ENGLISHTOWN, N.J. (May 15, 2000) - Tom Martino heads for familiar territory this weekend at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park and the 31st annual Matco Tools Spring Supernationals. Growing up just a few miles from this facility, it would be accurate to say that this is where the Century 21 Pontiac Firebird driver cut his drag racing teeth, and last year at this event, Martino used his knowledge of the racetrack to score a runner-up finish to Richie Stevens.
The Matco Tools Spring Supernationals on May 18 -21 is the eighth race on the 23-event NHRA Winston championship tour. Qualifying highlights can be seen on ESPN2 on Saturday, May 20, beginning at 7 p.m. Eastern. Same-day coverage of final eliminations can be seen on Sunday, May 21, starting at 9:30 p.m. Eastern. Heading into Englishtown, how is your program faring this year?
"I'm somewhat happy with the season so far. I'm very happy with the potential the Century 21 Firebird has of running strong. Whenever we make a halfway decent run, we run with the top two or three cars of the session. I'm very disappointed with our consistency. I'm not making any excuses because I'm the clutch guy and our biggest problem has been the clutch. We think the last couple of races we nailed down that we had coating that was just worn out. We borrowed a clutch for the last race and it made all the difference in the world. Up until now, I've had mixed emotions. I'm happy with how we can run but a little disappointed in how we've been running. I thought we would be one of the top three cars by the end of the year, and the way we've run I'm hoping to be one of the top five cars."
But it's a big improvement compared to last year.
"Last year at this time we were totally confused. I didn't know which direction to go in to fix the problem. The only thing we were doing good last year was making good horsepower. We were making horrible runs, horrible raceday decisions, horrible track decisions and every time we turned around we were doing something wrong. We just fought that car and I did a poor job with it."
How has the addition of Bob Cave helped?
"It has to be the best money I've spent in a long while. Bob Cave takes a lot of the preparation responsibilities away from me. Tommy Kling works his tail off on the engines, and he also runs Jesel Valvetrain, but it's very hard for Tommy to handle day-to-day racecar stuff. What little time he has left is devoted to Jesel. Bob has now taken over racecar preparation both at the shop and at the racetrack, and all the miscellaneous stuff. We wear things out, but we no longer break parts because of too many runs - he keeps track of that stuff. He's a more than capable mechanic so he does more than just keep the facts straight. He can make the decision to change something, make the change and not even have to bother me with it. He can handle anything on the car that I can do. He's here right now changing manifolds on the motor on the dyno. He's a very capable engine mechanic so I got a bonus out of it. Now Tommy (Kling) can concentrate on other things while Bob and I can work on something else. We get 150 percent more work done per week in the engine shop. I'm having dinner more often at the house this year than in all of last year. Plus when I go testing now, Tommy could never go with me because of his commitment to Jesel -- everything was on my shoulders. Now we have a full crew. Now we learn what we should learn because everyone is doing the job that they should be doing and not three other jobs."
Do you feel that you may have let a couple of opportunities get away from you this year?
"There were two races. Gainesville, even though I lost in the first round, I lost in a dead heat to Richie Stevens. The way the ladder shook out I would have been the fastest car all day. Then we go to Atlanta, struggle a little in qualifying with setup, and then on Saturday we got it right and really ran well. We ran good in the first two rounds of eliminations. I don't know if I would have won because Jegs has been awful tough in the finals. They do an excellent job over there. But I should have beaten Bruce (Allen) - that was just driver error. We both did as good a job as possible driving our cars from point A to B, but he did a better job on the tree than I did. I wasn't a happy camper on Sunday afternoon in Atlanta. I felt like I let my best shot of the year slip away."
And now you're coming into Englishtown where you had a good race last year. "Yes, and unless they did something weird to that track we should be fast again. We have a familiarity with the facility that no matter how the track conditions may change, we've raced on it. We can go up to the starting line, take a look and say 'remember when we were here last July and it did this?' We can go back to our notes and bam, we have a pretty close setup. I feel very confident going into Englishtown. I'd be very unhappy if we're not in the top five qualifying and we're not around in the late rounds of eliminations. A big error on my part, or something has to break to keep us out of the final there."
With it being your home racetrack, do you have a certain comfort zone when you're racing there?
