willie allen

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.