The Team by Thomas Martins

Martins Motorsports had the most successful day in company history Wednesday night at Eldora Speedway.

We qualified fourth overall. We won a heat race. We were running third in the main when the exhaust got knocked off the truck, putting us two laps down. Caution after caution, we couldn’t get the break we needed to get a lap back until later in the race, when we were positioned as the only truck two laps down, then the only truck one lap down. We finished the race as the last truck on the lead lap in 15th place.

J.R. Heffner was driving.

A lot of people tweeted, texted, and prodded me thinking I’d be upset seeing someone else have that much success in my truck. Nothing could be further from the truth. I was cheering harder than anyone! I haven’t met J.R., but from everything my father and our Crew Chief Kevin Eagle have told me about him, he’s a great guy. He’s humble, professional, & best of all, a terrific racer. He deserved every bit of praise he got for his performance Wednesday. He took a truck that was 29th in final practice, qualified it fourth overall, and ran the 5th fastest time of anyone during the race. He ran 75% of the race with the exhaust knocked off & fumes getting into the cockpit. It was a gutsy race from him and our crew.

That’s what makes me so happy. I’m happy for our guys. I’m happy for our team. We all deserve nights like Wednesday night. Even though in typical Martins Motorsports fashion they had to battle through some crazy circumstances, they proved just how competitive our team can be when all things are equal at a place like Eldora. That’s awesome.

But...I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous.

It’s my truck. They’re my guys. It’s my number. It’s my dad’s team. And J.R. did more with them in one race than I’ve been able to do in ten. Sure, Eldora is different. But of course I want to be the guy that has those big days for our team. So far this year, I haven’t been able to have any.

So, why did we let someone else come in and drive for me in one of the most prestigious races of the entire truck season? The short answer is simple. We have to put the team first. As for the long version, there were several factors.

Number one, we couldn’t afford it. Eldora is an awesome event, but it’s also a very unique event. Top teams build dirt-specific trucks to run it. As a small team, we can’t afford to buy or build a truck for only one event per year. Besides that, it’s a well-known fact that you’re going to completely tear your truck up when you go to Eldora Speedway. That’s dirt racing. Matt Weaver posted a great picture on twitter of the carnage in the post race inspection line. We’ve already got two torn up trucks, and another new one that needs a body. That’s enough fab work for us. We certainly couldn’t afford more.

J.R. owned the truck he raced at Eldora. Bobby Pierce ran it last year and nearly won in it. J.R. had run it in 2014 and finished 18th with it. The only problem was that J.R. didn’t have a team that could help get it ready and take him to the event. He wanted an experienced team that had been in the truck series all year. That’s where we came in. It was a perfect marriage. It was the only track he wanted to race at, and it was a great race for us to sit out and save our stuff for another week. It wasn’t an off week for my guys, that’s for sure. Our whole crew prepped, traveled, wrenched, & pitted just like any other week. The only difference was the guy behind the wheel.

J.R. is obviously a really good dirt racer. I’ve only run one dirt race in my entire life. It was a disaster. I literally hopped the back tire on top of the wall, dropped it back off the wall, and kept driving. The crowd loved it. I hated it. I wasn’t looking forward to Eldora. I wasn’t sure how I’d do. I think I’m a good driver and I’d adapt, but would I be as good as a guy like J.R. who’s run dirt for years? Probably not. He was a dirt track ringer, and he brought a lot of experience and knowledge to our race team.

The team comes first.

Not just because we couldn’t afford to buy a new truck. Not just because we couldn’t afford to wreck our only good truck. Not just because J.R. gave us the best chance to do well. We made this deal because it was the best thing for the company and the best thing for me.

It might seem like those are separate entities, but I assure you, they’re the same. My career has lived and died with our race team twice already. No one has ever called me to drive their car without asking me for money, and I’m not foolish enough to think anyone ever will. That’s the business. Even if it wasn’t, I haven’t ever had any major success in NASCAR. Sure, I’ve never had a chance on a competitive, front running team, but the facts are the facts. I’ve run 10 races this year in the truck series and I have one top-20 finish.

Even if someone did call, it wouldn’t be a top team. Those teams make drivers bring crazy money to race for them. I don’t have any money. And with my results so far this year, sponsorship is pretty hard to come by. I haven’t done anything this year (or in my entire career for that matter) to make my name stand out.

Start and park teams could call me, but why would they? They’d have to pay me. I’m not going to go out and finish dead last or drive a piece of junk for free. Plus, they could get someone more experienced than me for the same amount of money (a la Jeff Green in the Xfinity Series).

