Like any other sport on God’s green earth, NASCAR has its mix of superstars and underdogs. For every Jimmie Johnson driving for a multi-million dollar organization like Hendrick Motorsports, there is a no name driver trying to scrap together a living while driving for a race team on a shoe string budget. These guys and gals giving everything to the sport they love, and just as dedicated as the big time teams at the front of the field. However, the sad reality of today’s NASCAR is that while the superstars still deserve their fair share of attention, the underfunded underdogs of the sport battling it out at the back of the pack rarely get paid the respect they deserve. Small teams have always been part of the lifeblood of NASCAR, but today they are often ignored and relegated to an afterthought that warrants no coverage. This is a shame really, because some NASCAR’s smallest teams have some of the sport’s hardest working and most genuine drivers and crews. These are people who truly still embody what NASCAR’s roots were all about, normal people with extraordinary talent who give it their all just to be at the racetrack every weekend. We here at Honky Tonk Haven want to help shine a light on some of NASCAR’s hardest working underdogs, and give them a little piece of that recognition that they so rightfully deserve. These are the folks giving all their blood, sweat, and tears to compete in the sport they love, and most of them are the kind of folks you’d want to sit down at your local bar and have a beer with. In this article, we’re going to be taking a look at the mighty Mississippian Tommy Joe Martins, a 31-year-old driver from Como, Mississippi.
If one were to take a look at the racing career of Tommy Joe Martin and try to describe it in one word, it might be along the lines of scrappy. Determined. Maybe tenacious. But however one describes it, Martins is the kind of throwback racer that just refuses to quit. Although Martins began racing go karts as early as five years old, his racing career didn’t really get serious until he entered high school and began competing in World Kart Association events on both dirt and pavement. Despite success in the series, Martins wasn’t able to continue his racing career after high school due to a lack of funding, and instead he enrolled at Ole Miss as a journalism student. However, the pull of racing proved to be too strong for Martins and he resumed his racing career after his sophomore year of college.
Despite a burning desire to make a living out of racing and his experience racing on both dirt and asphalt, Martins’s push to make it in the world of NASCAR after he left college did not come easy. Martins’s resolve to continue driving was tested early and often, and a driver development contract he singed with Baker Curb racing in 2008 quickly fell apart due to a lack of sponsorship. Despite the sour turn of events however, Martin soldiered on with the backing and support of his family, racing at the historic Nashville fairgrounds and in ASA Challenge series throughout 2009. 2009 also marked Martins debut in the NASCAR Truck Series event, when his family team fielded a truck at the historic Lucas Oil Raceway. Martins finished 22nd, kicking off the start to his NASCAR national series career.
As with any family owned operation, Martins Motorsports faced its fair share of up and downs after Martins’s debut race. Funding from sponsorship was spotty to say the least, and the Martins family scrapped by to keep Tommy Joe on the racetrack. Still, the small family owned team had it’s share of triumphs, including a top ten finish in the 2010 ARCA series (the ARCA series is a national stock car series that serves as a feeder series into NASCAR, although it is operated independently). Forced to once again table his career due to a lack of funding in 2011, Martins returned to Ole Miss and finished his degree. However, like any true racer, Martins couldn’t be kept off the track and he returned to NASCAR in 2014. Over the next few years, Martins raced for his family team in the Xfinity and Truck Series, posting finishes as high as 11th at Iowa in the Xfinity Series and 15th at Michigan in the Truck Series. And while flashy results still may be hard to come by, Tommy Joe’s scrappy determination and dedication slowly began to gain the attention of NASCAR fans. Martin’s detailed his 2016 season in his blog, giving fans an insight into just how much work his small crew puts into supporting his racing career. In his final blog post of 2016, Martins details the sacrifices of his family and team throughout the season.
“They thrashed their asses off all year long,” Martins wrote. “They rode in a pickup truck to every single race on our schedule – over 50,000 miles total. Then, to top it off, they worked for a team and a driver that had the most DNFs in the entire series. They had to scramble nearly every single week to not only repair a truck, but also to prepare it to qualify into the event on speed. They were worn down. They needed a break. They never complained.”
The sacrifice of the Martins family is admirable, and a true representation of American grit and determination.
Martins has also gained attention for shining a spotlight on just how hard it is far small time NASCAR teams to survive in today’s sport. After making the painful decision to shut down his truck team for the 2018 season, Martins detailed how his team was set to lose $300,000 to $400,000 if they competed in the 2018 NASCAR truck season. Martins pointed to the fact that the team wanted to remain competitive, and that they wouldn’t cut corners so they could simply survive in the series. Martins is a racer, a man who wants to win. While the decision to shut down his family team was obviously a difficult one, you have to respect that he wasn’t willing to throw away any more money to run at the back of the pack. Martins also stood up to the most powerful man in the sport, NASCAR CEO Brian France, when France insisted the sport was as healthy as ever and fans need not to worry. In a series of tweets, Martins detailed how his Truck team needed an extra $500,000 in sponsorship money if they were to even breakeven in 2018, and that was with running in the middle of the pack. If the sport of NASCAR is to not only survive and thrive, drivers can’t be expected to pay astronomical numbers in development series when they don’t have sponsorship. NASCAR needs to work on lower costs for the feeder series, and drivers like Tommy Joe Martins have been vital to getting that conversation going.
Martins will continue his dream of competing in NASCAR during 2018 while racing for BJ McLeod Motorsports in select Xfinity Series races. He’s continued to fight the good fight, arguing that the sport’s media need to do a better job covering the hard working drivers at the back of the pack. A true racer, the crew here at Honky Tonk Haven wants to make sure fans everyone give guys like Tommy Joe Martin the respect they deserve. Good luck in 2018, win one for the little guys Tommy Joe!