For all of Billy Martin’s life, Martinsville Speedway has been his favorite race track. It’s always meant the most to him ever since his first race there as an 11-year-old kid watching NASCAR legends like Rex White and Joe Weatherly. But for the last 20 years, Martin has had a love-hate relationship with the half-mile paperclip.
Martin was a dirt racer, but at the end of the 1980’s he bought a Late Model Stock Car and left the dirt world behind. His first pavement race? The Martinsville 300 in 1990. He blew an engine and missed the show.
“The times they took five out of the heat races I’d finish sixth. The times they took four I’d finish fifth,” Martin told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “Another year I started inside second row of the heat race. We went down into turn one and the leader stopped so I slowed up like you were supposed to do. I got hit from behind and it took two wreckers to load it. Just things like that. So I quit for a little while going there.”
The Stuart, Virginia native started running at nearby Franklin County Speedway (VA) about an hour north of his home town. He won a couple races there and decided to go back to Martinsville at the end of the year. He missed the show again.
This year, the 69-year-old Martin and his driver Mike Looney took their open trailer to Virginia’s Motor Mile Speedway and won a couple of races. Shortly after their second win, Martin got the itch to try Martinsville again with the car they keep stored behind Looney’s house dubbed “Old Blue.”
“All he was talking about was that he just wanted to make the show,” said Looney. “I told him, ‘Wait a minute. If we’re going, we’re going to try to win the thing.’ It would be arrogant to think that a little team like us could go down there and win it, but in hindsight that’s just what we did.”
That’s right. Not only did Billy Martin finally make the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 at Martinsville, but he won it. And his car won it from the pole, the first time anybody had ever done that.
“The biggest race I’d ever won was a $2,000-to-win race,” explained Martin. “So this is just amazing.”
Martin said he didn’t want to watch the final laps of Sunday’s race. He knew his car was leading with Looney behind the wheel, so he’d take a look once a lap, but otherwise he just couldn’t do it.
“I went up on pit road and I got to a spot where no one was around and I just bowed my head. I would peep up every once in a while to see that we were still in the lead, but I’d see Lee (Pulliam) getting closer and closer. I know what happens. I was just going crazy, I guess.”
What Martin feared almost happened. Pulliam got right to Looney’s back bumper off turn two with about eight laps to go. They went into turn three and Pulliam made his move, but Looney defended. Pulliam’s right front ran up the left rear of Looney’s white and blue No. 87. Somehow neither one of them crashed.
“I was looking right dead at it then. I got up and said, ‘Well that’s it.’ But I could still hear the engine running. For some reason I knew it was mine. I saw the tire wasn’t flat, and then I got another hope again.”
Looney held on to take the win. Martin was overcome with emotion, but he held on to make it to victory lane.
“It’s a wonder I haven’t had a heart attack, really,” joked Martin. “I’m in pretty good shape, but my heart was fluttering like crazy. There’s no telling how much it picked up. I just barely made it to victory lane. I don’t know how I got over there to tell you the truth. It was funny, man, I’m telling you.”
Now that a few days have passed since the race, it’s finally starting to set in for Martin that he’s actually a Martinsville winner.
“I guess it’s beginning to. I had no idea I have as many friends around the country as I’ve got. People are calling me from all over. People that I had forgotten about. I’ve had to ask some of them ‘Who are you?’ and then they tell me and it comes to me. Now I’m realizing it. I’m from where the Wood Brothers are from in Stuart, Virginia. They called and congratulated me. It’s just amazing.”
When Looney was asked what it means to him that he was the one that gave Martin a Martinsville win, he joked that he’s now pretty certain he has some job security.
“I’m not a very poetic person. I don’t know the words to describe what this is really like,” Looney said. “It’s pretty sweet. It’s a sweet ending.”
It’s a sweet ending for Martin who had almost given up on Martinsville a year ago.
“I told my wife ‘I guess I’ll never get to make the race at Martinsville, so when I die put my ashes around Martinsville Speedway.’ So on Sunday night she said to me ‘Can I bury you now?’”
The answer to that question is no. Martin still wants to be spread around that half-mile paperclip, but now he’ll be spread around as a Martinsville winner.
“I love Martinsville Speedway. That is where I want to be.”
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Southeast Editor – Twitter: @RobBlount
-Photo Credit: Speed51.com