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Tommy Joe Martins Reflects On The End of Martins Motorsports

(PC: Daylon Barr Photography // DBP)

When Tommy Joe Martins fires up the No. 44 Camaro in Phoenix on Saturday, it’ll mark the end of an era for the 34-year-old driver from Como, Mississippi.

His family’s name will no longer bear the operation he drives for as the “Martins Motorsports” name will be retired following Phoenix. Instead, the operation will face a reimagining featuring a new name in Alpha Prime Racing (APR) plus a slew of new drivers to take the wheel of car No. 44. Martins will also retire from full-time competition, scaling back to a part-time driving effort and focusing on the business side of APR.

It’s a change that Martins has toyed with, but also one he is content with. Of course, no driver wants to vacate their seat, especially at a family-owned operation. But Martins views this as the best way to bring forth better performance to what has been a significant investment of time and money in an operation bearing his last name. For the past two seasons, Martins’ father Craig and business partner Rodney Riessen have made a significant investment in the Xfinity Series operation. Driver No. 44 believes now is the time for the team to stand on its own two feet. Of course, Martins’ parents and Riesseen will remain involved in NASCAR, but now as a full-fledged fan.

“They’ve forever been a safety net for our racing, and I’m very blessed to have had that, and I’m blessed that to have had the opportunity to put this together,” Martins said. “And I feel like we’ve finally been successful at it, so maybe I wasn’t crazy, but at the same time, I don’t want my dad and my family involved In this from a financial standpoint. It has been way too much.”

It’s no secret that funding a NASCAR operation is an expensive endeavor, whether the back of the pack or front of the field. From a  financial standpoint, a great majority of the money brought to Martins Motorsports goes directly to the team, with the driver receiving minimal payout, according to Martins. Before moving to North Carolina to fully engage in the Martins Motorsports idea, Martins worked at the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School in Las Vegas. Sure, Martins brought his funding with sponsors like Diamond Gusset Jeans during his time with other teams in Xfinity and the Camping World Truck Series, but the money went straight into the team’s pocket to fund the weekend. 2020 marked the first season that Martins was being paid within a “racing” related job, as the General Manager of Martins Motorsports, but still not as the driver.

With the addition of Caesar Bacarella and Alpha Prime, Martins Motorsports is about to undergo a significant change. No longer will it be a single driver in the seat, but multiple drivers with more funding being pumped into what will become APR. The team will have a wide range of talent and backing in the No. 44 car. From young talent in ARCA Menards Series driver Rajah Caruth to a road course veteran in Andy Lally, Martins is serious about taking the organization to the next level and solidifying the entry into the top 20 in owners’ points.

#44: Tommy Joe Martins, Martins Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro Alpha Prime

It takes serious self-reflection to understand the personal potential in a specific role. So Martins looked at Sam Hunt and Hunt’s road before starting his operation in Xfinity. It led Martins to learn more about what it would take to make a career out of NASCAR from a behind-the-scenes perspective and not in the driver’s seat.

The now 34-year-old driver also realizes that age is not on his side. He sees younger talent on the way up the NASCAR ranks like Noah Gragson and Rajah Caruth and understands that some opportunities in the sport are influenced by age. If a team needs a driver for the Cup Series, Martins’ phone likely won’t ring, and that is a belief he can accept.

“From a general manager point of view, I wouldn’t call me,” Martins said with a  chuckle. “So it’s really about me creating a situation that is good for my sponsors, the good of the team, and I can go out and race and have fun and do it in a position where it won’t be as much as a burden to try and come up with the amount of funding to do it.”

#44: Tommy Joe Martins, Martins Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro AAN Adjusters

The rotating driver lineup will solve that problem. From a fan perspective, the “pay-to-play” driver is often seen in a negative light. It’s a connotation that Martins never understood why it looks almost like a black eye on a team. But it’s pretty simple – bills need to be paid. If a driver brings funding, the problem of finding a driver and financing in two separate endeavors suddenly fades. Martins has chased the NASCAR dream both in the driver’s seat and in a leadership role for over a decade and claims he would happily sit down with anyone who needs to hear it from personal experience. The Martins Motorsports dream failed twice, and with the team’s direction for next season, it looks as if the third time is indeed the charm.

