Wheatland, Missouri (December 6, 2016) – The flat, half-mile asphalt oval where so many memories were made is long gone. But when Mark Martin returns to the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds in Springfield on Jan. 7, memories are sure to come flooding back.
“Man, it’s going to be really cool. I’m pumped up about it,” Martin said of his upcoming induction into the Ozarks Area Racers Foundation Hall of Fame. Just two week after that, he will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Nine others including Mark’s father, the late Julian Martin, and Lucas Oil Speedway owner Forrest Lucas, will join the Arkansas native in ceremonies inside the E-Plex – just a lug nut’s toss from where the old track once sat.
Doors will open at 4 p.m. with an autograph session from 5:30-6:30. The ceremony will begin at 6:30 with a Salute to Champions from local tracks, followed by the Hall of Fame induction. Advance tickets are $15 at O’Reilly Auto Parts locations and $20 at the door.
Area speedways will have informational booths and there will be Ozarks-area racing memorabilia along with vintage and modern race cars on display. One of those cars will be a Mark Martin tribute car.
Those times at the Fairgrounds were special as Martin, as a teen-aged phenom, cut his racing teeth before graduating to a championship career in the American Speed Association and then onto NASCAR. The Batesville, Ark., native won 40 Sprint Cup races and 49 Xfinity Series races in a 31-year career at stock-car racing’s highest level.
Martin, in a recent interview, said he couldn’t have done it without the racing education in southwest Missouri. Arkansas car builder Larry Shaw, who recently produced his 5,000th race car, and Julian Martin were the driving forces behind igniting his young career.
“But I had a lot of people along the way that made contributions,” Mark Martin said. “I couldn’t have done it without them.”
He reeled off names and memories as if the races were four weeks ago, not four decades ago. The first name he mentioned? Larry Phillips, the short-track legend from Springfield who was a fierce competitor but took young drivers of that era, like Martin and Rusty Wallace, under his wing as race-shop employees.
“The Master,” Martin called the late Phillips. “Just learning from him. If you wanted to win a race, you had to figure out how to beat Larry Phillips and that was a tall order. It was a good training ground.
“I had some great, great times and great experiences racing against a lot of great people,” Martin added. “Back in 1977 and ’78, the promoter there at the Fairgrounds would bring in Late Model super stars. Guys like Freddy Fryar, Larry Shuler, Tom Reffner, Donnie Allison. I got a chance when I was a teen-ager and just getting my career started on asphalt to race with some of the great pavement drivers, ever.”
But it was in 1976, in a rare dirt-track race at the old Bolivar Speedway, that stands out as one of Martin’s top moments.
“We went up there and had a win that was one of the top five wins of my career, as far as being memorable,” Martin said. “We won that dirt-track race, starting in the back. It was certainly not something we would have ever expected to do. I was just a kid, a dirt-track racer from Arkansas and they had super stars there like Ken Essary and other dirt-track greats from that region. It was a big win for me.”
But it was on the Fairgrounds pavement where Martin, driving his orange No. 2 Chevy Camaro, served notice that he was something special. The track, being mostly flat, wasn’t easy to solve.
“I remember getting around it fast, which was thrilling to me,” Martin said. “The thing I really remember is turn one was tricky. You could get into it too hard really easy. You had to back off (the throttle) at about the start-finish line to get through that turn without back it into the fence.
“Man, there was a lot of great racing there. Rusty (Wallace) and I raced there a lot. Rusty and Phillips and I had some epic races there in ’77 and ’78.”
Martin said Phillips never offered any advice on the driving part of racing. While many saw Phillips’ fierce, seemingly always serious side, Martin recalled him as “funny. He was quite the comedian.”
It was about this time, after Martin graduated from high school, that he moved to Springfield for the summer and went to work on Phillips’ race shop on Commercial Street.
“So I was working for him during the week and racing against him on weekends,” Martin said. “I worked for him in his shop. He taught me how to make parts. Shoot, I learned to fabricate (metal) and everything else. He was the man who gave me my first job.
“There was even a time or two when he had me prepare his car. He had me change gears and prepare his car to race – against me. That was kind of funny.”
Martin has returned to the Ozarks a couple of times since, as a spectator for dirt-track events at Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, since retiring from NASCAR in 2014. He’s now a part-owner of top-flight dirt Late Model race teams for drivers Scott Bloomquist and Jared Landers.
“I enjoy it because I only have to participate in the level that I want,” Martin said. “I kind of dabble. I watch from afar, mostly.”
Martin was unable to attend the Show-Me 100 Presented by ProtecttheHarvest.com at Lucas last spring, but the reasons were understandable. He attended the Indianapolis 500 for the first time and then flew to Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600 as NASCAR’s guest, only a few days after finding out he would enter the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2017.
“I’d love to get back there,” Martin said of Lucas Oil Speedway. “I stay pretty busy, but if it’ll fit into next year’s schedule, I’ll be there.”
But first, he’s eager to re-visit the Springfield Fairgrounds for the first time since creating so many memories – for himself and thousands of Ozarks’ race fans.
“For me, it was like going to the big time,” Martin said of the Fairgrounds. “Leaving the dirt tracks of Arkansas and going up there and racing … man, it was awesome.”
Other Ozarks Area Racers Foundation new Hall of Famers in the “Legend” division for driving are Terry Bivins, Rick Sharp, Robbie Johnson and the late Rayme Johnson. The “Pioneer” inductees include Julian Marin, Forrest Lucas, Bill Davis, Ned Reynolds and Ronnie Williams.
This year’s induction class will bring the total in the Hall to 187. Names of the Hall of Famers are engraved on a black, granite monument permanently on display on the West side of the Fairgrounds on what once was the entrance to the old pit road.
For more information on the Ozarks Area Racers Foundation, check out the group’s Facebook page.
The 2017 Lucas Oil Speedway season begins with the Weekly Championship Series opener on April 8, followed by the 4th annual Lucas Oil MLRA Spring Nationals on April 14-15.
For complete Lucas Oil Speedway event information, archived stories, ticket info and schedule information for the season, visit lucasoilspeedway.com.
Lucas Oil Speedway is located at Highways 83 and 54 in Wheatland, Missouri. A campground with shower and bathroom facilities is also available. With it’s entrance located just outside the pit gate this sprawling scenic camping facility will continue to enhance the racing experience at the Diamond of Dirt Tracks.
Click www.LucasOilSpeedway.com for more information and detailed directions to the speedway or call the Track Hotline at (417) 282-5984.
In addition, fans can get social with Lucas Oil Speedway by following @LucasSpeedway on Twitter, clicking “Like” at www.facebook.com/LucasOilSpeedway and on www.youtube.com/LucasOilSpeedway.