Mark Martin's first full-time season in the Cup Series was for an owner named Bud Reeder, who other than that 1982 campaign never fielded a car for more than six races in a single year. The next season Martin started 16 events for car owners ranging from Jim Stacy to Emanuel Zervakis to D.K. Ulrich, whose vehicles had one thing in common -- they quite regularly broke down. Then it was five races, two failed engines, and one DNQ for Jerry Gunderman, followed by a single start in 1987 for Roger Hamby. The motor blew up in that one, too.
It wasn't until 1988, after five years of driving garbage disguised as race cars, that Martin hooked up with Jack Roush and began piloting vehicles that could get to the front with regularity. Back then, he was the rule rather than the exception. Sterling Marlin drove for Hamby and the Sadler Brothers and Hoss Ellington long before his glory days with Morgan-McClure. Dale Jarrett drive for Eric Freedlander and a past-its-prime Cale Yarborough outfit before breaking through with the Wood Brothers and Robert Yates. Rusty Wallace drove for the likes of John Childs and Cliff Stewart before Raymond Beadle called.
For an entire generation of NASCAR drivers, that's just the way it was -- you started out in equipment that was far from ideal, proved you could take care of it and maybe squeeze out a few good finishes, and eventually someone noticed. Good cars were far too valuable to entrust to young drivers more prone to put them in the wall. So the men who would become the sport's biggest stars of the 1990s and early 2000s began their careers in junk, a practice that delayed their breakthroughs until almost middle age. The few true phenoms of the era, drivers like Davey Allison and Jeff Gordon, were vastly outnumbered by those who waited their turn and bided their time.
It didn't last, of course. Gordon's early commercial and competitive successes sent teams and sponsors clamoring for others like him, ushering in a youth movement that altered the face of the sport. Suddenly, young drivers didn't have to wait anymore; in fact, teams and sponsors couldn't put them in vehicles fast enough. They found themselves in great cars very early in their Cup Series careers, opening the door for everyone from Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch to Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne. The average age of the starting grid plummeted. No young driver who was any good had to climb the ladder in less-than-competitive equipment, a dynamic that held sway over NASCAR's premier division -- until now.
No sport feels the wake of economic turbulence more than NASCAR, with its absolute dependence on sponsorship. Recent tough times have taken their toll, manifesting themselves in sponsors scaling back or departing altogether, and some teams contracting or shutting down as a result. Aftershocks are felt every time a contract expires, leading to more hand-wringing even in an economy that shows some early signs of recovery. No one gets jostled more than those drivers who find themselves without rides, and take whatever they can to get by, making it feel a little like the early 1980s all over again.
Now, the clock isn't being turned back permanently, to the point where drivers have to wait until they're 30 to break through. When teams can put packages together, they're often going to build them around the next up-and-comer, as Penske did with Brad Keselowski and Roush Fenway is trying to do with Trevor Bayne. But with seats at a premium, and in an environment where there are more drivers than there are sponsors, some are having to take a step back into something less competitive than they're accustomed to, and hope another opportunity opens up. To drivers like Martin, it feels very much like the sport coming full circle.
"It reminds me of the '80s when I was trying to get in," he said. "You can be a great driver and have to wait 10 years for your turn. So if you're 20 years old, if you're Ryan Truex, and you're 30 before you get to drive a super-duper hot rod -- is that back? Instead of strapping into one when you're 21? That's how it has been recently. When you're 21, you strap in. Back in the day, you had to wait 10 years before you got your turn, and you drove whatever you could when you could, and you won in it. That's the way it used to be. It's going to be a little bit more like that. That's an exaggeration, but it's going to be a little more like that than it was from 2000 to present. It's just going to be tough. You're going to have to wait your turn."
That much certainly seems evident in some of the driver transactions the sport witnessed during a busy offseason. When Kurt Busch split from Penske Racing, he landed not in another top-tier, fully-funded ride, but a Phoenix Racing car that promises to be a threat at restrictor-plate tracks but nowhere else. Aric Almirola's jump into the Sprint Cup tour comes in a Richard Petty Motorsports entry that has very limited sponsorship. David Ragan left Roush after his No. 6 was closed down and ended up at Front Row Motorsports, which is primarily bankrolled out of owner Bob Jenkins' pocket.
"I think the world we live in, these corporations are very conservative when it comes to making long-term commitments and spending millions of dollars," Ragan said. "So they're taking longer to make decisions, an they're spending less, and the owners have to work that into their decisions, because in order to go racing, you have to have financial backing. ... It's an unfair part of our sport, because there are a lot of great drivers out there that really don't get the opportunity, or young kids who are 17, 18 years old who need to be in a Nationwide car or truck, but they're not going to get the opportunity because their parents don't have the money, their aunts and uncles don't have the money. That's the world we live in, and we're all dealt the same cards, and we just have to do the best we can."
Still, Ragan is more fortunate than others. Busch's move to Phoenix's No. 51 car displaced Landon Cassill, who has yet to announce any plans for 2012. Cassill has an advocate in Martin, who tells the younger driver just to hold on and take what he can get. It's a situation not unlike another he recalls very well.
"I just keep telling him, man, you've got to wait your turn. You'll get your chance," said Martin, now racing a limited schedule for Michael Waltrip. "You used to have to wait forever and drive start-and-parks. Drive Roger Hamby's car, or D.K. Ulrich's car. Sterling, myself, how many people drove D.K.'s or Roger's cars and stuff like that? They may not be start-and-parks, but they definitely didn't race hard. They took the tires off of Junior Johnson's car and rolled them down on the next stop and put them on his car. It's just a leaner time," he added.
"But Landon Cassill, I hate it for Landon. Right now he's still searching for something. He's very deserving and very capable. When you're good, it will work out. But you have to wait. ... Landon's going to just have to hold on. He's very good. I'm working on his behalf every way I can. But he doesn't have sponsorship tied to his back, or he'd have a ride. Fortunately, that's where we're at right now in the sport. When something opens up, and it might open up this week, next week., next month, July -- there will be an opening come up, and he'll be in a position to take it, and he'll do well with it."
Ragan can relate. In his offseason job search, he heard a chorus of familiar questions -- can you bring in any money? Any sponsorship? Do you have any friends who work in corporate marketing? Do you have a next-door neighbor who is cousin to a CEO? "It's just a different world," Ragan said. And yet, to some this landscape looks quite familiar to a world they lived in three decades ago.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Mark Martin