By Steven Taranto – Follow at @STaranto92
August 4, 2016
When compared to other drivers in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Tommy Joe Martins is not necessarily a household name. But the Como, Mississippi driver has been making quite a splash this season in a way that not many would have expected.
Martins has maintained a blog throughout the Truck Series season, with a focus on the challenges that he and his team face. On Thursday, Martins posted what may have been his most hard-hitting entry yet. After the rash of yellow flags at Pocono and a late on-track run-in that left him fuming, Martins went off on the state of NASCAR’s ladder series and the drivers who have come to progress through them.
“We’re not the best drivers in the country. We’re the best drivers in the country that can afford it,” writes Martins. “All it takes to make it to this level is money. You want to be a NASCAR Truck Series driver? Write a check…It’s not about how talented you are. If you want to break into NASCAR then you have two options: be rich or be a great salesperson.”
Martins went into further detail, lamenting how the industry as a whole has fundamentally changed into a game of who can outspend the competition and who can pay to drive one of their cars. He states that this is most painfully apparent in the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series.
“The fields aren’t as deep as the starting lineup says they are. In the Xfinity Series, the only way you’re going to win is to be with Gibbs, RCR, Roush or a Cup affiliate…They make money coming and going. Stroll through the Xfinity & Truck series. It’s obvious who the haves & have nots are. There’s a clear, wide, irreversible gap that can’t be overcome by hard driving. They’re supposed to be series to showcase talent good enough to go to the next level. Instead, they’re series that showcase how great the top teams are compared to teams like us.”
Tommy Joe Martins’ post struck a chord with fans and competitors alike on Twitter, for the precise reason that Martins has put his finger directly on the pulse of what currently drives NASCAR’s lower divisions. In speaking of both of the series he has competed in, Martins correctly points out that the elite organizations of the sport have created a system where the table is tilted towards them, allowing them to collect race wins, talent, sponsorship, and equipment en masse while leaving smaller organizations to fight for bones in the street.
One of the ways in which this has happened has been through engine programs. All the way up to the turn of the century, the sport featured a wide variety of engine builders and engine shops. In 2001, for instance, Gasoline Alley Engines, Wegner Motorsports, Fischer Engineering, and RahMoc Racing Engines were just a few of the suppliers of engines for competitive Busch Series teams. Now, the number of engine shops has dwindled down to those belonging to the sports’ biggest teams – Which puts operations like Martins’ at a distinct disadvantage.
“I can’t compete with my team without a great motor or truck. Guess who builds them? The teams I’m trying to beat,” said Martins.
“They won’t sell me one of their best engines. I have to lease it for about $20,000-$30,000 per race. If I do buy one, it’s going to be older and not nearly as competitive.”
The disparity among race teams is especially obvious when considering which organizations are capable of winning. In 1996, 11 different teams won races during the now-Xfinity Series season – Diamond Ridge Motorsports, Roush Racing, Phoenix Racing, Labonte Motorsports, American Equipment Racing, BACE Motorsports, Pro Tech Motorsports, Buckshot Racing, ST Motorsports, FILMAR Racing, and Ridling Motorsports. 20 years later, the number of teams that have won this season is a scant five. And of the 19 races run to date, Joe Gibbs Racing has won 13 of them.
The problems affecting competition in the Xfinity and Truck Series have come about largely as NASCAR has taken a laissez-faire approach to the two series. While the hallmark Sprint Cup Series has seen many changes in order to enhance competition and even the playing field – Among them lower downforce and the charter system – The technical rules of the Xfinity and Truck Series have remained fairly stagnant despite lackluster competition and predictable results. In NASCAR’s defense, it is likely that their aim is to keep costs from escalating even higher in these two series with constant rule changes. But in the face of their approach, winning organizations independent of Cup programs such as PPC Racing and BACE Motorsports have become a relic of the past, and even winning programs such as Kevin Harvick Inc. and Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Xfinity team have been consolidated into Cup programs.
In discussing these issues, the mainstream dialogue usually goes straight for Cup intervention in the lower levels – A conversation that is repeated year after year without much changing at all. But what is often less discussed is how the cost of building a race-winning team has become prohibitive to the point where teams like Martins Motorsports are spending the amount of money that would have won races consistently a decade and a half ago to run just above the Top 20. It doesn’t help that according to Martins, elite organizations have stonewalled efforts to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots.
“NASCAR tried [Introducing a spec engine] with the Delta engine program,” he says. “The big teams won’t allow it. Why would they? They’ve invested millions and millions of dollars to get an advantage on teams like ours.”
The argument among those in a privileged position is that the Xfinity and Truck Series “would not survive” without the presence of Cup programs. In making their case, they often point to how as opposed to other “minor leagues” in professional sports such as Triple A Baseball, all Xfinity and Truck events are broadcast on either cable or network television. But the Xfinity and Truck Series weren’t brought to that level by Cup organizations outspending the field in order to monopolize the Top 10 and Victory Lane: They were made successful because the depth of competition made for compelling racing that was interesting to watch and enticing to participate in. Because of what Martins has described, that depth no longer exists. In its place, an oligarchy of a few race teams have rendered success in these series into something that is bought rather than earned.
Tommy Joe Martins may not have the name or the racing pedigree that his competitors have, but his eloquence and honesty warrant the attention of everyone within the sport. Whatever NASCAR’s image of what its different series are and what purpose they serve, it is readily apparent when comparing the past to the present that the current system is not working for drivers like Martins. And for the sake of its on-track product and the drivers of the future who will populate that product, it would be in NASCAR’s best interests to hear him out rather than present deaf ears to his assessment of “The Problem”.