MARK MARTIN WINS AT ROCKINGHAM TO GIVE ROUSH RACING ITS FIRST NASCAR VICTORY
It may have seemed like a long time coming, but when Mark Martin won the 1989 AC Delco 500 at North Carolina Motor Speedway on October 22, it was the culmination of a goal that actually started only a few months earlier in an empty furniture warehouse in Liberty, NC, with no more than 10 employees working for an upstart operation known then as Roush Racing.
“I think we had run second six times or something and it went on all of ’89. Every single time we got to the race track on Friday the media would come up to me and ask, ‘When are you gonna win?’ I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know. Hopefully, soon,’” recalled Martin. “For me, because it had been such a struggle in my career, everything else had come so quickly and so easily, and that had been such a long struggle that I really felt like my life was fulfilled, my career goal was fulfilled. It just felt like anything after that was just icing on the cake.”
Martin ended up beating Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip to the finish line that day by 2.98 seconds, leading the final 77 laps in his No. 6 Stroh’s Light Thunderbird.
“I remember standing on top of the spotter’s stand with Steve (Hmiel) and Robin (Pemberton) and we were so happy that we won that race. We had two years of sponsorship from Stroh’s and I was in the process of looking for a new sponsor,” said car owner Jack Roush. “We had Folger’s that we were talking to and the fact that we won that race allowed us to secure that sponsorship, which meant the money that I had to build the team and to buy the shop and all the parts that we needed was going to be supplemented going forward with sponsor money enough to keep it going.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Roush has gone on to win multiple NASCAR championships, but getting to that point required a great deal of research and homework. Instead of just diving in with both feet, Roush did his due diligence and spoke to a number of people before pulling the trigger.
“First of all, I had success with my drag racing but when I started road racing I turned my back on all my drag racers and I found two road racers that had experience. That allowed me to have a jumping off point that was not a beginner’s level, but at a level that was currently going on in the sport at that time,” reasoned Roush. “When I got ready to go NASCAR racing I wanted to do the same thing. I didn’t want to take my drag racers. I didn’t want to take my road racers. I wanted to immerse myself in the sport, accept the culture, find somebody that I could learn from, that I could mentor with, and that would mentor with me and help me be successful.
“So I started my conversation with Bobby Allison. I thought that Bobby Allison was a stand-up guy and he would be my first choice. He was with the Stavola Brothers and he was far enough along in his career that he was thinking about his last 10 years,” continued Roush. “He didn’t want to think about a new owner and put together a program that would take five years to reach prime time. He wanted to keep where he was going, so he recommended that I go talk to Mark Martin and recommended that I talk to Steve Hmiel and Robin Pemberton.”
That’s eventually what Roush did, although he also talked with drivers like Rusty Wallace, Benny Parsons, and Ken Schrader to gauge their interest on driving for him.
“It kept coming back that everyone was well enough situated that they were not inclined to take a chance on a rookie owner that had been a drag racer of all things and been a road racer of not much more standing with some success,” said Roush. “Why would they want to take a chance on somebody from the outside when they were having success that was more predictable with people that were already in the sport?”
So that led Roush to call the trio of Martin, Hmiel and Pemberton, who were all looking for something new to jumpstart their careers at NASCAR’s highest level.
They met at a Holiday Inn near the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, NC, and even though Roush had scheduled individual interviews an hour apart, all three of them arrived together.
“They had all put their heads together and decided they were going to make an appeal to me, so I went in at nine o’clock and all of them were there at the same time. They made a compelling case to me that one of them would be a crew chief, one of them would be a general manager and one of them would be a driver. And I listened to all of that,” said Roush. “We talked for more than two hours and I walked away from that sure that I had found the people that I wanted to be involved with and it was going to work.
“As I was getting back on the airplane I was thinking about our conversation and it dawned on me that nobody ever asked me how much they could be paid for this or what their personal gain would be,” said Roush. “All of the conversation was, ‘How much testing are we gonna do? How many cars are we gonna build? What do you think about the engines you’re building? How many tires are you gonna buy me?’ Given the fact that they were more interested in doing this thing as a group, and being successful with me as a provider, I said it can’t be wrong. So I had conversation days later with all three of them about what they would get paid and what would be enough to satisfy their starting requirements and how we would manage what the remunerations were as time went on.”
The newly-formed Roush Racing team debuted at Daytona and struggled to a 41st-place finish as an overheating issue sent Martin to the garage after only 19 laps. Things got much better from that point on as Martin posted his first top-10 finish with a sixth-place run at Darlington in the fifth race of the season and ended up second the following week at Bristol. Overall, the team registered three top-five and 10 top-10 performances with its lone pole coming at Dover late in the season.
“I think we were a little disappointed in the performance. I think all of us expected a little bit more than that the first year, but that first year we ran rear-steer cars and we ran setups that probably weren’t giving us the best performance,” analyzed Martin. “It was toward the end of the year before we started getting away from that and started to get a lot better. We went into the next year like a ball of fire and were really, really strong. We were testing everywhere and developing our own setups with front-steer cars. We were on the map big-time, but that first year really took longer than we had hoped to get our feet under us.”
The second year started out in similar fashion as an accident midway through the Daytona 500 left the team with a 33rd-place finish. Most impressive, however, was the way the team qualified as Martin started fifth or better in each of the first 15 races. Winning, however, remained elusive.
“We were qualifying maniacs and sat on six poles the first half of the season, and that led to Darrell Waltrip saying, ‘They can make them fast, but they can’t make them last.’ That was his quote about the young Roush Racing team,” remembered Pemberton. “We took exception to that and after running the first half of that year with one type of chassis, we changed all of our chassis out with new suspensions and improved our finishes by an average of about five. That’s when we started winning races and contending, so we had different milestones in there from our own standpoint, things that only a few of us would ever remember or recall, but gains that we had made along the year.”
All of those gains eventually led to Rockingham, where Martin qualified seventh in the 40-car field and then set sail toward the first of his 35 wins behind the wheel of a Ford – third-most on the all-time list behind Ned Jarrett (43) and Bill Elliott (40). Roush Racing eventually became Roush Fenway Racing and has amassed 125 all-time victories and two driver championships in what is now known as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.