For nearly 40 years, Mark Martin was known as one of the toughest opponents in NASCAR. No matter if your name was Gordon, Johnson, Earnhardt, Stewart or others, if you saw Martin’s car closing on you in your rearview mirror, you knew you were in for a battle.
But since retiring following the 2013 NASCAR Cup season, Martin has gotten far away from racing.
“I’m retired,” the 62-year-old NASCAR Hall of Famer emphatically told NASCAR.com. “I’m really enjoying retired life, that’s really all I’ve got going on. I enjoy seeing and spending time with family and seeing friends and traveling and seeing the country. Arlene (his wife) and I have done a good bit of motor coaching.”
While Martin is far removed from the sport these days, he admits to missing one thing in particular.
“The thing I guess I really miss about racing is the people,” he said. “Working with a team was like a family, the energy of the fans and whatnot. So I kind of miss that. But 40 years of competing at the highest level, and digging as hard as I could possibly dig with every ounce of focus I had, I’m done with that.
“I’m not interested in competing in anything. I don’t even like to play cards or games or anything that requires competing.”
That doesn’t mean Martin has been forgotten by the racing community.
“People always say, ‘Well, just come and practice, come and test,’” he said. “I get offers all the time. I have no interest in driving a race car. I did it for over 40 years against the likes of Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart for wins and championships and it was intense as hell. I don’t want to do it.”
That Martin walked away from the sport that consumed more than two-thirds of his life is somewhat surprising, given his competitive nature and his undying devotion and focus to chasing the checkered flag. If there was a race to be run, Martin was in it to win it.
“I did it to win, not because it was fun to go around in circles,” Martin said. “I did it because I was halfway good at that and I wasn’t good at anything else.
“I have to come to grips with it and live my life and enjoy it and have a good time and enjoy family and enjoy working on the mechanical stuff, especially with my motor home. … I just stay busy. I’m really happy with this chapter, where I’m at now and where I’m headed.”
Instead of driving close to 200 mph at places like Daytona and Talladega, Martin’s focus these days is on a much slower pace of life.
He sold his private jet, doesn’t fly anymore and is involved in a number of businesses, particularly around his Batesville, Arkansas, hometown.
“I don’t have anything interesting, I’m just Mr. Fixit every day,” he said with a laugh. “There’s always something. Really, to be honest with you, I spend 50 percent of my time fixing stuff that I tear up and probably another 25 percent fixing things that need to be fixed. … I just live a real calm and normal life.”
While racing was No. 1 on his priority list for four decades, today it’s barely a blip on his attention meter.
“I’m completely away from (NASCAR),” Martin said. “I mean, I know less about what’s going on than the average fan.
“I love racing with all my heart. It’s just something that I’m not interested in doing (anymore). I want to do other things. I want another chapter in my life before it closes. And in something that’s different than what I did the past 40 years.”
During his NASCAR career, Martin won nearly 100 races — including 40 in Cup and 49 in Xfinity — and capped off his outstanding tenure behind the wheel with his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2017.
While proud and humbled to be selected, Martin admits “I was embarrassed because I didn’t feel like I belonged when I looked up at the banners of the Bill Frances, the Junior Johnsons, the Dale Earnhardts and Richard Pettys and Cale Yarboroughs, David Pearson. I didn’t feel worthy of being in that crowd, especially as early as I felt like I went in (was inducted).
“There were a lot of greats and heroes of mine that needed to go in before I went in. So, I was a little bit embarrassed, totally, completely humbled, and to this day, I’m still humbled by the fans and the way they supported me all through my career.”
Martin had numerous memorable wins in his NASCAR career, but none more noteworthy to him than the 2009 Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix Raceway, when he became only the fourth driver 50 years or older in the sport’s history to take the checkered flag. (The others are Harry Gant, 52; Morgan Shepherd, 51; and Bobby Allison, 50.)
“I just had this dream of experiencing winning one more time in my life,“ Martin said, “It was such an electrifying win with so much positive energy from (crew chief) Alan Gustafson and everybody on the team, Rick Hendrick, the fans, and especially all the competitors that came to Victory Lane.”
The win on the 1-mile Phoenix oval would spur him to earn four additional wins that year, finishing second in the championship battle to Jimmie Johnson.
