Tom Martino Denver Preview

TOM MARTINO Six Flags Pontiac Firebird DENVER (July 9, 1998)-Tom Martino heads into the Mile-High Nationals looking for his first win of the year at a pivotal point in a season that has produced its share of ups and downs for the 40-year-old New...

TOM MARTINO Six Flags Pontiac Firebird

DENVER (July 9, 1998)-Tom Martino heads into the Mile-High Nationals looking for his first win of the year at a pivotal point in a season that has produced its share of ups and downs for the 40-year-old New Jersey native. As driver of the Six Flags Pontiac Firebird Pro Stock car, Martino is halfway into his third campaign as a competitor on the 22-event NHRA Pro Stock tour, eighth in the Winston point's standings and confident of his chances of making a move into the elite top five of the class.

>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-an auspicious beginning to what Martino hopes will be a long and prosperous career.

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.

This season, Martino continues his torrid pursuit of a Winston title. Runner-up at the Pennzoil Nationals in Richmond after qualifying 16th, he set a career-best elapsed time of 6.944 seconds and a career-best top speed of 198.54 mph at the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla. Although Martino struggled with the setup of a new car through much of the first half of the year, he is confident that those problems are behind him as he enters the first leg of the grueling three-race Western swing and the second half of the 1998 race season.

The Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway on July 16-19 is the 12th race on the 22-event NHRA Winston championship tour. Same-day television coverage of final eliminations can be seen on Sunday, July 19, on ESPN2 beginning at 6 p.m. Eastern. Qualifying highlights can be seen on ESPN2 on Saturday, July 18, at 9 p.m. Eastern. Last year, Martino qualified 11th for the Mile-High Nationals but lost in round two to Kurt Johnson. --------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------- We are now past the halfway point of the 1998 schedule. What grade would you give your program at this juncture of the season?

I would give our at-the-race program a C-plus and our home, at-the-shop program a B-plus. We've been focusing so hard on trying to make enough power to run with everyone else in the class that we sort of lost track of what we do best, and that's race the car. The last two years we've raced Pro Stock, our best quality was being able to adapt to the track and do well on race day. This year, it's not that we got any dumber, but two things have happened. One, the competition, and we don't know how, seems to have gotten tougher and tougher, and everyone has been getting better at adapting to the race track. Second, we found ourselves caught up in finding horsepower only and not thinking about getting the car from point A to point B. That's every bit as important as horsepower. We haven't gone to a second round and made a good run all year. We've won a second round here and there, but as a general rule, it's not because we did a good job at it. We're going to start going back to our old routine like checking the track regularly, thinking about race day and not worrying about finding two or three more horsepower.

Has there been any specific areas you've struggled with?

The car hasn't responded well to some of the adjustments we've tried to make this year. We made some changes and brought in a local chassis guy, Bob Jenkins. He's been a friend for a long time, and he always does some of the little repairs on the car. He's a real craftsman. He came over to the house and we told him what the car had been doing. Unless something is physically broken, all you can do is envision what is going on. We started implementing a series of small changes in the back of the car, stiffening up some areas and changing the geometry in other parts, and now if it makes a bad run, we know why. Before, we would come back, and whether the run was good or bad, we wouldn't know why. Now, if it makes a good run, we can pat ourselves on the back a little. If it makes a bad run, we usually can figure out what it liked and what it didn't like. It's shown in the last three races where we've qualified in the top half. We haven't found any more power, we're just using it more correctly.

What has worked?

Right before Englishtown we found a little chunk of power, and when you're gear heads like we are, something like that gives you even more hope that you can step a little closer to Warren Johnson, or Jim Yates, or the Jegs group. We went to Englishtown and unfortunately had a line lock break and didn't qualify. But on Saturday, our Six Flags Thrill Machine was the third-fastest car. We went to Chicago and qualified No. 6 and could have easily been No. 2. No.'s 3 through 6 ran so close together that it could have gone either way. From a positive standpoint, I feel that if we do find more power and put it in the car, it's going to show up as long as we use it properly. Now we're more focused on getting our Pontiac Firebird down the track more consistently, instead of just blaming the car and trying to find more power. We qualified the first half of the year mainly because we got lucky and had enough power to run down the back half of the track. Our forte was being in the top three or four at the 60-foot and then we would fall off. We qualified at a lot of races this year where we were never above No. 10 at 60 feet. Two races for sure we were lucky to get qualified. At Phoenix, we were absolutely lucky. We should have been No. 20 if not No. 17, and it was just one of those times where we got away with one. At Virginia, we showed on race day that we were faster than No. 16, but we were super lucky to get in. We were blundering idiots on Friday night, and it was one of those deals where we had enough power to sneak in. We came back on Saturday and ran in the top half during both Saturday qualifying runs, and then ran good on Sunday. When you have a pronounced Friday night session like we did at Richmond, and make a horrible run like we did, you're awful thankful to be racing on Sunday. We had resigned ourselves to the fact that we were done and actually, it was easier sleeping on Friday night because we had faced up to that reality. We just made one of those Tom Martino last ditch how-did-you-do-that runs to get in. Then on Sunday, we ran strong enough to get to the finals, but Warren was just too tough. I told Robin (Martino) this morning that I just want to survive Denver. We don't have a good Denver tune-up and we've hurt the motor there the last two years. We're going there with a mild setup and our spare motor. After we qualify, we'll put T-Rex in for race day.

