LAS VEGAS — Twenty years ago this weekend, Mark Martin led a Ford parade in the first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Martin won a race in which Ford drivers finished in the top seven positions with Ford Taurus finishing in 13 of the top 14 spots. It was also the first victory for the Taurus.
Martin beat Roush Racing teammate Jeff Burton to the checkered flag and Dale Earnhardt, in eighth place, was the only non-Ford driver in the top 14.
“The Taurus showed through in that race because the bigger the race track, the more downforce and we had certainly all done our homework over the winter and were making some serious downforce with our new Taurus,” Martin said this week. “At that point in time, it was the first true smackdown for the other manufacturers that we put on them.”
Roush Racing won the first three Cup Series races at the 1.5-mile speedway.
“We did get a good head start,” Martin said. “The mile-and-a-half speedways were our wheelhouse at Roush Racing. Restrictor-plate racing was not on our radar as far as a focus went, so we paid less attention to restrictor-plate racing than let’s say a Robert Yates Racing did. We placed a high priority on our mile-and-a-half and one-mile programs.”
“That’s where our organization’s heart was and that’s where my heart was sort of being the leader of the driver organization and a mentor for the drivers, so we had the information, we shared the information, we hit the ground running at that speedway and we managed to stay ahead of the competition for a good while,” Martin continued. “We ran good there for many years to come. Maybe we didn’t win the race for whatever reason, but it was one of those race tracks where we had a strong presence for years.”
“That was during the glory years. My glory years at Roush Racing, Jimmy Fennig and I, and the fans were rabid. You had your Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet fans and you had your Bill Elliott Ford fans and we were on the Ford side.”
Martin said the significance of winning the first Cup Series race in Las Vegas was lost on him at the time.
“My vision was laser-focused on the race car itself, so I didn’t get it,” Martin related. “It didn’t register to me how important that speedway and having an event, and now having two events there a year, was really going to be for our sport. So, it kind of went over my head initially.”
“I was on the helicopter shuttle program at that time after the races to get me to the airport and obviously we spent lots of time after we won the race with the press doing media stuff and taking it all in,” he noted. “The place was fairly deserted by the time I was leaving there and I remember the sun was starting to go down and when we lifted off in the helicopter and we went up and lifted up above the speedway and turned toward the airport I looked down at the speedway and it finally dawned on me what we had done and what we had accomplished that day.”
“It’s a strange viewpoint, but when you’re in it and you’re as intense as I was at the time, and there was so much going on, the focus was on the race and executing the race. Afterwards the focus was on the victory lane celebration, the hat dance, all the photos and taking care of all the media, so, really, that was all such a blur that I didn’t really realize what we had accomplished until we lifted off.”
“I looked down and I remember that feeling right now even today when I think about it I can remember looking down and thinking, ‘Oh wow, that was pretty cool what we did today,’” Martin added. “I didn’t realize when I was going through all of that how precious it really was. It’s kind of a shame that I had such blinders on and couldn’t allow myself to realize that all through those years I was having the time of my life. I was too caught up in the competition of it.”