Relevance / by Thomas Martins

I think I’ve lost my mind. For some reason, every time we show up to the racetrack, I think we’ve got a chance to run in the top 10 and compete for good finishes.

Crazy right?

You see in my head I think that despite the fact we run older SB2 Chevrolet motors – motors that are at least 15 HP off of the $20,000 to $30,000 per race lease engines – we can still qualify in the top 15. Despite the fact we have a 2-man team that works out of a shop that doesn’t even have a setup plate, I think we’ll be just as prepared when we unload as any of the big teams like ThorSport or GMS. Despite the fact that we can’t afford to buy new tires at $2,200 per set, and instead have to buy scuff tires off of other teams, I think we should be just as fast as them on restarts & long runs. I’m so stupid that I think despite the fact the truck series is having the most deep, competitive field it’s had in it’s entire 20 years of existence, that I’m a good enough driver to compete for wins with an underfunded, understaffed, & overworked team.

I’m an idiot.

But, luckily, this idiot had an epiphany this past weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. I finally got a grip on where Martins Motorsports is as a NASCAR race team. And the truth is, we’re average. That’s it. We’re average. Average might even be stretching it a bit. We’re below average. We should be finishing in 25th place every single week. It shouldn’t disappoint us or frustrate us. In fact, we should be excited about it. Heck, we qualified seven tenths off the pole at TMS and wound up 24th on the board. The field is really deep. The fact that we’re able to be average at this level with a team this small is pretty damn impressive.

The simple fact is, hard work and talent in this sport can only separate you when everything is equal. Things are rarely equal in racing. More than that, people like to embellish just how unequal things are for how it suits their own narrative.

I try my absolute guts out every time I’m in that racecar. I think I’m a pretty good driver. Kevin & Steve work their asses off each and every week. They’re both good, knowledgeable workers. But, it’s completely unrealistic to think that we’re going to consistently beat teams with good drivers and way more resources, experience, & people than we have at our disposal. Our misses are bigger. We don’t have the equipment to afford us room for any mistakes. When Cole Custer is really loose, he’s still running 15th and on the lead lap. When I’m really loose, we lose 2 laps in the first caution clock run and wind up completely out of the race (ie: Texas).

It really irritates when I hear people that cover this sport talking about guys being on small teams or running without a sponsor or being underdogs or blah-blah-blah. I think John Hunter Nemecheck is awesome. He’s friendly, has an unreal knowledge of the trucks we race (he’s basically an engineer), & he might be the best driver in the whole field. But to say he’s underfunded? Gimme a break! Undersponsored? No doubt. Underfunded? Psh. Ryan Truex can wheel it, but Hattori Racing is hardly an underfunded team. Jordan Anderson is an awesome dude with an awesome story, but he would grimace to tell you how much money his new team Bolen Motorsports spent this offseason. Parker Kligerman is killing it this year. But, they’re still showing up in a full rig, with 8-10 guys, buying the full compliment of tires, & leasing motors for every speedway race.

When you lease a motor & buy a full allotment of tires every week, that’s a minimum of $30,000 every race; it could be as high as $50,000 per race. Maybe I’ve been on the skid row side of the garage too long, but when you’re driving for a team with that kind of budget, you’re not an underdog. Top-10 finishes shouldn’t be surprising - they should be expected.

Which isn’t to say that Bolen Motosports, Hattori Racing, NEMCO, & RBR aren’t small teams. They are! They certainly don’t have the resources of KBM, Red Horse, GMS, ThorSport, or BKR. Those multi-truck teams are commanding per-race prices of upwards of $75,000 per race in sponsorship – for KBM I’ve heard as much as $150,000! I But, they are able to do what it takes to put a good, competitive truck on the track. Sure, they may cut a corner or two. Ricky Benton actually runs old style D3 Ford motors at some of the smaller tracks on the schedule to save money. Bolen Motorsports has run a short track truck at a few mile and a half races. Maybe they don’t have a 10+ person staff in the shop full time, but they aren’t underfunded. They’re just small.

