Sterling Marlin’s to-do list Wednesday included a trip to Full Throttle Race Parts and Equipment, a high performance retail outlet on the Cumberland River just east of downtown.
“Race cars cost a lot of money but you’ve got to have the good stuff,” he said. “Full Throttle, they just cater to racers, all the oval track guys. That’s where you’ve got to go to get your parts.”
How things have changed for the 55-year-old from Columbia.
It has been more than three years since he raced on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup circuit, where he won 10 times including twice at the Daytona 500. He’s no longer part of a multi-million dollar team that maintains a fleet of cars in a palatial garage with the help of specialized pit-crew members and research and development departments that operate on the sport’s cutting edge.
In a way, though, he is no different than the teenager who took his first laps at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in 1976.
Mainly, the sense of accomplishment that comes when one has built his own racecar with help from his buddies and then has driven that car to a victory is as powerful as ever. He reaffirmed that notion April 6 when he won the Pro Late Model Race, the featured event on the first of the Fairgrounds’ eight-race schedule this year.
“It’s something about working on a car, building the car yourself,” Marlin said. “… As far as the racecars we pretty much build them — hang the bodies, do all the suspension work and chassis work. It’s something about having something you built and winning that gives you a special feeling.”
Marlin looks to make it two in a row Saturday when this year’s second night of racing, postponed from two weeks earlier by rain, takes place.
Amid all the uncertainty about the future of the facility and the Fairgrounds in general, all the political maneuvers and all the ways in which the racing scene has diminished throughout Middle Tennessee, the speedway is as it always has been. It is a dynamic .596-mile oval that creates competitive, side-by-side racing and helps foster development in those drivers who hope one day to race on a larger stage.
“You can run side-by-side pretty easy,” Marlin said. “It’s easy to pass if you’ve got a good car. You’ll go around to racetracks every now and then and you’ll see guys who will say, ‘Man, I raced at Nashville back in ’98 and man, I love that track.’ It’s a great racetrack always. From Wisconsin to Florida, the drivers all love racing here.”
Albeit a bit weathered for all that has taken place, it remains the bloom of the local racing scene for which the roots still run deep.
Take the No. 40 Chevrolet that Marlin drove to victory six weeks ago. From inception to creation to celebration, every thing to do with that ride has some local connection.
“You pretty much buy the chassis from somebody, a chassis builder, I’ve got one called Wayne Day up in White House,” Marlin said. “… The bodies are fiberglass, they come from ARP [Aluminum Racing Products] up in [Greenbrier]. You buy you some body parts, say from Full Throttle. You bolt it together, put it all together and see what you’ve got.”
Mt. Juliet’s Andy Johnson found out pretty quickly what he had. And he liked it.
The 38-year-old was on the front row for the April 6 race and stayed at the head of the 20-car field to the halfway point of the 75-lap race.
“It’s just a good feeling,” he said. “You work hard all winter on getting the car right. Then when you’re up there leading laps, you know you’ve done something right.”
The feeling soon vanished, though, when contact between him and Marlin, each a three-time Fairgrounds champion, caused Johnson to spin and hit the wall. He was undeniably unhappy following the race but since has cooled a bit.
“You’re never happy when you get wrecked,” Johnson said. “We just kind of got together — I’ll leave it at that. … It’s racing. It’s going to happen. But there’s plenty of room out there to where it shouldn’t happen.
“It tore the car up pretty bad. We just rode around and got lapped two or three times after that. It ain’t no big deal.”
He finished 13th, but the seeds were sewn for a potential rivalry to carry through to the end of the season the first week in November. Marlin, for his part, said there were no marks on his car.
The rematch has to wait, though, while Johnson works to fortify the local racing scene’s roots. He will miss Saturday’s event in order to be with his son, 7-year-old Chase Johnson, who will compete in an out-of-town regional quarter-midget event.
Marlin, likewise, has added to legacy through his son Steadman, 32, who will race in the Limited Late Model race this weekend, which precedes his father’s event. Both were scheduled Wednesday to test cars that came right from the Marlin family farm.
“I probably work on them too much,” Sterling Marlin said. “We’ve got a lot of cattle, a lot of farming, a lot of real estate stuff going on but I enjoy working on the cars. I usually get to the shop at six in the morning and work on them until the help gets there. If you get behind, you work on them until nine or 10 o’clock at night. It just depends on what needs to be done.”
That’s the way it always has been for those who have and continue to turn laps at the Fairgrounds even others push their agendas with designs to transform the property into something else.
“It’s the same old Nashville Speedway,” Marlin said. “I started racing on it in 1976 and been racing it ever since. I probably skipped two or three years when I was running [Sprint] Cup, but I’ve been racing 35 years and I’ve probably raced there 30 of my life.
“… It’s a fun track. It’s a track you can run side-by-side on and put on a good show for the fans. It’s probably one of the premier short tracks in the United States.”