A mid-level team like JD Motorsports or JGL could have me race for them, but that’d be about the same sort of situation I’m in right now. Those teams both cap out around 15th in the Xfinity Series. With all the cup drivers and teams in that series, notoriety is pretty hard to come by when you’re finishing 15th.  And again, why me? They can get former cup guys to race those cars. And they’d much rather have someone bring them money than have to pay anyone themselves.

My only chance in NASCAR is with our team. I don’t get to race if we’re out of business. J.R. Heffner lifted our team up, got us some recognition, and made us some money. I can’t thank him enough for what he did for us and our company.

Maybe one of these days I’ll be able to prove that I’m a good driver. I’ve been waiting a long time for that moment. I think a lot of the guys in the garage respect me as a driver, but I don’t think I’m the first name that comes to mind when you think of racing overachievers. I want to be Ryan Sieg. I want to be Landon Cassill. I want to be the guy that people look to as the guy that’s doing the most with the least. I hate the idea that my career could end because of some bad luck this year, and I might never get that one big break that could lead to more NASCAR opportunities.

I don’t just want to be a driver. I want to be an owner. I want to be involved in this sport for a long time. I want to be able to give someone a shot to race at the highest level. I love NASCAR. Maybe the reason I’ve been so vocal & critical is because of how much I care. I think it’s the best sport in the world, and I’m constantly seeing ways to make it better for everyone involved.

I know that I’ll never make enough money to start my own NASCAR team. Luckily, my dad did. But, Martins Motorsports is a business, and just like any business, it has to be profitable to keep the doors open. So far, in the seven-year history of the company, we’ve never made a single dollar from it. I’ll never make enough money to be able to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars per year just to be involved in the truck series. I think it’s ridiculous that anyone should have to. Yeah, we do spend a lot less money than other teams, but it’s still a big time losing proposition without a sponsor footing at least some of the bill. Make no doubt about it, if we make it through the end of the year without a sponsor on the hood, it will have cost my father and my family a tremendous amount of money.

Hopefully it won’t be in vain.

I'm not begging for sympathy. We gambled. We thought if we got decent equipment, good people, and had a little luck, we could have a successful, break even, mid-pack NASCAR race team. So far we've done two out of three. Now, because of our bad luck, we're going to need more sponsorship or a bigger checkbook to make it through the rest of the year. Eldora helped. Not just financially, but mentally. It was a proud moment for all of us.

I’m looking forward to my next chance to get behind the wheel at Pocono. It’s a track I’ve always thought I’d be good at. Of course, we’ll be battling all the same challenges we normally face: less horsepower, no tires, yada yada yada. We’ll do all we can do. I’ll do all I can do. I want to be the one to give Martins Motorsports it's next big moment.

Each race is another opportunity.

Wrecked by Thomas Martins

We got wrecked in Iowa.

I got really, really mad. As mad as I’ve ever been in my entire life. I made an ass out of myself on twitter. I was mad for a lot of reasons, not just because Derek Scott, Jr. ran into us. I was mad because we had the worst possible weekend our team could’ve ever had.

When we unloaded, we were slow. It was one of the weirder things I’ve ever experienced. The truck felt pretty solid. I felt like it took me about 20 laps to get up to speed & comfortable with the racing line, and by then, our only set of practice tires obviously wouldn’t be good enough to get us near the top of the board, so we focused on race runs. We were 28th fastest. Not good. We made a shock adjustment. We kept looking at the times and they were showing us a full second off of 15th place race run times. We went back out in second practice and things just got worse – P30. The truck still felt fine. I told Eagle I wasn’t sure what to change with it. We were resigned to the fact we were going to struggle with speed all weekend.

Qualifying certainly didn’t change our minds. I felt like I ran a solid lap and we were over a second off of the leaders pace. We wound up 30th out of 33 trucks - our worst qualifying effort of the year. I was frustrated. I went and sat alone for about an hour after the session. I didn’t know what to do. The truck felt fine but it wasn’t going anywhere. My dad and I talked about start and parking, something we never thought we would ever do again. I mean, what was the point of risking a wreck when we were a 30th place truck? There was nothing to gain.

The ghosts of our failed 2014 Xfinity effort constantly haunt us. We were so bad that year Mike Harmon & Carl Long knocked us out of races (love both those guys, but they know their stuff isn’t very good). We swore we would never be that bad as a NASCAR team ever again. We’d never be a team that missed races. We’d never be a team that struggled to simply qualify or be competitive every week. If we were going to be that bad, we might as well shut the team down and save the money & embarrassment.

