match the speed, danger, drama, passion, & excitement you get from a NASCAR race. At its core, I think it’s still the greatest sport in the world. 

We need to start giving people more reasons to believe that’s true.

The Problem, Pt. 1 by Thomas Martins

A 17th place finish is a good finish for our team. I’m proud of it. Of course, I was still mad when I got out of the truck at Pocono.

We battled all day. On our first pit stop, we broke a shock. The right front of the truck never got back down in the racetrack afterwards. Anytime I was in the throttle, it was one of the tightest trucks I’ve ever driven. Unfortunately there wasn’t much we could do to fix it.

We used some strategy & I was up to 7th on a restart in the middle of the race. I got smoked. We were 15th by the time we got to turn one. I thought I got through the gears alright, but our torque & horsepower disadvantage really showed when compared to the top trucks in the field.

I had to dodge several wrecks. Three happened right in front of us. I saw more aggressive driving during the race at Pocono than I’ve ever seen in a NASCAR race.

On the final restart I lined up 14th. I got a really good restart, and was able to move up to 13th, racing side-by-side with Jordan Anderson through turn one and into turn two. Jordan is a hard racer. I knew he wouldn’t give me much room during the final four laps. We raced tight, but clean, for a whole lap. 

As Jordan & I got to turn 2 with three to go, another driver made one of the dumbest moves I’ve ever seen.

He jumped to the inside of both of us, down to the apron, on the entry to the tunnel turn. The context here is that the tunnel turn at Pocono is one of the wildest corners in all of NASCAR. It’s sharp, bumpy, & close to flat out. It’s hairy to go through there side by side with one truck. Three-wide is a guaranteed wreck.

I was furious.

I got shoved up the track, slid sideways, saved it, backed out, lost all my momentum and lost a few more positions. Instead of finishing 15th, we backed up to 17th.

It was the final straw in a race full of nonsense. It’s a perfect example of what’s going on in the NASCAR Truck Series, and NASCAR in general. We’ve got a bunch of guys racing at this level that simply do not respect anyone. 

They don’t respect their teams. They tear stuff up every single week. They don’t care about that. The teams are always funded enough to bring another one. They have no idea the amount of effort and time that goes into building & preparing these racecars every week. 

They don’t respect other drivers. Think about how many stupid, overly aggressive, unnecessary moves happened during our Pocono race. It’s been that way all year. I’ve gotten put four wide for 25th place. Crowded in corners by torn up lapped trucks. I’ve watched guys turn into each other down a straightaway for 15th. It’s insane.

They don’t respect the effort it takes to get to this level. Guys have elite-level rides handed to them through tremendous amounts of sponsorship or family money. They’ve crushed people in lower divisions because their equipment is so much better than the field. When they get to the NASCAR level, they aren’t prepared to race as closely as we have to race. Sure, the team taking their money tells them that they are, but it’s obvious by the results that they aren’t.

Worst of all, there are no consequences to any of this.

Think about the risk vs reward in my scenario. If it works, he just moved up to 13th, which is still not that big of a deal. If it doesn’t, and I decide to keep us three-wide, then three trucks get totaled. Given our financial situation, our team would’ve probably been out of business. He was faster than both Jordan & I. He could’ve waited until turn three and it would’ve been a much easier, safer pass.

I was embarrassed to be a part of a race like that. Someone told me fans were booing us during stretches of the Pocono race. Not booing one driver; they were booing our entire series. We’re supposed to be professionals. Ryan Ellis told me after the race that we didn’t make it more than six laps without a caution flag. That’s a joke.

You see, the perception is that we’re the best drivers in the country. The NASCAR Truck Series is a top-three national stock car racing series. Top drivers. Top teams. The best of the best. To make it to this level it takes talent, determination, hard work & skill. That’s simply not true.

We’re not the best drivers in the country. We’re the best drivers in the country that can afford it.

All it takes to make it to this level is money. You want to be a NASCAR Truck Series driver? Write a check. If you’re 16 years old, have ever driven a racecar in your life, and have about $50,000-$150,000 lying around, then you can be a NASCAR driver. It’s not about how talented you are. If you want to break into NASCAR then you have two options: be rich or be a great salesperson.

The only reason I get to be a NASCAR driver is because my father spent the money to start a NASCAR team. We’re not millionaires. My dad owns a concrete business. He’s had to spend every dime he’s ever saved to give me an opportunity to compete at this level, and this is the third time we’ve done it.

Every time I race, I run the risk of ending my career. One too many crashes and we’re done. It’s been like that every time I’ve driven in NASCAR. Every one of my mistakes or unfortunate breaks on the racetrack has brought a tremendous burden to my family. Meanwhile, I see guys totaling trucks each and every week with impunity. It makes my blood boil.

The only thing that has held my career back is money. I’ve had team owners in the ARCA, Truck, & Xfinity series tell me I have the talent to be a race winning, championship level driver. All of them also asked my family for money to allow me to drive their racecars. When we couldn't afford it, those opportunities went away. It makes me wonder about the sincerity of their claims. Or does it even matter? The business model can't survive on talent alone. There has to be money attached to it. If a team won every race on the truck series schedule, they'd still lose money as a company if they were relying on prize money alone.

I desperately want the opportunity to showcase my talent. That’s why we’re out here. My dad and I believed if I could just be out here, that someone would notice. Maybe a team owner or a sponsor would give me a better chance than he could afford to give me. People have noticed. But talent has nothing to do with your progress in this sport. In the end, it all comes down to dollars and cents.

