ENGLISHTOWN, N.J. (May 12, 1999) The old saying goes that every great journey starts with a single step. For Century 21 Pontiac Firebird driver Tom Martino, that first step on the road to a successful drag racing career began in the ...
ENGLISHTOWN, N.J. (May 12, 1999) The old saying goes that every great journey starts with a single step. For Century 21 Pontiac Firebird driver Tom Martino, that first step on the road to a successful drag racing career began in the mid-1970's at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park. He returns to his old stomping grounds to do battle with the rest of the Pro Stock contingency at the 30th annual Mopar Parts Nationals on May 20- 23. It is the eighth race on the 22-event NHRA Winston Championship circuit. "My dad, Sonny Martino, was a drag racer, so I've been around race cars all my life," Martino said. "He always had a car in the garage and his buddies would come over and work on them. The garage was kind of a nighttime hangout. He had a paving and excavating business, so from a very young age I was always driving something. Whether it was bulldozers, dump trucks or what ever. I just kind of picked it up including an aptitude for things mechanical. "We always fixed everything that broke no matter what it was. Everything is relative, whether it's putting a piston in a bulldozer or a race engine. It's the same concept, and if you learn how to do it the right way from the get-go, it just requires a little more finesse when you're working with a race motor." At the age of 17, Martino got his first taste of drag racing by competing at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park. It was evident from his first attempts at the sport that he had the skills and finesse to be a championship driver. "When I turned 17, I started racing at Englishtown," Martino said. "I got 'proofed' because you have to be 18 to drive a racecar in New Jersey. I won the first five weeks in a row and to this day, I think it was my dad who had me proofed because he wanted to drive my car. I got picked out of a crowd for no reason whatsoever and didn't drive for the rest of the year. He hasn't told me otherwise yet, so you figure it out." From 1986 to 1995, Martino raced in the Competition eliminator category and was runner-up at the U.S. Nationals in 1992 and 1994. After establishing a reputation as an excellent driver with quick reaction times, he made the successful transition to Pro Stock in 1996 with runner-up finishes at Phoenix and Rockingham, ending his inaugural season in the pro ranks in eighth place. "From bracket racing at Englishtown, we moved up to Comp eliminator but I always wanted to race Pro Stock," Martino said. "I never thought it would be in my future, and I've just been one of those exceptionally lucky people that has had things fall into the right place at the right time. "A lot of people have helped me over the years, but I've made a lot of good racing decisions and moved up the ladder. The first year in Pro Stock, we had only planned to race maybe eight events, but after the first four races we were fourth in the points and decided to stick it out for the rest of the season. Basically, we raced off of the qualifying money in 1996." In 1997, Martino captured his first career-win at Houston and followed that with his second victory at the Pontiac Excitement Nationals in Columbus on his way to a breakout season in which he won the Slick 50 Performer of the Year award for most holeshot victories by a driver. He finished sixth in the Winston standings, his best year-to-date as a professional racer. Last season was a year of ups and downs for Martino's Pontiac Firebird Pro Stock team. After embarking on a new in-house engine program, he won at the Northstar Nationals in Brainerd, Minn., on his way to an eighth-place finish in the points standings. This year, on the eve of his return to the track where the journey started for him, Martino feels more confident of his car's ability than at any other time this season. At the Pennzoil Nationals in Richmond, Va., he ran a career-best elapsed time of 6.888 seconds and top speed at 199.73 mph. "At Richmond, we were able to make four runs where we made good 60-foot and 330-foot times," Martino said. "Up until then, we hadn't been able to do that all year. They weren't real pretty but at least I have a little confidence in what this Century 21 Firebird will do. "I feel that we have plenty of power to win any single race we go to. It's a matter of getting the car to where it needs to be. It seems that every race track we go to we learn something different. Now we can change the car to what we think our power will give us. It's easy to say that works now because we're running okay. Ask me in three or four races and I may have a different answer."