Gilreath Farms and AAN Adjusters have been significant partners for Martins of the last two seasons. Without the backing of those sponsors being practically prepaid before the 2020 season while Martins was figuring out his plans, Martins Motorsports would not have come to fruition for a go in NASCAR’s second series. Still, it wasn’t going to be the same as years past.

As Martins explained, “The series was really different. You had a lot of teams that were running scuff tires; it was kind of the wild west in the back part of the field. Basically, everybody agreed that there was a certain level of competition that we would all get to because it kind of helped everybody save a little bit of money. Now the middle part of the field has gotten so much deeper and is spending so much more money; it has basically driven the cost up.”

It wasn’t long ago that Martins was getting calls about driving for teams such as BJ McLeod Motorsports and MBM, where Martins only had to cover the tire bill of roughly $6,000. The money that was being asked by other teams for Martins to run is what drove the Mississippi driver to relaunch Martins Motorsports. He thought he could do it better and with no discredit to the operations of the previously stated. Martins knows that every team has different goals and processes to achieve what is being fought for.

Looking back on it now, Martins believes that had funding not been found to kickstart Martins Motorsports, his current place in the sport, among fans and on the track, would be far from reality.

“I would have been a part-time driver for a backmarker team, honestly,” Martins explained. “With the amount of funding we had, it wouldn’t have been a full season. Maybe I would have been with Jimmy Means or Harmon. We would have gone down a very different path. I might have even been in the Truck Series. My path would have probably shifted quite a bit there.”

Interestingly, Martins admitted that had the question regarding his alternative reality been asked last year, shutting down the Martins Motorsports operation for the third time would have been a genuine possibility.

By the middle of the 2020 Xfinity Series season, Martins Motorsports was trapped in the mid-30s in the owner standings, far from the goal Martins had once believed was achievable. After failing to qualify at Daytona, an engine failure at Las Vegas, and five DNFs in 15 starts, the second resurrection of Martins Motorsports was being nailed back into the coffin. Finally, after scoring six top 20 finishes in seven races, Martins made it to the season finale at Phoenix before an engine failure knocked the No. 44 car out of the race. Nevertheless, Martins almost scored his goal of top 20 in both driver and owner standings.

“Realistically, when I look at my team with the way it’s currently constructed, we ought to be a 25th place team,” Martins explained. “From a budget standpoint, the people that way have – and no discredit to them, we just don’t have a lot of them. The fact that I’m getting frustrated about finishing outside the top 20… what the hell do I have to be frustrated about?”

Leading to this point, it was undoubtedly a frustrating road to today. The hardships, as mentioned earlier of the Martins Motorsports moniker, from shutting down to bad performances in both Xfinity and Trucks, bring a heavyweight on the 34-year-old’s mind.  Yet, for some reason, Martins kept pushing and believing In his ability to make it happen and to make it successful. The devotion for success is paying off on the heels of the most significant change to his professional career.

“Nobody believed in Martins Motorsports,” Martins said. “I think other competitors looked at us as a small team, not spending a lot of money, and that they could beat us. I know in 2014, when we showed up, everyone thought we sucked, and we did. Teams thought we would go away, and we did.”

When the chance came in 2020 to re-ignite the name and team, Martins sat at a crossroads. Stick to what has worked in a partial schedule while Martins works at the Driving School, or go one more time to put the shine back on the Martins Motorsports name that was tarnished across the minds of other teams and drivers? The decision was made.

“You know what, let’s do it,” Martins said with a smile. “This is it; this is the end – there are no more after this.”

In the collective 12 year journey,  I asked Martins what the most memorable moment was in the series under his namesake’s banner. To my surprise, it wasn’t the team’s top 10 finish in Texas that was a shining moment in 2020.