"I hate to say yes because on two occasions I didn't qualify, but both times were due to parts breakage. One time I broke a line lock and the car rolled the beams during a one-session qualifying deal. Another time I broke a transmission, but yes there is a comfort zone. When we go out there, very seldom will we make an ugly run unless we're trying something new. We know that racetrack very well. We can go there in the middle of the summer when the track is 120 degrees and we can go right down the middle. So yeah, there's a comfort zone, but I'm not so sure that the added pressure of friends and family watching and being there doesn't cancel it out. I like to think that the pressure doesn't bother me, but at Englishtown I feel it more than any other place. I've been in a final at Indy two times, and it doesn't seem that it was as pressure filled as racing at Englishtown."
How did you get your start in racing?
"I've been around racing and automobiles my entire life. My dad (Sonny Martino) raced as a hobby, and he and a couple of his buddies raced. We were lucky enough that we had a large detached garage off of our house and that was where he and his buddies kept their cars -- that was the 'hangout.' After dinner if I was allowed to go outside I'd go out in the garage, and when you're seven or eight years old it's easy to develop a strong interest in certain things - especially cars and racing. I'd hear my dad and his buddies talk and you know, bench racing is still the most fun thing. I'd listen to them bench race and I couldn't think of anything that could possibly be more fun. My dad was involved in a Top Fuel car and back then they ran on a regular basis on Sundays at Englishtown. It was a weekly eliminator with five or six cars showing up each week. But the car he personally owned was a D-Gas 55 Chevy. He had the national record in D-Gas -- I want to say it was a mid-12-second time, and considering my street driven GTO ran in the 10s, I like to kid him about it."
The schedule picks up in the next couple of months. Are you ready?
"We're not looking forward to it because it's so hard to try and develop more horsepower and learn things at the shop when you're racing three out of the next four weeks. I'm looking forward to this time of the year because it does seem for whatever reason that we run better. We never could put our finger on exactly why, some years we think it's our engine combinations. We always think the guys who make the most raw horsepower fall off the least in the bad air. That's why Warren (Johnson) never seems to struggle when it gets hot - it's like he even shines more. The summer is always the better part of our year. Even last year that was the case."
In the long run, where do you see your career headed?
"I want to be one of the three or four guys that is fighting it out for the Winston championship every year. My goal is to win the championship, and I'd be very disappointed if I retire without achieving that goal. I'd be even more disappointed if I'm not fighting it out with a couple of guys four or five years in a row coming down to the last three or four races. I would also like to see it that Pro Stock becomes a viable way to make a living for racers. I'm very fortunate that I have companies like Century 21, Jesel and Pontiac that enable me to do this and be able to put dinner on the table. But there are other guys that work just as hard as I do that aren't as fortunate to have adequate sponsorship. If we all shine just a little more, then maybe we could get more corporate sponsorship involved and have a little more leverage with NHRA to get them to give us more money for being at the races. Even if you're not one of the top four cars you should be able to make a living in Pro Stock as a full-time job. You're not going beat the Jeg Coughlins, the Warren Johnsons, the Jim Yates, the Martinos, Reher-Morrison unless you are doing it as a full-time job."
How frustrating is it trying to get Pro Stock equal time with the Fuel classes?
"That frustrates me more than not being able to make enough horsepower to be dominant. We can work on a horsepower problem, and we'll see gains or no gains by how much effort we put into it. No matter how hard we try, no matter how good of a show we put on, no matter how professional we try to conduct ourselves, it's still how they (NHRA) look at us. Just look at the television package. It's absolutely horrible. They showed a little glimpse of Jeg beating Bruce (Allen) in the final. Here's Jeg and Bruce, after beating 38 Pro Stock Cars they get to the final - who cares who lost the first round of Funny Car? Jeg just won his sixth race, Bruce Allen is in his first final round in a couple of years, looking for additional sponsorship in addition to what they get from GM and Reher-Morrison Racing Engines. How hard is it to throw those guys a little extra play? I didn't want Bruce to be in the final, I wanted to be in the final. But they could use a little push to put in their package to take to the sponsors. We've been accepted into the PRO racers association thanks to Mark Pawuk and Jim Yates, who've done a lot of behind the scenes work and now PRO has doubled their membership. I'm in this for the long run. I'm hoping that in two or three years down the road you'll be talking to someone who feels good about being able to make a living at this just by fielding a competitive Pro Stock Car, not just a winning car. You have to be able to do that. If you can run in the middle of the pack, that means you're making a big enough investment that you should be able to see enough of a return where you can make an honest living at this."