What do you do to prepare for the Western swing?

There's no doubt in my mind that we can go out and be fast enough to win two of these three races. I don't know if you can prepare enough for it, so we've been working diligently to have four motors ready for that swing. Not only do we race Denver, Sonoma and Seattle, but we also run at Woodburn the week before Seattle. We've been lucky the last two days on the dyno, and T-Rex and Spike-Tail are within a horsepower of each other, so we feel extremely confident going in. The last two years we had just one motor and we hurt it both times. This year, God forbid we break something, but if we do, we'll be prepared. Even though Spike-Tail has more power on the dyno, T-Rex is one of those motors that goes down the race track really well. I feel confident that we have two quality motors to qualify in the top half of the field, plus we have an additional spare that has qualified us at two races when we hurt T-Rex. We're hoping to have one more engine dyno-tested and ready by the weekend.

Is it difficult to go from the mile-high altitude of Denver to the sea-level conditions at Sonoma all within a period of just a few days?

We never thought it would be, but in retrospect, it really throws you a curve. The car wants a completely different setup from wing settings to shock settings to the air pressure in your tires. The air is so different in Denver, and you just start to get into that mode when you have to change all over again. That's where the experience of a Warren Johnson or a Jim Yates comes into play. We've run very well at Denver, even though we've hurt our stuff. Besides having to change gear ratios, rear ends, and header combinations, we have a whole day of setup work in Sonoma just to make the change over. It's only physical labor but after you take into account the long trek over from Denver and then the long drive to Seattle, it can be very difficult from a physical standpoint.

What has been the progress of your engine building program so far and why is it so important to build your own engines?

I've been very lucky. The motor that I had from Richard Maskin had enough power for me to qualify every time. Last season, Steve Schmidt was an absolute gentleman to me the entire year. I won two races, was runner-up and was No. 6 in the points. To me, that was better than what you should be able to do with a leased motor. There's no way you can put as much time and effort into a motor that you're going to lease to somebody than the time and effort you put into the motor you put in your own car. I want to be the World Champion and to get there, you have to be building your own engines. We're not where we need to be yet, but we're getting there. To be the champion you need to have every corner ironed out, and that includes your own engine program to constantly change and move ahead. Hopefully next year, we'll have enough motors and have someone else on the team that we'll be able to contend for the championship. Next year, we'll show everyone that the Six Flags Firebird has what it takes to go to the next level.

How did you get your start in racing?

My dad, Sonny Martino, was a drag racer, so I've been around race cars all my life. 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. Therefore, nothing was strange to me when I came over to work on race engines, transmissions and rear ends. It was only natural, just smaller and actually, a little easier. When I turned 17, I started racing at Englishtown. I got "proofed" because you have to be 18 to drive a race car 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 bracket racing at Englishtown, we moved up to Comp eliminator but always wanted to race Pro Stock. 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. I may be a horrible businessman, 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.

What is your favorite race memory so far?

My two favorite memories are the time I beat Bob Glidden for the first time and winning the Slick 50 Nationals in Houston last year. Bob Glidden was my idol. Anybody that can win that many races in the class I've wanted to race in my entire life is pretty special. At Houston, I could never imagine that winning my first race would be so incredible. When I hit the parachute and that win light came on, it was the greatest feeling in the world. I'm not an emotional guy, but you do get that way inside.

Where do you want to see the Six Flags Pontiac team when the U.S. Nationals rolls around?

I'm hoping that by the time Indy comes around that my ulcer doesn't explode and I'm still walking. I'm already down to eating white rice and bananas every day now. I don't think we're going to be making any big horsepower gains than what we've already made. I'm hoping by Labor Day that we're back into our groove of racing the car. That's what I'm personally going to concentrate on. Hopefully, by the time we get to Indy we'll be one of the teams that's a tough race there. We want people to look at the Six Flags Firebird and realize that we're no easy match. I hope through that last stretch-Memphis, Dallas, California-that we serve notice that come next February, we'll be one of the few teams fighting it out for one of the top few spots. I want to have a positive finish to the year so that we can get started off on the right foot next season.

Is a top five finish still possible?

That's our goal, to pass Mike Edwards and Mike Thomas. Nothing against those guys, except that they're in our way. They're in traffic and I'm putting my left-hand blinker on to go around them. When we look at the points standings, look at who's in front of us and being realistic, if we could start with a clean slate, a top five would definitely be in our future. But with the self-inflicted blundering we've done and not doing what we should have been doing, if we end up sixth, I'd think it was a very good year.

What do you want to accomplish before your career comes to a close?

Within the next three years, I want the race team to be self-supporting so that I don't have to work two other jobs to help support it. I want to be able to put money away for my family's future and have it be my sole source of income. I also want to be the Winston champion, at least once. We're going to get there, it's just a matter of working hard and staying focused.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Mike Thomas , Kurt Johnson , Warren Johnson , Bob Glidden , Tom Martino , Steve Schmidt , Mike Edwards