He was owner, driver, chief mechanic, engine builder and sponsor finder — all at the same time.
John Martin was the last of a breed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the 1970s and used his talent, guile and work ethic to make five Indianapolis 500s.
Martin, who passed away unexpectedly Wednesday at the age of 80, embodied the little guy at IMS and carved out a career despite never having much money or anything resembling a big crew.
He bought an old Brabham chassis from Sir Jack in 1971 and qualified for his initial Indianapolis race in 1972. At that time, USAC made each entry list a chief mechanic and even though Martin assembled the car, made all the chassis adjustments and constructed his own Offenhauser engine, he put Mike Mullins down as the chief. Mullins had never worked on an Indy car but was a bright kid that John took a liking to and they qualified 14th.
Because of his friendship with Peter Revson, Martin was able to purchase an M-16 McLaren in 1973 and after being caught up in the first-lap melee, he soldiered home to eighth place in the rain-shortened race.
In 1974, he scored a major sponsor for him (the Sea Snack Shrimp Cocktail) and finished 11th — again doing everything. The following May was his last as owner/driver and he qualified his old McLaren 16th.
Martin’s final start at Indy came in 1976, driving for Grant King.
Growing up on a farm around St. Louis, Martin became enamored with speed and began racing a Corvette in the early ’60s in the SCCA before landing a job with the AMC Trans-Am team in 1967. But he was hired as the chief mechanic for Peter Revson and George Follmer. At Mid-Ohio that summer, Follmer was running somewhere else on Saturday so John asked if he could qualify the car and, if he won the pole, could he keep the ride for Sunday’s race?
“The team owner rolled his eyes and said, ‘Sure John,” you go win the pole and the ride is yours,” recalled Martin. “Well I put it on the pole and Revson was second and when George got to the track on Sunday he found out I was driving his car. He wasn’t too pleased but I led until it broke.”
During the past decade Martin was a fixture at Bill Throckmorton’s shop, building Offy engines for Rick Duman’s restoration business, and also making appearances at the Vintage Indy Registry weekends at Gateway and IMS (pictured, top).
He loved coming to Charlie Brown’s every Friday for team lunch with his iPad so he could show the group a video of his latest Offy and turn up the volume to that sweet sound. Everyone marveled at what great shape John was in and he still had that desire to go to the shop every day.
He is survived by wife, Linda.
Watch Robin Miller’s video retrospective of John Martin, part of his “Tough Guys” series, below: