News & Media

Rookies have different backgrounds, similar hopes

October 19, 2012, David Caraviello,

Nationwide rookies Hal Martin, Nur Ali are on parallel roads with unknown ends

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Blame the jambalaya, the jazz music or the crawfish etouffee. When it comes to producing national-series drivers in NASCAR, the state of Louisiana doesn't have much of a track record. There's Mikey Kile, a Westlake native who competed in Nationwide races as recently as last season. There's the pride of Bogalusa, Skip Manning, who finished third at Talladega in 1977. And there's not much in between.

Hal Martin, from the town of Galliano deep down in bayou territory, is trying to buck the trend.

"Racing isn't extremely prevalent down there," said the 26-year-old, who is making is Nationwide debut Saturday at Kansas Speedway. "We have race fans there, don't get me wrong. There are a lot of race fans and NASCAR fans in Louisiana. There aren't many short-track venues, and I think that's a big reason why. To cut my teeth growing up racing late models, I had to travel. We traveled a lot, around the Gulf coast. But we had to travel, and I think that's one reason a lot of drivers don't come from there."

"[When I watched my first race after moving from Pakistan] I thought, 'wow, this is a different from what I'm accustomed to' I fell in love with NASCAR."


Of course, the Pelican State seems a stock-car hotbed compared to Karachi, Pakistan, where Nur Ali was born. By way of Germany and Fort Worth, Texas, the 38-year-old also finds himself in Kansas this weekend, where he will become the first driver of Pakistani descent to compete in NASCAR's national divisions when he starts his first Nationwide race. Raised on Formula One and hooked on speed by the Autobahn, Ali moved to the United States with his family in 1983 and remembers being fixated by the first NASCAR race he ever watched on television.

"I thought, 'wow, this is a different from what I'm accustomed to,'" he remembered. "I fell in love with NASCAR."

They come from very different places, but Martin and Ali are very similar in their hopes for this weekend and their plans for the future. Both are debuting this weekend at Kansas, kicking off a limited slate of races for the remainder of this season, and are focused on Rookie of the Year runs in the Nationwide Series in 2013. Both are college graduates used to hustling for funding to keep their racing careers afloat. Both came up through the ARCA ranks. Both have guaranteed starting spots Saturday. And both are very aware of what it means to step up to NASCAR's No. 2 series for the very first time.

"This is a huge step for me," said Martin, who has one Camping World Truck Series start, a 26th-place finish at Memphis for Andy Hillenburg in 2009. "This is something I've dreamed about my whole life, getting to this level and on this big stage of racing. Growing up as a fan, I know what it's like to be a fan. And driving on this level is just a tremendous feeling to me."

Competing in a No. 41 car for Rick Ware Racing, Ali also plans to run Texas and Phoenix, and has tentatively scheduled Homestead. Although he has some funding from the owner of a Budweiser distributorship in Dallas, the Kansas deal came together only a week and a half ago, and he dug into his own pocket to help finance it. It's the end of a long road for a driver who was born in Pakistan, moved to Germany with his family when he was 3, and then came to the United States. He has raced in 12 different countries, and won two titles in the Star Mazda ranks.

"I wish I had an opportunity 20 years ago to do this," said Ali, a U.S. citizen who holds a degree from American University. "But you know what, I didn't. I'm blessed with good health, I have a family that supports me, I have local sponsors in Texas. ... The beauty of this sport is, there's no age limit. As long as you're healthy, you're competitive, you have sponsors on board -- age is just a number at the end of the day."

As the only NASCAR driver of Pakistani origin, Ali also hopes to raise awareness and perhaps attract a new fan base to NASCAR. He said he has a strong following among Asian-Americans in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and he even received an official commendation from Texas Gov. Rick Perry after qualifying for the ARCA race at Daytona in 2008.

"I think at the end of the day, I think every single driver, every single person makes a difference, not only for themselves, but for the series on general," Ali said. "I think I can bring a new demographic to the table. Promoters want to fill seats, NASCAR wants to bring in new demographics, so why not? I think it's going to benefit everybody."

Martin came up in go-karts, but had to travel the Gulf region while competing in late models, at the same time earning a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of New Orleans. Accustomed to knocking on doors and using whatever family connections he could, Martin has stirred together a gumbo of regional sponsors with connections to his home state, including American Custom Yachts and U.S. Forensic, the latter a New Orleans company he worked for out of college. He has finances committed for half of next season, and is working on the rest.

"My very first race was to raise money for charity. At 15 years old, I was knocking on business' doors and asking for money to go racing with," said Martin, who drives a 44 car for TriStar Motorsports, and also plans to race at Texas and Homestead. "That's what it's been the whole way up the ladder."

The work has paid off, although for Ali there was one moment Friday when inexperience showed. He was involved in an incident in opening practice when he was struck by the oncoming car of Erik Darnell while riding along the bottom of the track, and damage incurred by the contact forced the No. 41 car to sit out final Nationwide practice while undergoing repairs. A team representative said the vehicle would be ready for qualifying on Saturday morning.

Both drivers have modest hopes for this weekend. "If at all possible, finish on the lead lap, keep it clean, let the leaders do their thing," Ali said. "I just want to get some seat time. I want to get the experience, the know-how. Even though I've raced in other series before ... at the end of the day, this is where I've always wanted to be. So my goal is just to stay focused, finish well, keep it clean, take all the knowledge I can ... and do a better showing if possible at my home track."

"We've always been realistic on our goals," added Martin, 21st-fastest in final Nationwide practice Friday. "This weekend, we want to complete every lap we can. Honestly, it's hard to finish on the lead lap just starting out in the Nationwide Series. But if we could, that would be a win in our book."