Summit Racing Pontiac Firebird driver Mark Pawuk has a lot to be smiling about these days. His racecar is starting to put up the performance numbers everyone expected from this team at the beginning of the season. At the Pennzoil Nationals in Richmond, Va., Pawuk rocketed to his first-ever 200 mph lap thereby reserving his place on the roster of the Speed-Pro 200 MPH Club. During the second qualifying session on Saturday, Pawuk's Firebird eclipsed the timing sensor's at 200.08 mph. He also ran his career-best elapsed time at 6.883 seconds. Pawuk was runner-up at Englishtown in 1990. "The left lane was really bad and when I saw Warren (Johnson) run 200-flat, I didn't think it was going to be possible for us to break 200," said Pawuk. "I knew there was a slight chance, but the car was moving around, shaking and spinning the tires. I decided to go for it, stayed in it and we were able to stick it in there. "I'm really proud of what this team has been able to accomplish this year, and the 200 mph run is just a small part of it. Now we have to convert that into some strong race-day performances. The guys on the team and back at the engine shop have done a tremendous job making our Firebird a faster racecar. The game plan going in to the last half of the season stays the same; work hard, win rounds, win races and try to think of a way to catch Warren Johnson. One of these days, everything's going to go our way and when it does, this Summit Racing Pontiac is going to win a race."
Another driver who's always a threat to win a race whether it's at Englishtown, or wherever anyone wants to pave a quarter-mile strip, is GM Goodwrench Service Plus Pontiac Firebird pilot Warren Johnson. The 55-year-old "Professor of Pro Stock" is a four-time NHRA national event winner at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park (1982, 1986, 1992-93) and was runner-up in 1996. "It's very simple," said Johnson, "I hate to lose at anything I'm working at, and because I derive my livelihood from this sport, I really have no choice but to be as successful as I possibly can. That aspect is from the business side of it. For this to be a successful business, the race team has to be successful and that includes the people that you have.
"In NASCAR, you always hear them talk about how important chemistry is. That's absolutely true in any form of motorsports. Everybody has to work together to the point where they don't even have to say anything while they're working. They know full well what their job is and everybody else has confidence that they're going to do their part of it so when they do their own part, it all blends together. That's the chemistry you're looking for."
Splitfire/Peak Pontiac driver Jim Yates returns to the site of one of his 20 career victories. The two-time Winston champion (1996-97) defeated Warren Johnson to win the 1996 race and was runner-up in 1995. He won the Pro Stock Challenge here in 1997. At the Pennzoil Nationals, Yates became a member of the Speed-Pro 200 MPH Club with a run of 200.11 mph. "There are a lot of things that we need to keep working on, but we're beginning to see some progress from a performance standpoint," said Yates. "The key will be to get the Splitfire/Peak Firebird to come around and qualify in the top-half of the field on a consistent basis. If we can get that to happen then we'll be in good shape, but it all has to work together." "We've now run 200 mph and that tells us that this DRCE engine has a lot of power up high. We're getting closer and closer to the right tune-up for it and it's just a matter of putting it all together."
Mike Thomas, the driver of the Pennzoil Pontiac Firebird, is still buzzing over the 200.35-mph lap he recorded at the Pennzoil Nationals in Richmond, Va. that earned him a spot in the prestigious Speed-Pro 200-mph Club. He is also buoyed by the continued success of his Finish Line Racing Engines, which have already helped seven different drivers' log 18 elimination-round wins and three runner-up appearances in 1999. "We are so close to a win I can taste it," Thomas said. "The car, the crew, the engine, everything is working perfectly. I'm so ready for a break-through race. We've made some more changes on the car and (crew chief) Rick (Hickman) believes we now have the capabilities for a national record run. The mark is at 6.840 seconds right now and we think we have a 6.82 or a 6.81 under the hood. "This team is ready to step into the role of title contender at every race. Everyone is so focused on getting the job done right. It's been a while since I've been able to concentrate solely on driving but we've reached that stage now. I know we have enough power to outrun everyone out there. It's time to prove it to the world."
The 30th annual Mopar Parts Nationals at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J., on May 20-23, is the eighth race on the 22-event Winston championship tour. Same-day television coverage of final eliminations can be seen on ESPN2 on Sunday, May 23, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. Qualifying highlights can be seen on ESPN2 on Sunday, May 23, beginning at 10:30 a.m. Eastern.