When Mark Martin came out of semi-retirement to resume a full-fledged racing career this year at age 50, most of us figured he was going through one of those middle-age-crazy phases.
We’ve all been there: buy a sports car convertible, spray-paint our bald spot and run off with a Hooters’ waitress we met at our daughter’s birthday party.
Let he who is without stupidity cast the first Viagra bottle.
Don’t worry (we said), those testosterone fumes will quickly evaporate. Mark will come to his senses and come crawling back to his rocking chair where he belongs.
But that’s not what happened. Martin has been driving like a teenager on prom night.
“I’m having a blast,” says the crew-cut bantamweight whose four victories are the most of any driver in the Sprint Cup Series. “This is the most fun I’ve had in my entire career.”
Martin is outrunning whippersnappers who weren’t even born when he won his first NASCAR pole at Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway in 1981. He is on course to make the final 10-race Chase for the Championship. If he gets in he’ll be a serious contender for his first title after decades of frustration, including four soul-searing second-place finishes.
If that happens, it would be the warmest, fuzziest, feel-good story in the history of the sport. It would make Old Yeller cry.
Martin turns 51 next month, which, in truth, really is not all that ancient for a stock car driver. Harry Gant won a NASCAR Cup race when he was 52, and Herschel McGriff is still racing in lower divisions after being carbon-dated at 81.
But what makes Martin’s story so remarkable is that he walked away, spent two years in semi-retirement, then came back. Un-retirements by restless old jocks seldom have happy endings. They hobble back onto the stage in search of lost youth and faded glory, only to discover that what they thought was a sudden competitive urge was actually gas pains caused by a lack of dietary fiber.
They totter around for a while until somebody gently leads them away. Some feared that would be Martin’s fate — Secretariat ending his days as a plow horse.
Martin and I collaborated on his autobiography a few years ago and I discovered that his waters run deep. He grew up rural Batesville, Ark., the product of a broken home and an alcoholic father who broke the heart of the little boy who worshiped him.
Martin began racing as a teenager against “green-teeth pulpwood haulers” and other dirt-track rowdies. He started winning and never stopped. Along the way he conquered personal demons and overcame career setbacks (including losing his team to bankruptcy) that would have destroyed lesser men.
He could have walked away three ago with his place in the sport secure – a good guy with a solid legacy – but he came back. And he has turned what many of us thought was a mistake into a miracle.
No matter how the rest of the season goes, what Martin has already accomplished is remarkable, uplifting and inspirational.
Whatever he’s drinking, pour me a glass.
Woody is a Nashville sports writer who has covered racing since the early 1970s.