We’re smaller. Smallest even. To quote the movie Moneyball, “There’s big teams, there’s small teams, then there’s 50 feet of crap, and then there’s us.” We’re literally relying on the prize money of [roughly] $15,000 a race to completely cover our expenses. Payroll included! I’m certainly not getting paid. Diamond Gusset has been an unbelievable partner to us, but they’re a small company who can’t afford to be a full-time, big team NASCAR sponsor. Fortunately for them, we don’t have a primary sponsor. We’ve been able to put them in a primary position, improve the look of our team, and give them some occasional TV coverage for the cost of an associate level sponsor. It’s been beneficial to both sides. I can’t say thank you enough to David Hall for his continued support.

I guess the thing is, if I’m not sending out press releases every week and complaining to the media about how rough the sport is or how we’re having to do it with less, then nobody should be. Besides, you never want to come across as if you’re begging for money. If anything, you always want to act like you’re doing it with less than the other guy! The guys I gave examples of - they all absolutely deserve every opportunity they have in front of them. I’m not bitter about their success. Far from it! Obviously my family had enough money to be able to buy some equipment and give me a shot in NASCAR. Believe me, we didn’t have that much. And what my family had, we spent too much of. My parents have risked their futures to put me in a racecar more times than I’d like to talk about. But, that’s still more than millions of hopeful drivers around the world will ever get. It’s just the business of racing. Teams with bigger budgets are going to run better than teams with smaller ones. We don’t have to continually exaggerate the truth to the fans of this sport.

I get so caught up in how other people look at me as a NASCAR driver. I doubt myself all the time. Do I deserve to be here? That’s the wrong question to ask in racing. Lots of guys deserve to be here. Unfortunately, they’re not. Most of them won’t ever be. The only thing we can do is judge the guys that are here based on the opportunities they’ve been given.

Tommy Joe Martins is a known quantity in this sport by now. I ran 4 races in 2009. My best finish was 21st. I ran 13 Xfinity races in 2009. I start and parked a lot. My best finish was 14th at Talladega but everyone knows anyone can get a good finish at those things. My average finish for the year was somewhere around 34th. This year I’ve raced 6 times and had an average finish of 25th place (the Martinsville race Austin Wayne had to sub for us because we crashed out of 8th in qualifying). To everyone that covers and watches this sport, Tommy Joe Martins is a slow driver. Yeah, our team is what it is - but it’s still my name above the door. My entire NASCAR career I’ve done nothing but finish in the back of the pack. I’m irrelevant. And it burns me to no end. Everything my family and I have been through just to get to this level and despite all our effort we don't have anything to show for it. Not even recognition. No one cares who finishes 25th. Nor should they. Will that be my racing legacy? Will all of that time, money, & sacrifice never be rewarded? I know I’m a good enough driver to compete for wins in this series, even if I’m the only person in the whole world that believes it. But, if that win, that top 5, that moment never comes simply because I was never in a truck good enough to do it – then was it worth it?

Kevin Eagle is a good Crew Chief. He’s got a reputation in the garage area as being one the hardest working, nicest guys you’d ever meet, but where has it gotten him? He’s been kicked around, fired, underpaid, worked countless hours for teams & drivers he knew had no shot at ever winning races or even competing for quality finishes. He actually said to my father and I that Martins Motorsports is the best team he’s ever had the privilege of working for (which oughta tell you a lot). He’s mostly worked in the Xfinity & Cup series, and he’s still learning more about the truck series, but he’s picking it up pretty quick. I know nobody is working harder than he is, and I can say that literally because he has to prepare the trucks & drive the hauler to every single race with only 1 other guy to help him.

It’s not a fair sport.

Our hands are tied. Until we’re able to get more funding, we are who we are. We’re a small team that can occasionally overachieve and run in the top-20.

That’s okay.

I don’t have to be happy running 25th; I wouldn’t be a racecar driver if I was. But, I’m blessed to even be a part of this wonderful sport, and I’m going to try a lot harder to appreciate the opportunity that I do have, instead of being irritated by an opportunity that someone else has. Maybe my time will come. Maybe it won’t. Either way I’ve learned more about myself as a driver and a competitor this year than I have in my entire racing career, and I’m going to enjoy the ride.