Martin hung up his helmet after the 2013 season and he has never climbed back into a Cup car since. But he did finally scratch the racing itch in 2017 when he competed in a one-off, late-model race in Nova Scotia.
While Martin was happy to be back in a race car, the man renowned for setting high standards for himself in his NASCAR career was not happy with his finish (28th in the 30-driver field), seeing his day come to a premature end just 57 laps into the 250-lap event due to mechanical failure.
“I was not satisfied with my performance,” he said. “I actually wanted to just go up there and sign autographs and everything and didn’t want to race, but the only way we could make the deal work was for me to drive the car.”
While it’s been a while since Martin went to a Cup race, he loves to get back to his roots and take in events at local tracks around Batesville, as well as in locales when he’s traveling.
“I like the dirt races, especially the late model dirt series like the Lucas Oil (Late Model) Dirt Series,” he said. “I love the late models and keep up with them a lot. I’ll slip out to a local race track once in a while just to see grassroots people and kind of relate to where I came from.
“That’s the thing with me, just connecting or reconnecting with that like I was before all the NASCAR racing, just the kid that I was in Arkansas growing up before I jumped on that runaway freight train (of NASCAR). Just reconnecting to grassroots people and racers and people that have a passion for the same kind of things that I do: motor coaches, big trucks and car racing.”
Including his early days racing in American Speed Association, Martin competed in well over 1,200 races in his career. He faced the greatest drivers of all time, including the late Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon and so many more.
But when asked who was the toughest competitor he ever faced, Martin surprised with his answer.
“That might be Larry Phillips,” Martin said of the Springfield, Missouri, native who was a legend on short tracks primarily in the Midwest. “He was unbelievable, quite a guy. He gave me my first job. I worked for him in the ’70s, the summer of 1977, and raced against him every Friday and Saturday night of ’77.”
Phillips passed away in 2004 at the age of 62.
“You could look up his history,” Martin said of Phillips. “One year, he won like 93 percent or 88 percent of the NASCAR regional races he entered, but we can’t get him into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It’s unbelievable. I think his records beat anything or anywhere. It’s unbelievable what he did.”
Martin then added about Phillips, “He beat you with a slow car, maybe more often than Earnhardt would beat you with a slow car.”
Even though Martin has been out of NASCAR going on eight years, he remains a big fan favorite. Much of that popularity is due to his reputation as a tough competitor but also a driver who raced others cleanly and fairly.
“It is certainly humbling,” Martin said of his still large and loyal fan base. “I just always tried to stay real, tried to stay true to who I was and what I believed. I tried to be a man, tried to take my lumps like a man, and just tried to be fair on the race track. I raced hard, but I also raced very fair.
“And it endeared a lot of fans to me, I’m not sure why because I’m a pretty boring person.
“I did race hard and I tried hard. And I endured a lot of heartbreaks and failures along the way. I just feel like the fans supported me all through my career, beyond anything that I could have ever dreamed. And that’s why I still had rides up into my 50s when many don’t because of the fan support. It was just amazing and they had a huge hand in my success and especially in my longevity.”
Martin remains a recognizable figure, even in the most remote locales.
“The other day it was fueling my coach at a truck stop and the guy fueling his truck next to me said, ‘Hi, Mark,’” Martin said. “That was kind of unusual. I also have a strong social media presence with Twitter and Instagram and Facebook. … And the Twitter following is unbelievable, so I engage with the fans that way, more than most retired racers.”
“ … Things can change, but I don’t expect you to see me in a race car again. I have no desire to drive a race car. I’m enjoying another chapter in my life.”
To hear the full interview with Mark Martin, check out The Racing Beat on the BLEAV Podcast Network (BLEAV.com) and your favorite podcast platforms such as iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and more.
The Mark Martin file:
* Age: 62
* Hometown: Batesville, Arkansas.
* NASCAR Cup Series career: 882 starts, 40 wins, 271 top-five and 453 top-10 finishes.
* Even though he never won a Cup championship, he did record five runner-up finishes in the drivers’ standings.
* NASCAR Xfinity career: 236 starts, 49 wins, 112 top-five and 152 top-10 finishes.
* First Cup season: 1981. Earned two poles in five starts, with a best finish of third at Martinsville Speedway.
* Last Cup season: 2013, when he retired at the age of 54. Competed in 28 of that season’s 36 races, with a season-best finish of third in the Daytona 500.