Englishtown, New Jersey, May 25, 1999 - Tom Martino came within one-hundredth of a second of completing a lifelong dream at this weekend's Mopar Parts Nationals. Martino grew up in the shadow of Old Bridge Township Raceway Park and had made his...
Englishtown, New Jersey, May 25, 1999 - Tom Martino came within one-hundredth of a second of completing a lifelong dream at this weekend's Mopar Parts Nationals. Martino grew up in the shadow of Old Bridge Township Raceway Park and had made his first competitive runs down its lanes. Winning here would be special, and from the moment the Pro Stock contingent hit the track on Friday, the CENTURY 21( team made clear their intentions of challenging for the event title. After recording his best qualifying effort of the season, Martino made short of work of long-time rival Jim Yates in the first round, gaining a substantial advantage at the start and never looking back. Next came Terry Adams, with Martino using his homegrown power to cross the finish line first. Martino's semi-final match-up with long-time friend and fellow engine builder Steve Schmidt would have to wait, however, as torrential downpours postponed completion of the event until two days later.
Martino and Schmidt had spent the rain delay debating as to whose team would fare better in the NBA playoffs, Martino's New York Knicks or Schmidt's hometown Indiana Pacers. Although the result of that encounter remains to be seen, once the skies cleared there was little doubt as to which "doorslammer" would be in the final, as Martino posted a near-perfect .401 reaction time enroute to eliminating a slowing Schmidt, who had clicked off early due to tire shake. This set the stage for a final round meeting with Richie Stevens, who would have the benefit of lane choice in the run for the win. Both drivers had good starts, with Martino's opponent uncharacteristically gaining a slight lead. The two Firebirds rocketed downtrack as if bolted together. Ultimately, reaction time would prove to be the difference, as both racecars covered the quarter-mile in the identical elapsed time of 6.959 seconds, ending the Farmingdale, New Jersey native's hopes for a hometown victory.
"I had been pretty well wired into the tree all weekend, but missed it a little in the final and went .458," explained Martino afterwards. "It's not that a .458 is a bad light, but he went .444 and that cost us. We had made some changes to our CENTURY 21( Firebird before the final that it obviously liked, because we made a pretty good run, and ended up with identical E.T.'s. We probably didn't have more than a hundredth left in it, so even if we drained it, he still would have gotten us with the light. We should have won it, because I believe there's no way anyone should leave with me."
As usual, the Englishtown week had proven to be a whirlwind for the Martino team. Arriving home after Atlanta, work immediately began on the racecar and primary motors. Less than two days later, the team was in Maryland for a invitational Pro Stock event, which saw Martino qualify third with a 6.90-second elapsed time. Back in New Jersey on Thursday, the crew set up the transporter at Raceway Park while Martino made an appearance on behalf of his sponsor. That night, the Martinos opened up their home to their fellow competitors, friends, the media and NHRA officials for their annual pre-race party, with plenty of food and libation provided by CENTURY 21.
Finally, Friday brought the first official on-track activity with the first two qualifying sessions. Besides the many fans cheering for their hometown favorite, several CENTURY 21( employees and brokers, including President and CEO Bob Moles were in attendance for the first time trial. Martino disappointed no one, as he scorched the track in 6.957 seconds, second best in the afternoon's run. That night saw him improve by three-hundredths of a second, and the resultant 6.923-second E.T. would eventually earn Martino the 8th spot for Sunday, his first time in the upper half of the field this season. His path to victory would again start with Yates, who had matched Martino's time and top speed of 199.02 miles-per-hour. However, the Virginian would have to cede lane choice to his opponent, as Martino had been the first to accomplish the feat. Most importantly, Martino and crew believed they had finally started to come to grips with adjusting their mount to the conditions, giving them valuable confidence heading into eliminations.
"Even without winning, this has been a great weekend for the CENTURY 21( Racing team," stated Martino. "To be able to qualify so well and then advance to the final round is a real and necessary boost. The fact that we accomplished this at both our own and our sponsor's home track, and especially with some of their employees in attendance, makes it even better.
Between running at Budd's Creek the Wednesday before and the results from this race, we feel a lot more confident going to the track with this car. Naturally, we'll keep working at making our Firebird better, so that we can have this kind of performance on a consistent basis. We've just gotten our first taste, and we are definitely hungry for more!"
The next stop on the NHRA Winston Drag Racing schedule is in Joliet, Illinois for the 2nd annual Fram Route 66 Nationals at the Route 66 Raceway, June 3-6.