Three decades ago, Sterling Marlin came to Five Flags Speedway to test his mettle.
He’s hoping his return appearance this week in Pensacola proves more triumphant.
Marlin, the two-time Daytona 500 winner (1994, 1995) whose NASCAR career spanned some 33 years, finished 31st in the 1983 Snowball Derby.
It was the only time Marlin faced the famed half-mile asphalt oval. Until this week.
Marlin, winner of 10 Sprint Cup Series races in an historic career, highlights what promises to be a blockbuster Pro Late Model field for the Allen Turner Tune-Up 100 on a special Saturday night of racing at Five Flags.
“It’s like riding a bicycle,” Marlin said of returning to Pensacola’s high banks. “Once we start riding, it’ll be OK. No doubt, we’ll need some tweaking here and tweaking there.”
Making adjustments will be part of not only Marlin’s gameplan, but the strategy for a slew of PLM drivers Saturday night. The Tune-Up 100 is the final time these cars race before the Snowflake 100 during Snowball Derby week in December.
Drivers and their crews will take all the mental and physical notes they can muster in preparation for the ’Flake, one of short-track’s crown jewels.
“We hope to gain more track position this time,” Marlin joked, referencing the disappointing finish at the ’83 Derby. “We’ll just need to be smooth on the gas and we’ve just gotta race.”
While Ryan Luza, the 19-year-old Texan, has the Allen Turner PLM series track championship virtually locked up thanks to his streak of three consecutive victories, most of his competitors just want to find a winning edge come December.
Super Stocks will also decide a track champion Saturday night with the Sportsmen and Bombers competing in their penultimate features before their Night of Champions on Sept. 26.
Gates open at 2 p.m. this Saturday with all divisions qualifying at 4:30. Features begin approximately at 7 p.m.
Admission is $15 for adults; $12 for seniors, military members and students; $5 for children ages 6 to 11; and free for kids under 6.
It didn’t take Marlin too long to come out of retirement when he left NASCAR in 2009. The Columbia, Tenn., native returned to his roots at his beloved Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville. Marlin was an instrumental reason in preserving the iconic .596-mile short track in 2011.
Then, a year after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Marlin began wheeling his No. 114 PLM in 2013, strictly around Fairgrounds Speedway.
“It took a little bit of time to get used to ’em,” Marlin said of the late models. “But we’ve been competitive, especially here of late.”
Marlin’s newfound youth has led him to expand his schedule this year. Last month, he raced in Montgomery much to the delight of the fans at Montgomery Motor Speedway.
“That was real neat,” a humbled Marlin said, describing a scene of well-wishers flooding the racetrack. “There must’ve been 30 or so people coming outta the stands to say hello and wish me luck and share their memories. It was pretty neat.”
When he’d talk on the phone to longtime friend James Finch, the Panama City businessman encouraged Marlin to come down and race Pensacola. Finch was an integral sponsor for the likes of Jeff Purvis, Eddie Mercer, Chase Elliott and Erik Jones during their respective Snowball Derby wins.
“(Marlin) kept asking me when I was gonna come up there to Nashville and see him race,” said Finch, whose Phoenix Racing team fielded cars for both Sprint Cup Series and Xfinity Series races from 1990 to 2013 when he sold the team. “And, I told him, he should come down here to Pensacola.”
As a young, fresh-faced 26 year old, Marlin came to Pensacola in 1983 to compete in short-track racing’s version of Daytona.
By that time, Marlin already was one a heck of a hotshoe who had deep racing bloodlines. He won three consecutive track titles at his beloved Nashville from 1980 to 1982 and had dipped his toe into Sprint Cup Series waters — be it driving spot duty for his late, great father, Coo Coo Marlin, or getting a few chances on his own.
“Sterling has, obviously, always been a real good racer, an even better man,” Finch said. “He’ll be competitive over there in Pensacola, you betcha.”
By Chuck Corder/Five Flags Speedway. Photo Credit: Speed51.com