Racing has been Sterling Marlin’s life for more than a half century. Over the last six months, faced with serious health issues, the hope of racing has been the one constant that has helped keep the 62-year-old’s spirit alive and motivated.
Since 2012, Marlin has battled Parkinson’s Disease, a debilitating neurological malady that slowly robs an individual of movement in various body parts, particularly use of the hands.
Earlier this year, the 1994 and ’95 Daytona 500 champion underwent several surgeries – including a four-stage deep brain stimulation procedure that delivers electric pulses to brain cells – to slow or reduce some of the disease’s progression.
However, Marlin suffered serious side effects, including excess fluid on the brain that required another procedure.
While the surgeries sidelined Marlin longer than he anticipated, they have paid off as the Columbia, Tennessee native hopes to be back behind the wheel of his No. 14 Late Model on Saturday at his home track of Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville for the first time since last fall.
“I feel really good, I just want to race the car, I’m ready to go,” Marlin told NBC Sports in a phone interview Tuesday. “I’m having more good days now.
“(Racing at Nashville will) mean a whole lot. I’ve been through a lot over the past six months. I thought we were going to be ready by the first race in April, but we were far off from it.
“It’ll be good to come back and have a race. The last time I won a race in Nashville (last August), I led every lap, won the race. Then we were leading the next race (in November) before it started raining.”
But instead of worrying about tires and fuel mileage and car setups, Marlin spent much of the first half of the year with his surgeries and several follow-up exams.
“It’s been a long process, really,” he said. “(The deep brain stimulation) was a little scary. They had to go into my brain or I could have died. I dodged that bullet, but it was pretty touch-and-go there for a while.
“My family has been there through thick-and-thin. I was lucky I had the surgery. I lost a lot of weight but I’ve been able to put 17-18 pounds back on.”
Marlin tried to make his racing return at Nashville nearly a month ago. He was ready to go physically and emotionally, but his race car developed clutch problems that prompted him to withdraw rather than run the risk of costly repairs if the clutch suffered even greater damage during competition.
The clutch has been repaired and once again, Marlin is ready to put the pedal to the metal. If all goes well, he hopes to do another two more races at Nashville before the season ends and, if additional sponsorship comes about, won’t rule out one-off races at other tracks.
“Racing is all I’ve ever done since I was 10-12 years old,” Marlin said. “I enjoy doing it and see how fast we can go. Hopefully, we can get back to where we were last fall and see what happens.
“We’ve got a good car, a good sponsor and we’ll give ‘er hell.”
If all goes well both health-wise and racing-wise, Marlin hopes to continue racing as long as he can.
“I was still winning last year and we were fast every race and led a lot of laps,” Marlin said. “If I can still do it and enjoy doing it, I’ll keep doing it.
“But if all I can do is run 20th, then I won’t do it anymore.”
According to The Tennessean newspaper, Marlin needs two more wins to become the winningest driver in Fairgrounds history.
And if he wins his comeback race on Saturday? He already has a plan, he said with a laugh:
“If I win, I’ll climb the fence like John Force,” Marlin said, referencing Force’s fence climb into the grandstands after winning his 150th career race last weekend.