Despite what many people in the industry say, I’ve never thought driving a bad truck or bad car hurts you as a driver. Sure, it might make you question your own abilities (take a look at my post from last week). Sure, it might effect the casual fan’s perception of you as a driver (take another look at my post from last week). And sure, it might affect your ability to get a sponsor (don’t think I touched on that, but obviously a sponsor doesn’t want to support a guy finishing 30th every weekend). But the people that know, the people in the garage area, the members of the media that are there every weekend, the dedicated race fans, the people that see what’s actually going on…they get it. They don’t think I’m a bad driver. They understand the dynamics of the sport.

I was awful at Dover. I even wrote a post saying how badly I got my butt kicked. Our truck was all over the place. We nearly wrecked 5 times. We were in the way. I did everything I could do to just hold onto the thing for 200 laps. I remember how relieved I was when I saw checkered flag because it meant I didn’t have to drive that evil thing anymore.

My dad spoke with Mike Beem, the competition director of GMS a couple weeks ago. He told my dad what an unreal job I had done at Dover. My dad laughed. “We were awful,” he told him. But, Mike complimented me on my patience, my car control, & my professionalism. “Most guys would’ve either wrecked or just pulled it in. He stuck it out. We were all paying attention,” he said.  I was shocked & humbled by the recognition.

Racers all over America, hear me when I say that sitting on your couch is the worst thing you could ever do for your career. Never be ashamed of driving a car that’s not up to par. Make yourself better. Try to elevate the team. Be Landon Cassill. Be Matt DiBennedetto. Be Ryan Ellis. Have a good attitude about it. People WILL notice.

Eventually, we talked ourselves out of parking our truck. We decided to race. We’re racers. A never give up attitude, stubbornness, the fact that we had already paid for our pit crew – all of these were probably the determining factors. Barring the fact that our truck is wadded up, I still think we made the right call.

The truck wasn’t bad. In fact, it was pretty darn good. We passed the trucks in front of us on the grid pretty easily and had worked our way up to around 23rd or 24th. We gave up track position on a few restarts but, overall, we were a competitive truck. We made some passes, raced with some pretty good trucks, and were only going a lap down deep in the clock – under 5 minutes to go every time, I think. We were pleased with how the race was developing for us. Our guys on pit road were doing a fantastic job, and we were leading about 5 or 6 trucks on the same lap as us.

Of course, we completely overshot our tire budget for the weekend. Normally when we go to a racetrack, we try to keep our tire cost around $5,000-$6,000. This involves buying the mandatory set at full price from Goodyear ($2,200), hopefully bringing a practice set of tires from home ($600-$800, but we’ve only been able to about half the time because Goodyear changes tire codes a lot), and scrounging around on pit road for scuff tires, used up 30-40 lap tires, or if a truck crashes out of the race, buying their leftover sticker tires for half price.

The market was a complete mess at Iowa.

We were running the same tire compound as the Xfinity teams. You would think that would mean there would be more tires available! Instead, the Xfinity teams came and plundered all of the leftover practice tires from our series, and also were on pit road during our race to buy away any extra tires teams had after an accident.

We decided to start the race with only two sets of tires, and see how things went. When we knew we had a shot at a top-20 finish, we made the call that we would run the entire race. I was excited. The truck was a blast to drive, but we couldn’t get ANY cheap tires. Despite our best efforts to make deals, everyone either turned us down or had already made a deal with another truck or Xfinity team. We wound up buying two more full cost sets, and ended up crashed and 30th on the board. Our total cost for the weekend was over $10,000. All that money was wasted. We could’ve finished in the same place with a start & park strategy & spent $10,000 less.

The crash was dumb. Beyond dumb. With 30 something laps to go, I was running 24th, the first truck on my lap. I had opened up a pretty solid gap of 10-15 trucks of the next truck I was racing for position, Derek Scott, Jr. in the #02. The two trucks in front of me, Rico Abreu & Austin Wayne Self, were battling for 16th position. I caught them pretty easily. I made a move to get by the #22 and he raced me pretty hard. No harm, no foul, he was trying to stay up there and fight the #98 for a spot. Eventually after a few laps, he held me off and got clear. Then I got beside the #98. Same thing. Raced me pretty hard and eventually held me off. Then they got side by side. They got so frustrated with each other that they started banging doors down the front & back straightaways. That went on for about 5 laps.

