Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Why NASCAR legend thinks his jet is dumb

Concord Regional Airport (KJQF), North Carolina 

 Mark Martin parks his jet about 20 feet from the kitchen counter.

Martin, the ageless NASCAR driver, scoops microwaved brown rice into his mouth as he prepares for his latest journey: flying himself to a race in Michigan.

His comfort zone is a large airplane hangar at the Concord (N.C.) Regional Airport, adjacent to the runway and equipped like a luxury home, mahogany wood floors included. There's an upstairs bedroom, a living room with comfortable couches and a TV.

There are no walls between the kitchen, where Martin sits, and his shiny 2-year-old Citation CJ4.

"It's stupid," Martin says. "It's absolutely stupid. Don't let anyone ever try to justify the costs of owning a plane. ... But it sure is convenient."

Martin invited USA TODAY Sports to come along for his flight to Michigan, a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the life of one of the sport's greats. A well-respected veteran whose career has spanned parts of 31 seasons in the Cup series, Martin is viewed as somewhat of a racing sage by his peers. He has 40 Cup wins and 49 Nationwide Series wins to go with five championships in the now-defunct IROC series. Though he has never won a Cup title or a Daytona 500, he has a record five runner-up finishes in the season standings.

A man known for being able to keep up with the times, Martin has a passion for rap music and a presence on Twitter and is an early devotee of Vine. Yet the real secret to his long-term success likely lies in keeping himself physically competitive — the 54-year-old routinely shares his regimen with his Twitter followers.

"If you look at the way he has treated his body, it tells you that this guy likes a challenge," says Jeff Gordon, Martin's former teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. "He likes to push himself, and he is disciplined. I think that's what gives you longevity in a sport when you have the talent."

His life as a pilot is just one of the changes Martin has seen.

"We used to take a van to Michigan," he says. "Heck, we drove to Riverside (Calif.)! But one year, after we drove to Riverside and I finished fifth, I caught a flight home."

He laughs at the memory, eager to recall his early days in NASCAR. This season, NASCAR introduced its sixth generation Cup series car. Martin has driven and won races in four of them.

"We raced hard but fair," he says of the days going door-to-door with David Pearson, Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip. "The definition of 'fair' has changed. It was, 'May the best man win' back then. You couldn't fight the inevitable of a faster car.

"Now, everyone is so close that you can't pass. And the slow cars now are not nearly as slow."

Yet Martin's experience gives him a connection to today's drivers. Teammates Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. have been "very kind" about listening to him, Martin says.

During Truex's six-year winless streak — recently broken at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway — Martin helped Truex stay positive.

"He's like, 'You're going to get one,' " Truex said. "Just keep doing what you're doing. You guys are awesome. You're fast. You're doing all the right things. Don't get discouraged when things don't go your way, because you're going to get a win.

"He was right. It's nice to see somebody like that understand what we're going through and give good advice."

'Get with it or get obsolete'

Martin finishes his rice cup and, with a wave of his hand, motions to follow him outside the hangar. A walkie-talkie in hand, he says into the radio, "Concord pick up IFR to ADG."

The radio crackles with sounds foreign to a non-pilot. Martin scribbles notes on a yellow Post-it pad and heads back inside.

Private aviation is expensive, but Martin says he tries to reduce costs. Not only does he prep the plane himself, he often also is the sole pilot (he enlists help to fly after races).

As he prepares for departure, his mind still is on how different racing is these days.

"At Darlington in '83, I finished third and there were only three cars on the lead lap. Fans today would lose their minds if that happened!"

Martin says TV deals "accelerated everything. That sent the sport through the roof, but we had to sell ourselves so strong that it created unrealistic expectations. We couldn't deliver that strong all the time, and it was a vicious cycle: We had to outperform everything we'd done before."

Martin picks up a remote control and silences the country music playing in the background. He hits another button, and the massive hangar door folds upward.

"We used to be able to shake hands with the fans and be nice — but that was when there were 15 or 20 people standing there," Martin says. "When there are 5,000, you physically can't do that anymore. We still give as much time as we did before, but now it's so diluted."

The sponsors require more time too, Martin says, which is why private planes are necessary. Drivers cannot take the time to drive to a track — that would mean the cancellation of appearances, team meetings and other business, he says.

He considers it all part of adapting.

"Get with it or get obsolete," he says. "Everything is an evolution, whether it's managing your time or setting up the race cars."

There was a time when Martin found himself being resistant to the marketing aspect that was sweeping the sport in the mid-1990s. But he quickly learned if he didn't embrace it, it would hurt his on-track performance.

Well-funded cars go faster.

"If I didn't embrace this thing I didn't know anything about, I would have been out of the sport at an early age," he says.

In the early '90s, Martin says he had strong input on his setups. He'd tell the team exactly what kind of springs he wanted to run in the cars. Sometimes, drivers would share information — he recalls doing so with Rusty Wallace.

And now?

"Drivers don't know what goes into the cars no more," he says. "It's too dang complicated. It's all computers that are figuring out what to put in there. Back in the day, we just dreamed something up and tried it."

As Martin backs the plane out of the hangar, two more passengers emerge: Jeff Burton and his son, Harrison. Burton and Martin, longtime friends and competitors, occasionally share a ride to the track.

Martin eyes the suddenly darkening skies.

"We might get a bump coming out!" he yells to the group.

"It'd be a lot safer to go around it," Burton offers.

"I'll do my best to avoid it," Martin says. "Other people fly right through that stuff, but I don't like to do that."

Martin's father, stepmother and half-sister died in 1998 when a plane piloted by the elder Martin crashed. Martin isn't afraid of flying but says bad weather "scares me really bad."

"I'm scared of snakes, too," he says with a shrug. "Everybody has their fears."

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