Not long ago, Tommy Joe Martins did not sound like someone who wanted to operate his own race team again.
During a 2018 appearance on the NASCAR on NBC podcast, he recalled the struggles his team, Martins Motorsports, faced when it attempted to compete in the Xfinity Series in 2014 and the Truck Series three years later on shoestring budgets.
Each effort ended with the team shutting down.
Two years later, he is days away from attempting to make the Xfinity season opener at Daytona in his own car.
“I can tell you I certainly did not want to go do this again,” Martins says.
For the third time in seven years Tommy Joe Martins and his family-owned team are making an attempt at the NASCAR dream.
What makes him think this time will be any different?
Friday, Jan. 24: 21 Days before Daytona
Tommy Joe Martins answers his phone promptly at 9:30 a.m. ET.
For Martins, it’s even earlier. He answers from Las Vegas before the sun rises on what will be his 14th straight day of work.
Luckily this will be a half-day of work for Martins, who teaches Corvette owners how to drive their cars at the Ron Fellows Racing School.
“It keeps me driving something and I’m actually able to make money rather than just sitting around and working out,” Martins says. “I’m able to have a kind of normal existence over here.”
While earning money in Vegas, he is roughly 2,200 miles from where Martins Motorsports’ resurrection is taking place.
The team is taking form in a shop in the Mooresville Motorsports Center, a complex of buildings that neighbors the Mooresville Dragway and where one can find the homes to multiple racing teams, including Young’s Motorsports’ Truck Series team and JR Motorsports’ late models program.
When asked about his team’s previous demises, even Martins notes the need for a clarification.
“This is probably a bad thing I have to refer to which time we shut the team down,” Martins says.
Of their first Xfinity effort in 2014, Martins recalls “a terrible plan and a rookie driver and rookie people” that waylaid his team.
“I can honestly say we had no idea what we were doing,” Martins says. “That was a group of people that thought they knew something that really didn’t. We had a hauler that was coming apart at the seams. We had these old Turner (Motorsports) cars that were really tough to get some parts for. Dodge at the time had completely stopped making body parts, so we couldn’t even get Dodge body parts.
“The only thing we could get was engines and we thought that was enough. We had some people that had kind of been on the fringes of NASCAR and they just didn’t have the experience in the Nationwide (Series) at the time and we were trying to do it with them because we were running the whole team out of Nashville.”
With the Truck Series effort – which was based out of the Mooresville shop – it came down to money. After the 2017 season the team “kind of got the chair pulled out from under” it when the people writing the checks “backed out all at once.”
Those episodes are part of a racing career that Martins has estimated cost his family “hundreds of thousands of lost dollars.”
After the second closing, Martins had safe harbor due to racing for BJ McLeod in 2017, a gig that would continue in the Xfinity Series into 2019 before he moved to Carl Long’s team.
Which brings us to the how and why of Martins Motorsports’ second rebirth.
After a season split between racing for McLeod and Long in Xfinity, Martins had aimed to run full-time for Long in 2020.
But it became apparent to him, his father Craig and co-owner Rodney Riessen that there wouldn’t be room for him at Long’s team in 2020. Martins’ father says Long was “pretty committed” to Chad Finchum and Timmy Hill, who had competed in most of the Xfinity races for Long last year, while Martins only ran nine.
The Martins Motorsports side of the operation had purchased three old JGL Racing cars, one of which was a road course car. While it was fielded with one of Long’s engines, the car was theirs.
“So we essentially had told Carl, ‘Look, one of the reasons we’re doing this is if we can’t work out a deal for next year, we’re going to put together our own team,’” says Martins. “Because we felt we already had the basics of it. We had cars, we had some pit equipment. … We had put a lot of the structure in place as a fallback option.”
Added Martins: “It is with some reluctance that we are doing this.”
Some coaxing from Martins Motorsports’ new co-owner broke that reluctance.
A FRIENDLY PUSH
Rodney Riessen has been a friend and Tommy Joe’s biggest supporter for a decade, ever since he competed in late models near his home in Como, Mississippi.
Riessen and Martin’s father work together in construction in the concrete business, with Riessen serving as a sub-contractor for Craig.
A native of Sioux City, Iowa, Riessen is a long-time fan of racing, specifically dirt racing. But don’t ask him about what goes on underneath the hood.
“I know very little about cars,” Riessen says. “I don’t even work on my own car.”
When it came to being a sponsor of Martins, Riessen was OK with keeping his role simple. On a recent visit to Mooresville, Riessen ran a series of errands for the team, including picking up radios and uniforms.
But Riessen wants to help put Martins in the best position possible for his career, and there had been conversations for a few years about Riessen increasing his involvement.
“I believe Tommy Joe is a very good driver,” Riessen says. I think we’ve always done him a disservice by putting him in, at best, mediocre equipment. I’m like, Tommy’s getting up there in the age (33) where he doesn’t have many years left to race, let’s give him his best shot ever.
“My goal with this whole thing, this year and next year, Craig and I just build the company of Martins Motorsports a little bit and then towards the end of next year, transition from Tommy Joe being the driver into Tommy Joe being the driver (and owning) Martins Motorsports, we hand the company over to him and just let him make his dream come true and then all I have to do is show up to the track.”
Craig’s reaction to Rodney’s push to field their own team was understandable given their track record.