“I didn’t enjoy that when it happened,” Martins said with a stern look. “I was pissed we didn’t finish eighth. We had a better car, turns our the motor ended up blowing up 30 laps in the race at Phoenix; I basically finished that race with a motor that was blown up. I can’t really say I enjoyed that top 10 in Texas. ”

The most rewarding moment is one that Martins says went “completely unnoticed by everybody,” the only one he had to navigate through his turmoil. As he explained the moment, Martins walked an emotional line.

The 2020 season did not go off as planned for the team. With a season already significantly funded, the aforementioned DNQ at Daytona dealt an ugly hand to Martins and the newly resurrected team.  The team went down with no points, and Martins understood the possibility of not making one of the biggest and most-watched races of the season.

After an engine failure at Las Vegas, Martins began to deal with the personal demons of years past that seemed to plague the Martins family – another potential closing. Heading into Phoenix, the No. 44 sat 34th in the owner standings and was on the verge of potentially not qualifying for Phoenix.

The lousy start weighed heavily on Martins, who laid in bed the night before qualifying in Arizona, and a stark realization was met.

“If I screw this up, we are out of business. If I miss this race, we’re probably done.”

Martins based his entire season budget on staying in the top 30 in the owner points, which pays a bonus to those cars in it. Martins was stuck in 34th tied with DGM Racing and found himself potentially not making the field in Phoenix. However, thanks to Cup drivers participating in the early season races as per tradition, more cars were in the field to keep holding the door closed that Martins needed to breakthrough. The shot was there, but it was almost a hail mary effort for Martins.

He got into the car with a straightforward mission – run one good, clean lap at a track he felt confident at.

With the fate of his career, the team, and their employment on their shoulders, Martins laid a lap down that was what he called a “bloop single,” but it was still a hit.

“I remember hugging my dad after that, the sigh of relief from inside the car, you could probably hear from outside the car,” Martins said.

The 28th place finish put Martins 33rd in the standings, following Phoenix, standing alone just a week before the entire sport would be paused thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. But, with a season practically prepaid, Martins Motorsports still had a pulse.

Many drivers wouldn’t look at a 28th place qualifying effort as a career-defining moment, but Martins was not going to let the doors close again on what has been a dream to him and his family. Instead, Martins would rebound, albeit with the monkey still on their back at times, to an impressive 20th place finish in the driver standings and just shy of their owner standings goal.

He doesn’t have a trophy case to point to or any standout consistent finishes – but he lets the standings do the talking.

“We are basically ahead of anybody that ever doubted our ability,” said Martins. “The only car that I am not ahead of that I wish I was right now is the No. 92 of Josh Williams. He’s a good friend of mine, an awesome driver – but also me blowing a tire at Charlotte probably didn’t help my chances. We are beating everybody that is in our price range, maybe even a little higher. I think there is a point of pride in that – it’s not anything more than just like a motivation and belief in yourself and wanting to prove to yourself that you weren’t crazy. I wasn’t back in 2014 when I had this idea that we could Martins Motorsports and make a living in the Xfinity Series.”

Martins Motorsports was never meant to re-write the history books. Instead, the humble driver wanted to show that he could do it when others doubted his ability to bring the family name back to the track.

The  No. 44 AAN Adjusters Camaro for Phoenix will feature a few subtle additions to the car,  like the names of Martins’ parents taking over the name rails of his entry. With the addition of a special 116th start decal, the TV Panel will feature a thank you message to Ken Gilreath, who helped bring Martins Motorsports back to fruition through his business ventures in AAN Adjusters and Gilreath Farms.

In the final time under the Martins Motorsports name, a top 20 points finish is in reach. With business remaining to be taken care of, Martins is prepared to drive his heart out to ensure the team name finally gets the long-dreamed goal of solidifying itself in the top half of what is already an incredible competitive Xfinity Series field.

“The history of Martins Motorsports is marred by failure. It’s hard to look at what we’ve done over the past two years and say that we failed. I feel like we’ve succeeded and proved that we can be competitive and be one of those good teams.”

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