The cool old dudeis having a senior moment as he whips his iPhone from a belt clip and squintsat its menu of Chiclets-sized apps. Mark Martin slips on his reading glasses.He continues flipping through his music downloads of such very un--Baby Boomerartists as rappers Eminem and Gucci Mane. "The really, really goodstuff," he says as his wife of 25 years, Arlene, shakes her head. In herunderstated style she says, "He does like all types of music; I'll say thatfor him. But rap, now when he listens to that, we kind of have aproblem."
This is an article from the June 29, 2009 issue
The 50-year-oldMartin smiles and adds, "I like it loud," before noticing a mellowerentry on his playlist: Al Green. "He's the only love-song guy in the worldthat I'll listen to," says Martin, as his corrugated, 5'6", 130-poundframe—about the size, weight and body fat of a boxful of lug nuts—sinks intothe couch cushions. On a plateau above Batesville, Ark., where a billboardreads HOME OF NASCAR GREAT MARK MARTIN, the object of that Ozark pride wasseated last week in his spotless office suite—not a stray paperclip on the deskor tattered magazine on the coffee table—inside an airplane hangar with ashimmering concrete floor that looks as if a cat has licked it clean.
"I'm obsessivecompulsive—absolutely," he concedes. "It's a challenge." Martinpacks for a two-day trip 48 hours in advance. He turns down his bed at night atleast an hour early because, as he explains emphatically in a flusteredSouthern cadence with echoes of Barney Fife, "I don't want to have to turnthe darn thing down to get in it. When I'm ready to go, I like to hit it."He doesn't employ a trainer for his oft-cited fitness regimen due to one simplefact: "If I have a trainer, I have a schedule," he says. "What if Iwake up at 6 a.m. and want to work out but the session isn't until 7 a.m.?"He refuses to install trendy landscape lighting to illuminate the palms at hishome in Daytona Beach, because he had it once—and once was enough. "I camehome from a race at 2:30 a.m. and I saw a bulb burned out," he recalls."So I went out there in the garage, got a bulb and changed it at 3 a.m. Idon't like things not to work. I don't like things that break. It drives mecrazy if it does."
But tires blow,engines fail and fenders bend all the time in a NASCAR race. What kind ofcontrol freak would choose a profession of high-speed unpredictability for 27years? And yet Martin, the Mick Jagger of NASCAR—the oldest series driver stillrockin' on the asphalt stage, he has three victories this season and was 11thin the points standings after Sunday's Toyota/Savemart 350 in Sonoma,Calif.—has not only managed the chaos with remarkable success, but for thefirst time in his career, he is enjoying it too.
He remainsuncomfortable with unbridled jubilation—he is conditioned to steel himselfagainst disappointment, hard-wired to reserve emotion—but there is a bubble toMark Martin these days. And it's not gas. He is still the embraceable crank,telling you, "I'm not fun," even if he is, but the stress ofexpectations that had freighted Martin as the best driver never to win a Cupchampionship, the career ambivalence he experienced as he grieved his father'sdeath in 1998 without missing a race, and the acute misery as racing became agrind from 2003 through '06 has vanished. "I'm done with thenegativity," he promises. He found a fresh perspective while driving onlypart-time in 2007 and '08. "You just exhale at first," he says,"but by '08, the weekend would roll around and it was like, O.K., what do Ilove to do? Well, I kind of like racin'—if it's a fast car. If it's not, racin'stinks."
Rick Hendrickdelivered sweet nectar in a Chevy. As the owner of NASCAR's dynastic HendrickMotorsports, he offered Martin a chance to drive the number 5 car on a dreamteam with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. There was onecatch: Martin had to drive full-time. He had promised Arlene he wouldn't returnto the angst that had made him sour company for the past decade. But after muchdiscussion, she consented. A few weeks ago Martin came home from a day at theshop, and Arlene teased him, saying, "Look at you, you're alwayssmiling." Martin had never before experienced driving as a joyride.
Mark was athree-year-old sitting on his father's lap when the charismatic but volatileJulian Martin ordered his son, "Take the wheel or we'll wreck," as theywere speeding along a dirt road. That's how Mark learned to drive:white-knuckled. He developed into an expert at handling fear, becoming a teensensation on the American Speed Association series in the late-1970s. By 1981,Martin had debuted as a NASCAR owner-driver. By '83, he was winless and broke,forced to face what he describes as failure and humiliation when he auctionedoff his last hand tool to pay his debts. "Everything I'd driven, I'dwon," he recalls. "I thought I was pretty hot. I didn't think I was sohot after I tumbled. And never have since. And still don't today."
