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Al Thomy of Speedway Scene

Mark’s Not Retiring, He’s Just Retooling

When Jack Roush got choked up, I sort of had to clear my throat.  You know how emotional these things are.

He was saying goodbye to Mark Martin, his driver for 17 years, and dadburnit, that’s emotional.

He started at the beginning.  I learned we both had milestones back then, in 1988. I had bypass heart surgery and Roush signed a young Martin to be his driver, though Mark wasn’t his first choice.  He wanted Bobby Allison, but, if you believe Roush, Allison “wanted no part of Yankees.” But Bobby had a suggestion: “Why don’t you check out Mark Martin from Arkansas. He’s ready.”

(Arkansas was a Confederate State, but joined late, thereby showing more tolerance for Yankees who pass the grits test.)

The way Roush remembered the interview it sounded like Martin interviewed him. The young whippersnapper from Bates wanted to know who’d work on the car and how much testing would Roush finance. Evidently, what Roush said was satisfactory, especially when he promised to be “the only Yankee” on the team. Lord, you know how Yankees mess up engines!

Then Roush talked about the early races that they ALMOST won, and that was about all the early races. Mark was runner-up more times than Ralph Nader. But they pay money for second, too, and Mark and Jack kept the cash register jingling.

This was humility day for Roush.

“The early success was encumbered  (Mike Helton approved that word.) by the owner’s lack of experience and his ineptitude,” he said. “The fact that my road racing experience and drag racing technologies were inadequate to the rigors of Winston Cup competition was a huge disappointment and a surprise. I was sure that I could do it like most anyone else that would come down from the north.”

(There’s that Yankee thing again.)

Jack Roush is good at bookkeeping. He remembers old (and all) expense accounts (ha), and figured that over those 17 years he and Mark Martin have logged 224,000 miles “against the fiercest competition you can imagine,” worn out 15,800 Goodyear tires, five 50-foot transporters, five corporate airplanes and rented more cars than he’d care to remember. To be fair, in retrospect, Rauch made it clear that he hasn’t forgiven Robin Pemberton and Steve Hmiel, wherever they are, for past rental excesses.

(It could have been worse.  It could have been a Curtis Turner deal.  They tell the story of Curtis arriving at the home of Lowe’s Speedway owner Burton Smith in a big black limousine and rushing up to the porch.  “Let me hold $50,” he said. “I’ve got a hot dinner date and I’m flat broke.” Whatever you think of Curtis, he traveled first class. It’s somewhat of a comfort that Pemberton and Hmiel traveled more modestly.)

Roush, who wore his hat to the indoor press conference at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, said he and Martin had fought through NASCAR trials and tribulations together and that Mark was the brother he never had.

“We struggled often and mightily in the early days,” he said, “but Mark came to my side whenever the team’s long-term interests were threatened or when my own often shaky positions on matters between us were unwavering. Over the 17 years we’ve been together, including the 2004 season, we’ve entered 659 events together. Mark has done his part with 539 Cup Series starts, and, would you believe it, he’s never got too hot, too sick, too tired or had any other excuse to get out of the car. He’s hung in.  I, on the other hand, let Mark down by taking a four-race hiatus in 2002.”

(Roush crashed his home-made plane in an Alabama lake and was saved from drowning by a former SEAL or Green Beret who lived on the banks. Amazingly, he came back stronger than ever and more respectful of his mortality.)

Then came the big moment.

“It’s with a heavy heart and great sadness that I must share with you the news that  the 2005 season will be Mark’s last year competing for NASCAR’s elusive Cup at the wheel of Roush Racing’s No. 6 Viagra Ford Taurus.”

That’s when Jack Roush choked up and handed the mike to Martin, sitting on the next high stool.

It was a poignant moment.  Now we’re losing Mark Martin.  In the prior weeks, we’ve lost Rusty Wallace for good after 2005, Terry Labonte on a regular basis next year, Bill Elliott for all but a hit-and-miss schedule, so to speak, for the foreseeable future. Hey, this is beginning to look like a real exodus.

Only Wallace has indicated he’d make a clean break.

“That’s it, retirement,” he said.

Let me add a few personal thoughts here.

First of all, I don’t think any of the drivers voluntarily leaving, or being pushed out, want to abandon the lucrative sport that is racing today.  Most of them came up when  purses were mere peanuts and men raced because they loved it.  Now that even non-winners are banking a million dollars a year and there is so much money to be made, they are being pressured to leave.

Oh, I don’t think car owners and people are coming up to them and handing them pinks slips and throwing them out with the trash.  Nothing like that.  They’re being pressured because they haven’t been winning as they did in the past, and these days, if you don’t win, you don’t get national TV exposure, and if you don’t get national TV exposure, sponsors want you out and a fresh, heavy-footed rookie in. Past records and old reputations don’t count anymore; it’s “how can you sell my product?”

The mass exodus of older drivers it not coincidental.

And, by the way, after all our tears and lament at the Roush press conference, Mark Martin said, “I’m not here today to announce my retirement.  Beyond that, in 2006, I’ll still be in the driver’s seat and I don’t know just what seat that will be just yet. We’re definitely looking at, and I’m definitely looking at the Craftsman Truck Series.  That looks kind of interesting. I’m too young to retire (45) but I’ve had enough of this full schedule and this battle. It’s been tough on me and my family and I look forward to opening the next chapter.”

Mark didn’t burn any bridges.

He thanked Roush, the France family, crew members from the last 17 years, the media and, most of all, those fans out in Raceland.

He also said he never believed he was that good and he had fooled a lot of people, therefore he wanted to go out when he was on top, which sounded a bit contradictory to me. If he’s on top, he’s good.

Now, the question:  Who among the old codgers is next to announce?  And if we get enough part-timers, will NASCAR start a new circuit and name it The Depends Cup