NASCAR star Mark Martin is a champ on and off the track
NASCAR star Mark Martin may be the sentimental favorite to win the 2010 NASCAR Nextel Cup championship considering his willingness to help a youngster suffering from leukemia in 1998 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The stock car racing season officially opened Feb. 14 at Daytona meaning that those of us who live by the thunder of a race car can now relax.
Even though the event was marred by a track that was coming apart, ratings for the Daytona 500 were up especially as auto racing enthusiasts finally get a chance to watch events after a four-month hiatus.
Truth be known, I am an enthusiast not so much because of the cars but because of the competitors in the NASCAR Nextel Cup competition. Whether itís Mark Martin, Kurt or Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray or Tony Stewart, Iím hooked on the sport.
In my particular case, I have followed some of the drivers since they were kids. In the case of Martin, I first saw him at the now-defunct Craig Road Speedway and have followed both Kurt and Kyle Busch at Southern Nevada tracks before they reached NASCAR's highest level.
In fact, we had heard that Martin was the next coming of Richard Petty. His trek from Batesville, Ark., resulted in significant PR although his finish wasnít so good on that day in about 1978.
Fittingly, Martin won the first-ever Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 1998 and yours truly was lucky enough to conduct the post-win press conference. Now 51, he remains a crowd favorite not only for his talent on the track but his class off the track.
On one day at Las Vegas Motor Speedway several years ago, Martin was testing his race car, so I decided to journey over to his motor home to chat about the old days along with his current schedule.
Upon entering his motor home, I asked Martin ďHow in the world do you keep up the schedule that you do on a constant basis?Ē To me, the schedule that starts long before the Daytona 500 and many times ends after the last race in November is mind-boggling, to say the least.
Martin explained that he always stays near a fitness center wherever he visits simply because he heads for the gymnasium early in the day to participate in a strenuous workout program. Until I began a workout routine of my own, I never fully understood the benefits of a gymnasium and Martinís explanation made all the sense in the world.
However, beyond the physical demands of auto racing come the mental tests that virtually every driver seems to hide even though every one of them has concerns like the rest of us. Most have families and in some cases, drivers bring the families with them to the track.
NASCARís keen approach to marketing is the key to its success and drivers know their delivery off the track is as important as it is on the track. Even when there are personal issues to worry about or engines that are blowing up on a continual basis, most drivers seem to maintain their emotions even during the toughest of times.
In fact, while at the 1998 Cup race at LVMS, I called on Martin after receiving a call from the father of a four year-old little boy who was suffering from leukemia. Martinís representative gladly accepted the request, so I took the father and his little boy down to the infield.
The pained little boy was in a stroller since he had lost use of his legs due to his illness. When we showed up at Martinís pit, Martin was standing on the back of the trailer ready to help. While the Feb. 28 NASCAR Nextel Cup event marks 12 years since Martin helped the little boy, I still remember the meeting like it was yesterday.
With a big smile on his face, I vividly recall Martin greeting the little boy by his first name of DJ. The young boy smiled back and gave Martin a thumbs-up before receiving every souvenir possible. There wasnít a dry eye in the immediate vicinity especially when several other drivers including Jeff Gordon came running with other souvenirs.
While I honestly respect many of the drivers in NASCAR, Martin stands out in my mind as one of the genuine, true-blue guys. The day he helped a cancer-ridden little boy was the day I knew first-hand that while he has never won a NASCAR Cup championship, he is indeed a champion in more ways than one.