Emotions by Thomas Martins

Shame is a terrible emotion to write about. 

It’s why I never wrote a blog about our race at Mosport. That’s the most embarrassed I’ve ever been in my racing career. We aimed for that race. We got a new (old KHI) truck prepared specifically for that race. We ran our good motor. We leased a transmission.

We were awful.

We missed first practice because we couldn’t get the truck fired up. Then it wouldn’t hold water pressure. It vibrated so hard it rattled the gauges out of the dashboard. It picked the front tires off the ground during cornering. We blew a rear end line and oiled down the track. I stunk. I felt like I never got a handle on hard braking or running a consistent line around the place. We qualified 28th. I pulled it off track after two laps because it felt like it was about to come apart. The pit crew we had lined up wasn’t allowed to participate. On top of all that, I got us torn up. I put us into side-by-side situations that we didn’t have to be in and made a crappy day a whole lot worse.

It was a disaster.

Mosport was the third race in a row where we left the track with damage. Chicagoland was the fourth. New Hampshire made five. We own four trucks, and all of them are wrecked. Two of them require complete body replacements. For a small team, that’s worst-case scenario. It’s hard for our guys to keep our trucks properly serviced and prepared when they’re off at the body shop. You can’t work on something that’s not there.

We weren’t great during practice or qualifying at Chicago. Our first lap on track was the fastest lap of both practice sessions – and it was an ugly lap. We bottomed out so hard that it sheared the truck arm mount 1/8th of an inch. Our truck struggled to get through the bumps on both ends of the racetrack. Our qualifying lap was two-tenths slower than our practice lap. It didn’t make any sense. 

My dad was upset. He had a good right to be. We were running our ECR Engine, yet we got out-qualified by a few old-style SB2 motors. It was frustrating. We’ve done things to try to improve our performance on track in the hopes of attracting some new sponsors to our race team, and it seems like we don’t have anything to show for it.

When the race started, we were tight. In the middle of the race, we were even tighter. But, we managed to stay on the lead lap. We kept working on it. Kevin never got upset when I kept telling him how awful it was, he just put his head down and came up with ways to fix it. We dodged a big wreck late in the race, and the race got red flagged. We wanted to pit, but we were out of tires. Almost as if they were sent from heaven above, one of the crashed trucks offered us a set of 3 lap scuffed tires for a good price, and we jumped all over it. Good thing we did. After we made our stop, we discovered an inch-long gash in a tire from running through the debris of the accident.

We were in a good spot - inside the top 20, on the lead lap, with fresh tires and less than 30 laps to go. Our truck was GREAT on the short run. We took off on restarts as well as any truck in the field. I was able to weave my way up inside the top 15 before we got another caution with around 20 to go. I was excited.

On that restart, we took off again. As everyone began to spread out, I found myself in a battle with the #71 Josh Berry & the #51 Daniel Suarez. We were racing hard. As hard as I’ve raced all year. I could tell Daniel was getting a little frustrated with us, but I didn’t care. I felt like we were faster. We had fresher tires. We were running faster times than 2 of the trucks in front of us. I wanted more. I wanted to clear him and get to work on chasing them down.

Daniel got a run on us down the front stretch. I was about one groove down from the wall, and as I checked my mirror, I could see he was gaining on us. I moved up the track to arc my way into turn 1, and Daniel kept his foot in it and hit us. I got pretty sideways. We were already going into the corner faster than we had all day. As I tried to gather it up, I think Daniel got loose underneath us and hit us again. I shot up the track and into the outside wall.

I immediately regretted what I had done. I said over the radio that I should’ve known better than to race him hard. I know Daniel Suarez doesn’t give a crap about truck races. He thought I was holding him up. He thought I cut him off. So he hit us. He hit us bad enough that another driver messaged me after the race to ask if Daniel had apologized for it. He hasn’t. I don't expect him to.

My spotter, Toby, went looking for Daniel’s spotter. When he asked him what happened, Daniel’s guy said, “That’s what he gets for being a lap down and holding us up.” Obviously, we were on the lead lap battling for position. I guess the big teams just assume we’re bad and race us like they’re mad we’re putting up a fight.

He wrecked us on purpose. No doubt about it.

I’ve had a hard time carrying the emotional weight of this season. I’m tired. Earlier this year I was angry. Bitter at how bad our luck was and how we could never catch a break. Now I’m exhausted. Depressed. After the wreck, I sat by the truck in the garage for a while. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. Several people came up to me and asked if I was alright. I wasn’t alright. A week and a half later I’m still not alright.

