Fear was a familiar co-pilot during Mark Martin’s five class wins at the Rolex 24 At Daytona.
The NASCAR legend, who’s celebrating the 30th anniversary of his first trip to Victory Lane in a Roush Racing Mercury XR7 GTO entry, worried about all kinds of things an oval racing expert might get wrong in a road race spanning two long days in 1989.
“I was a little nervous and 500 miles was a long race to me, and this wound up being something like 2,500 miles, a 24-hour race,” he revealed. “So, it was quite…I did not wanna mess up.”
Assigned to the No. 11 Mercury with the crazy pairing of Wally Dallenbach Jr. and Dorsey Schroeder, Martin was not going to refuse the invitation by Jack Roush, his NASCAR team owner, as part of the factory Ford/Lincoln-Mercury program. Martin’s nerves, it turns out, were being worn by learning how to drive a high-powered IMSA GTO machine after years of mastering specialized stock car equipment.
Working the XR7’s manual transmission without killing it, in particular, was an early source of anxiety.
“You don’t wanna be that guy, you don’t wanna be the guy who gets invited and ends the party early,” he says. “So I get out there, fumbling, trying to heel-and-toe downshift this car, like they want done; well I had used a regular K10 transmission [in NASCAR] and never used the clutch. I just didn’t use the clutch for road racing, even without the straight-[cut]-gear transmission.
“So I’m raking gears, and am I doing it smooth, and I go to Jack and I say, ‘Jack, please let me shift this car the way I want to. I promise I won’t tear it up.’ That was pretty cool; we look back on that Jack and I, really fondly, because he scrutinized that pretty hard. He didn’t want to introduce a different style of shifting to his car because he was serious about winning the race, but he let me do it.”
Martin’s initial foray into NASCAR ended in failure. When Roush and Ford expressed interest in his services, it’s safe to say Martin did his best to please his new boss who, in his estimation, wasn’t overly fond of the Arkansas native.
“I was already very scared of Jack and it was quite obvious that Jack didn’t particularly like me, so there was no surprise that he lined [me] up with those guys,” he said. “And it was fun, Wally wound up being a teammate of mine in NASCAR and Dorsey, what can you say about Dorsey? Just we had good times. Yeah, Jack and I really didn’t, we didn’t really get warm and fuzzy for a long, long time. It took years and years and years for I think Jack to get comfortable with me and for me to get comfortable with him as well, because I was scared of him.
“He was real serious and he held my career in his hands. Like without Jack Roush, I don’t know if I would have made it in NASCAR. I knew when I signed up with Jack that he held my future in his hands and he could make me or break me. I did whatever he told me to do, whenever he told me to do it, and I did it to my best ability, and it took years and years for him and I to really develop what we would consider a warm relationship; we’re sort of like blood brothers now.”
The Roush Mercurys were the class of the 1989 GTO field. The sister No. 16, featuring Bob Earl, Pete Halsmer, and Paul Stewart, formed a solid 1-2 punch for the team, and despite its strong chances to claim victory, Roush wasn’t going to let Martin slide in high-pressure situations.
“Well, it rained,” he said. “I’d never been on the wet before. Jack grabbed me and he said, ‘You’re going in.’ I said, ‘No, no. I’ve never driven in the rain, no.” He said, ‘Yeah, no. You’re going in. Right now.’ And so, fired me right out there and that is like baptism by fire. And it was the most fun I’ve had in the race car in my life.
“I had so much fun after I figured out that I could do it and not wreck. So we had fun there and I also learned that he wanted me to drive all night, and so we wound up racing, that’s what he wound up using me for the first year was a lot of night driving. And I’m a morning person, I got to bed at 10 o’clock every night. So yeah, after the 24 hours, I felt like crud for three weeks.”
The final hours of Martin’s first Rolex 24 win read like high drama. His No. 11 XR7 had the race covered, but suffered a transmission problem that dropped it from contention. The No. 16 Mercury also faltered, and between the repairs going on in the Roush garage, serious rivals in Chevys and Mazdas took the GTO lead until they found problems of their own. Martin was eventually moved to the No. 16 XR7 which, despite its issues, was able to rejoin and give its new guest from NASCAR a chance to log miles next to its original driving trio.
“I did what I was told,” Martin concedes. “Kept my mouth shut as much as I could, that was a gift by Jack. I’m sure Jack made that call to do that and I’m sure that he viewed it as something as a feather in the NASCAR cap to have me a part of that winning team, and I’m assuming that if there was no other strategy, but something of a gift. I wasn’t used to that anyway, so I was a little bit embarrassed of it, so I just kept my mouth shut, took the picture, and went on. I don’t know if they gave out [Rolex] watches back then or not, but if they did, I didn’t get one, so.”
Martin would keep receiving invites from Roush, and while his wrists were bare at the conclusions, four more Rolex 24 GTO wins followed, including the 1995 event, which served as Paul Newman’s triumphant victory in a Roush Mustang they shared with Tommy Kendall and Mike Brockman.
Enjoy the full conversation with Mark Martin below where he describes the honor of racing with Newman, the heated rivalry he and Kendall carried into the 1995 event and, in another story that draws back to Kendall, he proclaimed “I associate the 24 hours of Daytona with pain. Never, never again. I don’t associate it with enjoyment whatsoever.”