The industry has completely changed.

There are several guys in the truck series that are flat out unqualified to be there. They’ve proven it time and time again on national television. The NASCAR PR world desperately tries to define the public perception of these teams & drivers. Team press releases, media appearances, and television coverage all skew the truth of the matter: most of the sponsors you see at the lower levels aren’t sponsors. You don't earn top rides in NASCAR anymore. You buy them. Then you try your best to cover it up to the general public or potential real sponsors.

A “development deal” is a kid bringing money to a team. A “development series” has become a place where teams can outspend the competition to help build resumes for newly crowned stars. People in the industry say the worst thing a young driver can do is get in bad equipment. How about finishing mid-pack or on the wrecker in great equipment? How does that make you look? Or does it even matter?

Every guy at the cup level has had someone pay for it. Whether it was their own family, a benevolent team owner, or a sponsor - someone paid the bill. To have success at the top levels of NASCAR, it takes a tremendous amount of money behind you. If someone tells you they made it on their own merit, that’s not true. They might’ve caught the right person’s eye and landed a good ride, but someone still paid for it.

Whoever brings the money is the one running the team. Team owners have no power anymore. If someone brings a sponsorship for a full season and they start tearing stuff up, what are they supposed to do? Throw them out? They can't! We've got drivers that have more power than the owners in the sport. When drivers pull sponsorship, entire teams shut down. Dozens of people's jobs rely on one driver's impression of the team. The crew can't get on them. If they hurt their feelings they might be out of a job.

We’ve allowed the top teams to completely take over the sport. At the lower levels, the only way a driver has a chance of standing out is to get in a top caliber ride. The fields aren’t as deep as the starting lineup says they are. In the Xfinity Series, the only way you’re going to win is to be with Gibbs, RCR, Roush or a cup affiliate. Those teams aren’t scouting for talent. They’re scouting for money. Or they just have it brought to them based on their winning reputation. They make money coming and going. I can’t compete with my team without a great motor or truck. Guess who builds them? The teams I’m trying to beat! They won’t sell me one of their best engines. I have to lease it for about $20,000-$30,000 per race. If I do buy one, it’s going to be older and not nearly as competitive.

Sponsorship is a nightmare. We’ve allowed the costs in the sport to get so high that even small budget teams like ours are losing propositions. We’re so desperate for money in our sport that we’ve allowed sponsors to completely dictate the terms of agreements instead of the other way around. As the prices have continued to rise, we’ve lost control. For the amount of money they’re spending, sponsors want a guarantee. That’s why every “famous” cup driver has 15 sponsors. That’s why you see big teams with so many one-race sponsorships. Those same sponsors that might’ve sponsored me or another Xfinity or Truck series driver, instead chose to do partial deals with drivers that are already “branded names.” No one wants to sponsor me. My dad didn't race. I don't have a family name to rely on. I’ve never won a race. When I say it costs $125,000 per race to win in the truck series, a sponsor scoffs at me. When Kyle Busch says it, people listen.

Do we even know who the best drivers are anymore? You don’t have to be in the best car to win, but you’ve got to be in one of the best cars to win. Equipment has been a factor in racing for a lot longer than I’ve been around. It’s called a motorsport for a reason. But it’s never been more painfully apparent at every level of the sport. 

Whoever is spending the most money is winning. That goes from local short tracks all the way up to the NASCAR level. Eventually, when you get to the cup series, everyone is spending a ton of money so it semi-levels out through about 30th place. Stroll through the Xfinity & Truck series. It’s obvious who the haves & have nots are. There’s a clear, wide, irreversible gap that can’t be overcome by hard driving. They’re supposed to be series to showcase talent good enough to go to the next level. Instead, they’re series that showcase how great the top teams are compared to teams like us. The race winners aren’t racing full field. They aren’t racing against me. They’re only racing the other guys in rides as good as theirs. 

We can’t go to a spec engine or some other form of spec racing. NASCAR tried with the Delta engine program. The big teams won’t allow it. Why would they? They’ve invested millions and millions of dollars to get an advantage on teams like ours. But now the only way you can be noticed in the “development series” of Xfinity & Trucks is to either be affiliated with one of those major teams (which has an unrealistic price tag attached to it for 99.9% of drivers in the world) or just spend roughly the same amount of money on your own deal.

NASCAR isn’t a sport anymore. It’s a business.

When skill & talent aren’t the primary factors that determine if someone can advance their career in a sport, then it’s not a sport. What if Michael Jordan had to pay $1,000,000 to play for the Bulls. Would he have gotten to be an NBA player? That’s what’s going on in NASCAR. Careers are determined more by checkbooks & PR people than by results on the racetrack. 

Dale Earnhardt wouldn’t make it as a NASCAR driver in today’s version of the sport. Neither would any of our old heroes. There’s probably a driver out there with the charisma and talent to pack the grandstands for the next 20 years, and chances are they won’t make it off their local short track. It’s heartbreaking. 

Sponsors aren’t looking for drivers. Drivers are looking for sponsors. Competition isn’t on the racetrack, it’s in the boardroom. It’s a race to see who can capture the biggest check from a corporate sponsor. If a driver has a connection with a company, they’ll follow him to another team. Sponsors are currency. They define careers. I’d like to have a better resume to take to potential companies, but there’s a glass ceiling unless I’m in a top-level ride. To get a ride like that it takes money, but to attract money it takes a ride like that. It’s a chicken or the egg situation. 

Until something changes, my career is stuck in neutral. And so is our sport.