While being a full-time competitor during the 2021 NASCAR Xfinity Series season, Tommy Joe Martins raced with a heavy mind. He knew if he didn’t find an investor, Martins Motorsports would likely close once the checkered flag waved at Phoenix Raceway in November.
Martins’ father, Craig, invested millions of dollars into the team. Rodney Riessen, co-owner of Martins Motorsports, also invested a boatload of money. Collectively, those two were exiting the sport at the end of the year.
Fortunately for Martins, Caesar Bacarella already had usable equipment, specifically for superspeedways. Bacarella was looking to invest in the sport and become a team owner.
“I grew up very poor, I have a 10th-grade education, so I think with everything I’ve ever created, I want to leave a legacy for my kids,” Bacarella told NASCAR.com. “You always want to improve in life, so the next step after you stop driving is becoming a team owner. I think that’s what made me become a team owner.”
Bacarella admitted he’d often get frustrated driving for someone else. His story is similar to Martins, not having a ton of oval experience before jumping ship to NASCAR, and he didn’t even buckle into a race car for the first time until he was more than 20 years old.
The two drivers, initially, were teammates at BJ McLeod Motorsports in 2018 at Michigan International Speedway. It didn’t take long for them to connect.
“Caesar (Bacarella) and I struck a bond,” Martins said. “The thing is, Caesar gets labeled as a guy that brings money and he’s not committed to this. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. He wants to be good at this and relevant, and he cares.”
Away from NASCAR, Bacarella has a storied sports-car career. Between 2018-19, he won two championships in different divisions, including nine victories in the 2018 SprintX GT Championship Series.
NASCAR, though, was a challenge he wanted to conquer. At one of the superspeedway events he ran last – either Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway – Bacarella approached Martins with a plan of starting a team together.
It was the perfect timing for Martins.
“I don’t believe in coincidences, but I believe in divine providences,” Martins said. “I knew that my time as a driver was changing. It didn’t mean that it was over because I still have great sponsors that are still a part of this team, but it wasn’t going to be a full-time effort. I knew that it was going to change me, but I didn’t want my family to be saddled with some sort of burden about it, and Caesar was the guy that slid in perfectly.”
Last August, the duo announced the formation of Alpha Prime Racing.
Essentially, Bacarella bought into Martins Motorsports, an already functional operation. Martins believed the team needed a rebrand, thus why the owners went with Alpha Prime as the team name, which is an additional company Bacarella owns that offers high-quality supplements and premium apparel.
After years of struggling – at one point just to make the race – Martins, who runs the day-to-day operations of the Nos. 44 and 45 teams, wanted a new identity as a team owner. This was his shot.
“We were going from a ma and pop (team), no different from what Jeremy Clements does with his team,” Martins said. “Now, we’re growing and becoming a bigger organization. It had to feel different and branded in a different way. We want to brand it as a competitive organization that’s at a different level from where we were at. We are going to look different. We’re going to carry ourselves differently.”
With that came a lot of change.
Initially, the plan was to run just one car with multiple drivers, featuring both owners, Ryan Ellis and Rajah Caruth, an up-and-coming driver from the ARCA Menards Series. However, multiple drivers – Josh Bilicki, Sage Karam and Howie DiSavino III – got wind of what Martins and Bacarella were trying to accomplish and an influx of sponsorship was coming through the door. So much the team needed to add a second car.
DRIVER PAGE: Tommy Joe Martins
“I was sitting on about 15 to 20 races sold in the second car, so I knew it was going to be about a half-year car, which you don’t really want to do. If you’re going to do it, just do it,” Martins said. “Because you’re still going to have to hire people and now it’s not even a full-time effort. I was looking at it that way, and when we got (Karam’s) deal done, I knew we had to pull the trigger.”
Adding a second team has been a colossal undertaking. The team nearly doubled its staff, remained in the same shop and added a hauler Bacarella had previously acquired. And after a frustrating start to the year, Martins was forced to make tough decisions, letting some of his best personnel go.
Through 12 races, the Nos. 44 and 45 teams are separated by 11 points, sitting 31st and 32nd in the owner standings. With how tight the Xfinity Series field is, the No. 44 team is just over one full race behind 21st (61 points below). In 22 combined starts this year, the organization has seven top-20 results, including a pair of 17th-place efforts in the last two races with Martins and Stefan Parsons, new to the team, at Texas Motor Speedway. Ellis has the team’s best outing, earning a 13th-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
While it hasn’t been the best start, which includes two DNQs for the No. 45 car, the owners see the potential.
“The team has had a lot of bad luck, that’s the main thing we’re trying to get over,” Bacarella said. “We have to finish these races, but we have this bad luck cloud over us.”
Martins agreed but was a little more blunt in assessing his team.
“I don’t think we’ve been where we need to be,” he said. “There’s no reason this team should ever be missing races. This team should consistently be inside the top 25 every week, that should not be a problem for the equipment that we have and the driver lineup that we have. If we’re not, then I have to reevaluate things and that’s what I’ve done.
“I’ve been critical of myself, hopefully, that I haven’t been too ambitious with what we’re trying to do. I see what other people are doing, and I don’t think we’re doing anything is way off of what they’re doing. It’s just about going out and executing. I’ve told everybody, we’re a top-25 team, that’s it. That’s not like I’m upselling and I know that I can get in the top 15 in my car, we’ve done that this year. But, where should we be on a budget standpoint? Probably 25th. That’s not sexy to say that you’re a 25th-place team, but the competition level out here is so steep.”
Both owners agreed as the team continues to build in the future, it will be with fewer drivers. Having a rotating cast of drivers can be beneficial with different feedback but also a challenge for the team to constantly switch and mount driver seats every week.
That will likely change as soon as next year.
“We have too many drivers this year,” Bacarella said. “Unfortunately, we had to do it to accommodate the budget for the first year to have two cars. Next year, that’s changing. I believe next year, we have two drivers that are going to pretty much be full time.”
The competitive spirit in both Bacarella and Martins want to be the best of the B teams in the series. In other words, the best team that doesn’t have a full-blown Cup Series alliance. To do that, the team will need to update its equipment for years to come.
But with the uptick in performance across the series this year, which Martins describes as “fat,” he believes the team is further away from that goal than even last year with his family team.
His eyes, though, are focused forward.
“Next year,” Martins said, “hopefully we put ourselves in a position with the network of partners, sponsors and drivers where somebody is able to land a full-time opportunity and give that level of consistency that we can grow with, build with and get better.”