Why do we continually get punished for doing something I love?

The thing that gives me more joy than anything in the world has been a burden on us for nearly eight years now – both emotionally & financially. I can’t remember the last time I left a racetrack feeling happy. I can’t begin to tell you how many emails we’ve sent to sponsors only to hear nothing back. Or how many people have told us they were interested only to go cold and never return a phone call. How many people we’ve hired to find sponsors who have only taken our money and given us nothing in return. How many times we’ve been told how much better things will be when we make a change, or buy a motor, or hire a new person, only to show up to the racetrack and have things go the same way.

I long for the day that justifies it all. That one moment where we finish in the top 10, or the top 5, or in victory lane and we can finally have some relief. A moment where someone comes up and talks to me about what a great job I’ve done on track instead of about something I’ve written in this blog. Talladega in 2014 was the last time we had a moment like that. All we did was finish 14th. No one cared except us, and that was okay.

I’m not angry at Daniel Suarez for wrecking us. I’m jealous of him. He gets to do something I’ve never been able to do in my whole life. He’s allowed to race with absolutely no consequences. If he tore up a racecar every single week, it wouldn’t matter. He thought I was holding him up, so he moved me out of the way. Simple. I’ve never been able to do that. My whole life has been race as hard as you can -- but please don’t tear anything up. I’ve failed miserably lately, and our team is suffering because of it.

He gets to race for wins. I race for top 20’s. He gets interviewed every time he walks down pit road. We haven’t been interviewed on television all season (big shout to Clair B. Lang for having me on her show a few times and talking to me at the racetrack; it means a lot). Every time Daniel shows up at a NASCAR race he thinks he’s got a shot to win the race. I haven’t been able to say that outside of Daytona & Talladega since my ASA days in 2009. At times, I’ve wondered if I even know how to win a race. If I ever had the opportunity, would I be able to capitalize on it? When you struggle seemingly every single time you show up to a racetrack for eight long years, you start to question your abilities.

Daniel Suarez gets to be a racecar driver.

A racecar driver doesn’t concede a position inside the top-15 with less than 20 laps to go in a race. I can guarantee Daniel Suarez has never been told to allow someone to pass him because they’re racing him hard at the end of a race. But that’s what my spotter, owner, and crew chief all thought I should’ve done. Moved over. Let him go. 

Screw that. 

That’s revisionist history, and I’m not going to listen to it. Of course it would’ve been better not to tear our truck up. That’s easy to say after it happens. The only time I get any relief is when I’m in that truck. That’s the only time I truly get to be stress-free. I don’t have to worry about tires or damage or expenses. All I have to do is drive as fast as I possibly can. It’s the only release I have. 

So I’m not going to apologize for doing the one damn thing I’ve been trying to do all year: be competitive. We’ve struggled and scratched and clawed to get to the point where we can run in the top 20 and top 15 on a regular basis, and now that we’re here I’m just supposed to move over and let people pass me at the end of a race so we don’t risk tearing anything up?

If we want to take that approach, then we’re doing it wrong. We need to sell our good motor and only run SB2’s. Who cares where you qualify? We can just ride around and never race anyone and see where we wind up at the end of the race. We don’t ever need to hire a fast pit crew. Who cares if you pick up any spots on pit road? We don't ever need to buy good tires. Lap times don’t matter when you’re planning on running around in the back anyway.

The polite way of putting all that is “managing the race.” Norm Benning made it famous in the truck series. Norm wasn’t there to race anyone. Norm was there to get paid. The only way to make money in our series is to drastically limit expenses & exposure to accidents. Norm made a living doing it -- until this year. The competition level in the truck series is as high as it’s ever been. So, we’ve had to step our program up much more than we originally planned just to give ourselves an opportunity for top-20 finishes. Of course, when you race, you make yourself vulnerable.

We tried to manage our race at New Hampshire, but we got some right front damage by colliding with Ryan Truex when Cole Custer spun up in front of us. Everything got bottled up, and we had nowhere to go. I tried my best to stay off of him, but I don't think there was much I could’ve done. It wasn’t serious, but it still cost around a thousand bucks to fix. It’s the exact reason we considered starting and parking the race. But when it came down to it, we couldn't. 

That’s not why we’re out here. We’re out here to race. 

My dad and I had a long talk in New Hampshire about how much we’ve spent this year and how much more we think it’s going to cost to make it through the end of the season. We’re over budget. When you tear this much stuff up in a year, there’s no way to avoid that. But he spent most of his time telling me how proud he was of me for the job I’ve done this year, and that no matter what happens, Martins Motorsports is going to make it through this season.

