NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Mark Martin is often called “the best driver to never win a championship”, but his career encompassed far more than just success in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Before racing in NASCAR, he had already made a name for himself as one of short track racing’s greats.
In 1987, Mark Martin picked up a win in Martinsville Speedway’s fall classic, now called the ValleyStar Credit Union 300. Over the years, the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 has become one of the biggest events in short track racing and the biggest asphalt short track race in the Southeast/Mid-Atlantic region. The race is known for its craziness and it was just as crazy back in 1987.
“Bobby Moon had a Dillon car and I was a Dillon guy,” Martin said. “I designed that Dillon Mark II chassis. That was the traction for me to run that race, to run a car different from a southern car. The setups and the way we ran those cars in the Midwest were drastically different than the way the Late Model Stocks down that way were based off the logic of Late Model Sportsman or Busch Grand National cars. They were based off those principles.
“Our car because it was a Dillon car, was based off the principles of how we ran our cars in ASA. So, that was the interest in it for me. So, that’s kind of the story behind the car and orange number 30. It was Bobby Moon’s car and he drove it. We got the pole if I remember correctly or qualified second.”
Mark Martin battled with Late Model Stock Car great Barry Beggarly, a two-time winner of the Autumn highlight, for the win. The two drivers made contact which resulted in Beggarly going around and Martin running away with the lead and the win.
“[Beggarly] got ahead of me on the start of the race and I was trying to get by him and I got under him and, in the middle of one and two, he chopped down coming off the corner and we came together,” Martin recalled. “I’m not laying blame on either one of us, we were racing for the lead of the race. I didn’t go after him because I don’t drive like that. He spun out.”
As wild as things were on the track, they were even wilder after the race. William Johnson, the father of Late Model Stock Car racer Justin Johnson, owned the car driven by Beggarly. As Martin recalled, he was less than pleased after the race.
“His car was owned by the president of Hell’s Angels chapter,” Martin remarked. “I don’t remember for sure. They were out of Raleigh-Durham. Barry Beggarly, I think, was the driver’s name. I went on to win the race and I got out of the car in victory lane and boy them boys were mad. He was standing this owner was standing out in the middle of the crowd at victory lane with a knife that was a foot long seen in his fingernails.
“My wife and Steve Hmiel’s wife came running up in victory lane and I said ‘y’all get out of here, I don’t want them to know you’re my wife’. She said ‘it’s too late, they think she’s your wife,’ talking about Steve Hmiel’s wife because she smarted off to them. That was a combination race between that race and the Busch race so we ran the Busch race and got the heck out of there after the race and went home.”
Martin made it home safely but he was still nervous throughout the night.
“We lived in an apartment in Greensboro and at 10:30, my doorbell rings and I had a vision of the Hell’s Angels riding in my apartment and terrorizing,” Martin continued. “It was just a friend of mine bringing the trophy to the race because I was pretty nervous, they were mad, they were big boys. They wanted to scare to fool out of me.”
Less than two years after winning that race, Mark Martin ended up racing for Jack Roush full-time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, scoring his first career win at Rockingham Speedway. Martin went on to win 40 races in NASCAR’s premier series, two victories at Martinsville.
While Mark Martin is known most for his success in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, he was one of the most successful drivers in short track racing history, winning 22 races and four championships in ASA. The 58-year-old still holds a special place in his heart for short track racing.
“The softest spot in my heart for racing is Late Model asphalt racing,” Martin remarked. “I never would have been a NASCAR driver had it not been for the amazing racing I got to do and tremendous competitors. I may change later and get older and reflect on NASCAR as the most special time in my career but right now, the most important period in my career was when I was building my career and coming up through ASA and Late Model racing all over the countryside.”
Throughout the years of his short track career, Martin raced with many greats, such as Rusty Wallace, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Alan Kulwicki, and others.
“Bobby Allison raced quite a bit, Darrell was a huge supporter of ASA even though he was already successful in NASCAR,” Martin explained. “Loved Rex Robbins, promoter of the series. Alan Kulwicki, Mike Eddy and so many greats. That’s how I made my living, racing Late Models. I raced ASA and any other race that had a big special. We rode up and down the highway an awful lot, saw the country from the windshield from a red truck with an open trailer behind it.”
So, might Mark Martin compete in the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 once more in the near future?
“Never say never,” Martin said. “I do have a lot of love for Late Model racing, that’s for sure. From a fan standpoint and a love of car, those cars were cars when I was at that stage of my career, they were handmade by myself and a small group of people. I did the setups and the tires and a lot of things so I had major hands-on which I did miss in NASCAR, not being hand’s on, not being able to be hands-on. There’s something additionally satisfying about running really good with something you had your hands all over.”
While Martin enjoyed tons of success in NASCAR and in ASA, he considers his success in the International Race of Champions (IROC) Series his biggest accomplishment.
“Biggest accomplishment is the success I had in IROC,” Martin stated. “They said those cars were all prepared equally and you drew for what car you drove but I must’ve been the luckiest guy in the world because nine times out of 10, I had the fastest car. That was really it.”
As for regrets, Martin said his biggest regret was not enjoying the ride more than he did.
“Biggest regret was that I didn’t allow myself to soak in and take in and enjoy the ride in NASCAR,” Martin commented. “I stayed so laser-focused and pushed so hard for success that I didn’t allow myself to completely soak it in. I could’ve enjoyed it more and still had the same level of success. I just wouldn’t allow myself to do that.”
While many NASCAR drivers have competed in the Martinsville Late Model race, Martin remains the only driver to win the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 and go on to win races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series – which includes two wins at Martinsville Speedway.