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.