I didn’t show it at the time, but that had a profound emotional impact on me.

My family has overextended themselves to finance my career. The son in me feels a tremendous amount of guilt for that. But the racecar driver in me can’t worry about crashing when I show up to a racetrack. I’ve allowed my shame & guilt to seep into other parts of my life as well, and I’m tired of feeling so beleaguered while getting to live out a lifelong dream. My family is tired, too.

We all have to make peace with the fact that this season, and my whole racing career, might never get that shining, justifying moment.

Even if it doesn't, it won’t be in vain. Yes, racing has been incredibly stressful, but it’s also a blessing to have something this big that we can share together. My dad doesn’t love racing. He loves me. And because of that, he’s tried to do everything he can do to give me an opportunity to do something that I love to do. It gives me tremendous joy to go out and compete at a high level against some of the best drivers in the world, and my mother and father take joy in being able to see me do it.

That’s enough for me now.

I’ve finally realized why I write this blog. It’s not for media coverage. It’s not for fans. It’s not to complain about NASCAR, or another driver, or a lack of funding. It’s the only way I know to tell our story: the story of my family, my team, and I going through this amazing journey, together. If I didn’t tell it, no one would. And if this is all I ever get to do in this sport, then I don’t want to forget a single thing. Not one result, good or bad. Not one emotion, painful or positive.

It’s our story. And it’s not over just yet

Expectations by Thomas Martins

We made a big move before Michigan: we bought a motor. Because of that, our goals have shifted as a race team.

Now, we shouldn’t have bought it. It was expensive. It’s only good for four races. But we wanted to know. We HAD to know. We’ve been down on power all year with our SB2 engine program. We’ve been told it's as much as 25 to 40 horsepower on the top end. More on the low end of the RPM band. Even more on the torque scale.

So, how good could we be with a solid engine under the hood? At Michigan, we found out.

I was nervous before the weekend. It was a huge commitment by my father to get this motor for us. I wanted it to be worth it. If we had gone out in practice and wound up 24th again, I don’t know what I would’ve done. Luckily, we weren’t. We were 17th. The first thing Eagle and my dad asked me was, “Can you tell a difference?” The answer was yes. Oh my goodness yes. It was night and day.

We all breathed a sigh of relief.

Now, we weren’t unrealistic with our expectations. We didn’t think simply dropping a better motor in our truck would immediately put us to the front of the truck series field. There are a lot of top tier teams that we’re not going to be able to compete with from a resource standpoint. Our goal was to put ourselves solidly in that second tier of teams alongside Hattori Racing, Young Motorsports, Bolen Motorsports, NEMCO, AWS Racing, and Ricky Benton Racing. We think we did that.

That’s what’s been so frustrating about our year. I’ve spoken time and time again about what I think the potential of myself and our team is. But I’ve been unrealistic with what I thought we could achieve with our SB2 program. We were a third tier team while running SB2’s. We SHOULD'VE been competing with Premium Motorsports, MAKE Motorsports, Mittler Bros. Racing, Contreras Motorsports, and Bobby Dotter every week. With this new engine, the door is open for us to legitimately compete for top-10’s and top-15’s consistently. We think we’re a lot closer to a top-15 team than what we’ve been able to show so far this year. We proved that at Michigan.

Of course, we had some struggles, too.

We had a tire rub in practice that nearly ended our weekend before it got started. We cut a left rear tire down going into turn 3 at nearly 180 mph, but luckily I was able to gather it up and get it down to pit road without any damage. We dodged a bullet. We didn’t have a backup truck. A wreck would’ve sent us home.

We never got a chance to do a lot of drafting in practice because of the rub. When we did get around a few other trucks, we were competitive. We made some passes, and the truck handled okay in a pack. A little tight, but overall pretty good. I told Kevin I thought it was our best handling intermediate truck since Kansas earlier this year. 

I was optimistic for qualifying. I thought we’d be a top-15 truck on speed. That was ambitious. We wound up 20th. That bummed me out. We were essentially the on the tail end of the “fast” trucks. There’s usually a gap on the speed charts between the tiers of teams in our series, and we found ourselves right in the middle of that second tier. I wanted us to be a little closer towards the front of it. Maybe that’s too much to ask for the first race we ever ran with that motor. I just thought we’d pick up more than we did in qualifying trim. 