Martin'sself-protective reflex is to remain relentlessly self-critical about his work—ada Vinci in a fire suit wondering if he got Mona Lisa's smile just right—evenwhen he drives a race universally lauded. He won at Michigan on June 14 afterJohnson and Greg Biffle, racing just ahead of him, ran out of gas on the finallaps. Martin was also running dry, but with a smart fuel-conserving approach,he had enough fumes to coast across the line to victory. A display of wits, byall accounts. "Think I knew I was going to run out 500 feet before thestart-finish line?" he counters. "I could say that. I had no idea."No one else at Hendrick Motorsports would think of dismissing Martin's guile."He absolutely won that race," says Gordon. "It's so typical ofMark. We all know he's not the most optimistic guy in the world. But it doesn'tslow him down." Heat doesn't get under his weathered skin, either. Halfwaythrough the race at Michigan, Martin shut off the cooling system for his suitbecause of battery trouble. "I've seen guys get out of the car after thatand you'd have to wring them out," Hendrick says. "Mark could've runanother race. Look around at all the sports. How many guys his age can competewith the best and youngest? He is a phenomenon."
Fitness isMartin's anti-aging method. In 21 years of training, he has never missed aworkout day. Holidays? "No, that's ridiculous," he says. Aching days?"Tough stuff," he snaps. His 6% body fat is the product of daily90-minute workouts, plus a diet only a touch more appetizing than Little MissMuffet's curds and whey: strictly whole grain and low fat. He can countsplurges on one hand. In the past year he has eaten fried food once (a fewbites of crispy calamari as a treat); and the night after winning at Michigan,he ate a sliver of pound cake ("Couldn't resist, but I felt it the nextday," he says). This health kick is not so much an obsession as it is analternative to another addiction. "It's better than alcohol," Martinsays. "I did that."
There is no oneMartin has revered more than his father—"my superhero," he says—but healso understood Julian Martin's flaws. Mark witnessed how alcohol exaggeratedhis father's naturally hot temper. Julian would pull a phone out of the wall—orrip a watch off his wrist—and smash it with a hammer. Mark thirsted forself-control. He stopped drinking 20 years ago. "I said I would never belike my dad, and I was well on my way," he recalls. Discipline over mindand body is Martin's gift. But steer the conversation to the obvious—old manMartin is outworking all those young guns with soft buns—and Martin grabs thewheel. "I refuse to go where you're trying to take it—that I'm kickingeveryone's ass because of my [fitness]," says Martin, who also obsessesover every pre- and postrace detail. "Here's my point: The fact that I amwilling to commit to the workouts just might mean I'm willing to do otherthings that someone else might not too."
Any still photo ofMartin is at risk of coming out blurred. He fidgets and jiggles his footthrough a two-hour conversation in his Batesville office. He wears dark jeans,blue-suede Adidas sneakers, a polo shirt and his iPhone—a hip look—but hedoesn't try to hide his age. He embraces 50. His face is marked by deep linesthat seem like a road map of where he has been and where he is going. He hasplaced second in the championship series four times, including a 26-point lossto Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 1990, an excruciating ending. Martin had beenpenalized 46 points that season for a minor mechanical violation. He wasscrewed, racing fans say. "I'm not going there," he says. "Itdidn't bother me because I thought there would be more [points titles]."It's not over, yet. It may take him an extra split second to react in a race,but his solutions to the situation are keener. He may have difficulty seeingthe gauges on his dash without glasses, but he has an answer for that too."I got a marker where 210 [mph] is, and then I know," he says. "Ijust make it easy. I'm working with it, you see?"
He is happy. Can'tyou see that?
A Long, Hard Run
In 27 years of Cup racing, Mark Martin has won 38races—and steered his way through plenty of highs and lows
At 22, makes his Cup debut at North Wilkesboro, N.C.,placing 27th; in five races, his best finish is third.
In his third full-time season, driving for owner JackRoush, wins his first Cup race—in his 113th start.
Ends up second in the Cup standings, 26 points behindDale Earnhart—the first of four such runner-up finishes.
At 44, endures his worst points finish (17th) in his 20full seasons, winding up winless, with seven DNFs.