I was caught in a weird spot. I thought I was faster than both of them. I definitely was faster when they were racing side by side. My spotter, Toby Whealdon, kept telling me to give them room. Smart. I agreed. It looked like they were about to wreck each other. I tried to make a move to get by both of them when they ran up the track in turn 3, but the #22 pinched me down a bit and I had to lift. I was getting frustrated. I love Austin, but he drove a wild race. He made contact with the #92 of Parker Kligerman earlier that resulted in a cut tire & Parker in the wall. He got into Caleb Holman late in the race and Caleb wound up wrecked. The problem was that by being patient with Austin & Rico, it allowed the #02 truck to catch back up to us. As soon as he got within a couple truck lengths, he dove into turn 1 and stuffed us into the outside wall. For 24th place. I’m not mad at Austin or Rico. I think they’re both great, aggressive drivers, and I’ll race side by side with either of them all day, any day. Besides, Austin has enough people mad at him this week. But, all that said, neither of them did us any favors late in the race.

As soon as our truck came to a stop, I was furious. I screamed on the radio to my crew. I got out of the truck talking to myself. I yelled and carried on inside the ambulance with the medical crew. I’m sorry for that. It wasn’t their fault. I spiked a water bottle on the ground and shattered it next to some fans on the way back through the garage when I saw the remains of the truck. I never thought I would be one of those guys doing that kind of dumb stuff. It’s embarrassing. I wanted to fight Derek. I wanted to fight everyone. I yelled at my dad, something I’ve never done in my whole life. I didn’t even see the video of the crash until I got back to my hotel room later that night. It was even worse than I thought. I’m still fuming about it.

Apparently Derek came by to say something to the crew after the race. I know he didn’t mean to wreck us. There wasn’t any intent there. But, he still made an awful mistake. It’s a mistake that’s going to cost our team about $20,000 that we don’t have. That’s racing.

At least, that’s racing with Martins Motorsports in 2016. Basically the worst thing that could happen has happened to us every single weekend. Daytona, a place where the #49, #50, & #07 all got top-10 finishes? We blew a right front tire, totaled our truck, & finished dead last. Atlanta? Tire failure that put us 3 laps down under green. Martinsville? Qualified eighth and didn’t even get to race because the brakes failed and we knocked the whole rear end off the truck. At Kansas we had a motor failure while running 19th. At Dover we were awful. At Charlotte we were slow. At Texas we were struggled and I got my feet burned off.

We were looking forward to Iowa. Finally, a short track! A place where maybe our little team could having a fighting chance. Then, we stunk again. Our hearts sank. I questioned whether or not we were going to turn into a start and park team. But then we were okay! Only 4 tenths of the leaders pace at the end of the race! We passed lead lap trucks on the final run. We were joking around on the radio before the final restart. I was having a blast driving the truck. Sure, our tire bill was going to be ginormous but who cares? We were going to get a decent run and learn a lot from it.

Nope. Wrecked again. For no reason except a young kid wanted to pass the truck in front of him and drove into the corner too hard.

For the third time this year, we’ve wrecked a truck, and it hasn’t been my fault on any of them. I’m snake bit. This one was the worst impact of all. Hit so hard it bent the rear clip, broke the fuel cell can, & damaged a lot of suspension parts as well. To rub salt in the wound, that truck was the same truck Spencer Gallagher finished 2nd at Gateway with last year. We were hoping to get a chance to see what we could do with it.

So now, Gateway, a race we had circled on the calendar at the beginning of the year, is now a question mark for our race team.

We’ve only got one truck that’s raceable – our intermediate truck. The guys spent all week swapping brakes & all the parts we could in order to get it ready for Gateway, but I’m not sure how good it’s going to be. It wasn’t designed for Gateway. In fact, we’ve been struggling with it on tracks it was designed for like Charlotte & Texas. If we wreck it, all 3 of our trucks will be torn up & we’ll have nothing to race at Kentucky in two weeks.

We’ve got no pit crew. Our normal guys are going to be in Sonoma this weekend to serve as the backup crew on the four Hendrick teams racing out there. When we called Excalibur Pit School, the guys we were using earlier in the year, they said all their crews had already been leased out. Kevin, Steve, & David Power (our newest full time employee) are going to be forced into going over the wall for us this weekend, which still leaves us about 5 guys short of having a crew (including behind the wall pit support).

To top it off, we probably can’t afford the tires. Gateway is a stand-alone race. Trucks only. There won’t be any tires for sale unless you want 30-40 lappers or you manage to buy stickers off of trucks that have accidents in the race. We’re staring down another potential $8,000-$10,000 tire bill for the weekend.

Everything points to us being a start and park truck. But, I’m pretty sure we won’t be. That’s just not us. We’re going to find a way to make it work. I’m optimistic. I’ve been looking forward to racing at this track and I’m not going to let the circumstances of this year affect my outlook for this weekend. I thought we’d be good in St. Louis. I still think we will be. My dad is a great team owner. He’ll figure out a way to get us through the weekend. We’ll persevere. And hopefully, with a little luck for a change, we can get back to being the team we all want to be this season.