It wasn’t even our best 1.5 mile qualifying effort of the year. We were 19th at Kansas. Only 20th at Michigan. Yeah, we were a lot faster speed wise, but it didn't translate to much improvement on the charts. For us to not even post our best positional qualifying effort was pretty disheartening.

The race played out about as we expected. There were some really hard crashes and we managed to get around them cleanly. We ran inside the top-20 all day. But, I had a brake issue late in the race. I got on the brakes really hard to get around Spencer Gallagher's crash and was worried I might have warped a rotor. I could feel a hard vibration anytime I was on the brakes under caution.


It was decision time. We were running in the top-15, and pitting to check it out would cost us all of our track position. If it was something more serious though, it could wreck us and really put us in a horrible spot. Kevin and my dad deferred to me to make the decision. There was no chance I was coming down pit road.

I knew this was our chance at a top-10 finish; something neither myself nor my team have ever been able to have.

We were in a great position going into the final restart. I was sitting 12th, in the preferred outside lane. I felt good about our restarts all race. Our motor was getting up through the gears as well as any truck in the field. I focused in during the final caution. I was ready. I knew how critical getting a good jump was going to be for our chances to crack the top-10. As we came to the green, someone in my lane missed a shift. It might’ve been the #51 truck but I’m not totally sure. We were the first ones to get bottled up. Ben Kennedy had nowhere to go and smashed into the back of us, bending our bumper up under our fuel cell and damaging our right rear quarter panel. I got shuffled back and wound up only managing to finish 15th.

I was extremely disappointed. Who knows how many chances we’ll get at a finish like that. And for our truck to get damaged on the very last restart of the race…it just sucked.

I commiserated with Austin Wayne Self after the race, who also had some horrible luck during that last restart and fell from 8th back to mid-pack. We’re snakebit. I ran as good a race as I’ve ever run in my NASCAR career and we still didn’t get anything to show for it. Jordan Anderson finished right in front of us with an SB2. Travis Kvapil finished only three spots behind us. Tyler Young finished 10th. The same guys we compete with every week wound up around us in the final results, even when we were faster than them all weekend. I was disheartened. I mean why even buy that motor if we’re just going to finish roughly in the same place as usual and still get wrecked. What’s the point?

My dad had to calm me down. Finally, after some counseling, I was able to see the big picture. Yeah, we caught another tough break at the end of the race, but look at where we were. We were 12th with 8 to go and had a real shot to get a top-10. That’s something we’ve never had before. It might not have wound up the way we wanted, but we gave ourselves a chance. If we keep improving, that’s going to be a normal situation instead of an extraordinary one. 

I had my career best finish & tied the best ever for our organization. I shouldn’t be upset after something like that. But, I know we’re running out of chances to do something great this year. I just felt like I let a chance slip through my fingers. And by comparing us to some other teams, it made me feel even worse. I shouldn’t do that. I should worry about us. Martins Motorsports had a very solid day.

But, our expectations are even higher going into our race this weekend at Canada.

Some of you might not know, but I'm a driving instructor at Ron Fellows Performance Driving School at Spring Mountain right outside Las Vegas, NV. Most of the time, I’m working there between races. It’s the official driving school of Corvette Racing. It’s an awesome job. I work with some extremely talented racers. They’ve made me a much better driver during my two years out there, and I can’t thank all of them enough for how encouraging they’ve been through all of our struggles this season.

When the NASCAR guys want road course training, Spring Mountain is one of the places they go. The guys I work with every day have coached guys like Ty Dillon, Chase Elliott, Daniel Hemric, Ross Chastain, and several others. As far as I’m concerned, I’m representing all of us this weekend. I'm putting a lot of pressure on myself in that regard. I spent time this week studying the previous races. I spent hours on iRacing at another instructor’s house trying to learn as much as I possibly could about the track.

I’m expecting a lot out of myself.

So is our team. We knew we’d have a chance to get a solid finish at a road course with me behind the wheel, so we prepared a truck specifically for this weekend. Road course spindles, brakes, a new rear end, lease transmission – you name it, we’ve gotten our truck as prepared as we possibly could for Canadian Tire Motorsports Park. It's not the best truck in the field, we know that. All the top organizations build trucks from the ground up every year specifically for this race. We couldn't do that. But we did as much as we could.

We’re not up here to get a top-15. We’re up here to win the race.

It’s the first time I’ve ever shown up to a racetrack in NASCAR and thought I had a chance to win a race outside of Daytona or Talladega. Anything less than a great finish will be a disappointment.

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.