“I told him, ‘Man, you gotta be crazy,’” Craig recalls over the phone from his home in Mississippi, later adding, “I fell for it I guess.”
“He really loves it,” Craig says of Rodney. “He’s extremely passionate about it. Probably more so than me. I’ve told people for years, ‘I don’t love racing, I love my son.’ And (Rodney) loves racing. … Here we go again.”
SPONSOR WOES BE GONE
Auto racing requires money and while Craig Martins has his construction company, funding his son’s racing dreams over the years has not been easy, including taking out a full-value loan on his house in 2016 which is still being paid off.
He says his investment in the team has been “substantial.”
“Probably more than we oughta do,” Craig says. “Our family’s been in racing for quite a while now with lots of ups and downs. We’re not like a lot of the people out there in racing that have millions they can just waste on racing, so it’s always been a struggle. … We just know how hard it is.”
The burden the team faced going into 2020 was made easier during a two-day stretch over the Christmas holiday while Tommy Joe visited his family in Mississippi.
He had contacted Ken Gilreath, who sponsored him in races at Bristol over the last few years. Martins called only expecting Gilreath to commit to Bristol again.
“He said basically, ‘How much are you trying to raise? How much are you really needing to do this?’” Martins recalls. “When I told him, he said ‘Ok, well let me get back to you’ and called me back the next day and said ‘Can I just write you a check for this much?'”
The amount offered elicited a response of “Are you kidding me?” from Martins.
Gilreath’s properties, AAN Adjusters and Gilreath Farms Red Angus, will be on Martins’ No. 44 Chevrolet for 25 of the 33 races this year. Another long-time sponsor, Diamond Gusset Jeans, will be on the car for four races.
“It completely changed the outlook of our season and I can say that with extreme confidence,” Martins says. “We were going to have to do this with a shoestring budget, really small, could not withstand a lot of bad luck or anything bad happening to us, especially early going.
“Now we were able to buy more equipment, hire people earlier (four full-time employees), get a hauler (purchased from the defunct TriStar Motorsports) and really dress all of our stuff up to where we really did look professional showing up to our first race. It completely changed the way we’re approaching the season from a competitive standpoint.”
To put it in perspective, before Gilreath came on board, Martins was mapping out a season where he’d ask sponsors for $10,000 per race weekend.
“That was basically going to help us pay for my tires,” Martins says. “Ken didn’t cut me a check for that amount of money, alright? That’s about as close as I can get with it.”
Tommy Joe puts Martins Motorsports’ budget for the year “somewhere around a million bucks.
“That’s to do everything: to pay people, that’s travel, that’s your engines, tires, everything. “
Thursday, Jan. 30: 13 days before Daytona
It’s late afternoon and Martins Motorsports’ resurrection continues under the watchful eye of crew chief Danny Johnson.
In the team’s shop – which it rents from L.W. Miller, the director of motorsports at JR Motorsports – five men are at work on four of the team’s five cars. Above their heads hangs a banner from when J.R. Heffner won an Eldora heat race for the team in 2016.
Two of them are interns from the NASCAR Technical Institute who will become full-time employees later in the year.
The group operates in a shop small enough for team members to affectionately refer to it as a “studio shop” or “Hendrick’s parts room.”
A 45-year-old Virginia native, Johnson is preparing for his first full-time season as a crew chief in NASCAR.
A seasoned car chief, Johnson’s first chance to crew chief in the Xfinity Series came last year with Carl Long’s team, including five races with Finchum and one with Tommy Joe.
With the Martins announcing their intentions to field a team in the middle of December, Johnson has only been on the job for a month at this point, working 12-15 hours days, six days a week.
“If you had come last week, the level of intensity and the stress level was probably thru the roof,” Johnson says. “This week not so much. Just fighting a lot of little things.”
That includes getting the right parts and pieces for two of their cars, which were purchased from GMS Racing after it folded its Xfinity operation at the end of last season.
“Some of the parts and pieces that are on our other (cars) don’t fit up to this, so we’ve been changing some odd and ends stuff there,” Johnson says. “But for the most part the stress level is, it’s up there. … If this wasn’t a complete startup deal, it wouldn’t be as bad. But we got a little later start than the rest of our competition.”
While Martins Motorsports is going into 2020 with its best sponsorship deal ever and two relatively new cars in its arsenal, they’re at a disadvantage in two important areas: Points and engines.
Due to their late start, the team was unable to buy points from any other team or lease any engines from top-tier organizations.
Combine NASCAR reducing the Xfinity field to 36 cars and the first few races guaranteeing starting spots based on last year’s points standings, and the No. 44 team can’t afford a mishap.
Martins acknowledges the “stressful time” for him and the team, but it hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for what they’re about to undertake.
“For the first time ever in my life I’m like, ‘You know what? I think we’ve got a pretty good plan here in place,’” he says. “So I am very, very blessed with the sponsors I’ve been able to find, with my dad having a partner in this business with Rodney Riessen, with Danny Johnson having experience in the Xfinity Series coming in as our crew chief. We are in a spot where it’s a better situation than I’ve ever had in my life and it just happens to be a team with my name on it.”
This thing is looking mean! Let’s gooooooooooooooooooooo https://t.co/CgNnciU6pg
— Tommy Joe Martins (@TommyJoeMartins) February 7, 2020