The Problem, Pt. 1 by Thomas Martins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was furious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The industry has completely changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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