SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — The flat, half-mile asphalt oval where so many memories were made is long gone. But when Mark Martin returns to the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds on Jan. 7, memories are sure to come flooding back.
“Man, it’s going to be really cool. I’m pumped up about it,” Martin said of his upcoming induction into the Ozarks Area Racers Foundation Hall of Fame. Two weeks after that, he will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Nine others including Mark’s father, the late Julian Martin, and Lucas Oil Speedway owner Forrest Lucas, will join the Arkansas native in ceremonies inside the E-Plex – just a lug nut’s toss from where the old track once sat.
Those times at the Fairgrounds were special as Martin, as a teen-aged phenom, cut his racing teeth before graduating to a championship career in the American Speed Association and then onto NASCAR. The Batesville, Ark., native won 40 Cup Series races and 49 XFINITY Series races in a 31-year career at stock-car racing’s highest level.
Martin, in a recent interview, said he couldn’t have done it without the racing education in southwest Missouri. Arkansas car builder Larry Shaw, who recently produced his 5,000th race car, and Julian Martin were the driving forces behind igniting his young career.
“But I had a lot of people along the way that made contributions,” Mark Martin said. “I couldn’t have done it without them.”
He reeled off names and memories as if the races were four weeks ago, not four decades ago. The first name he mentioned? Larry Phillips, the short-track legend from Springfield who was a fierce competitor but took young drivers of that era, like Martin and Rusty Wallace, under his wing as race-shop employees.
“The Master,” Martin called the late Phillips. “Just learning from him. If you wanted to win a race, you had to figure out how to beat Larry Phillips and that was a tall order. It was a good training ground.
“I had some great, great times and great experiences racing against a lot of great people,” Martin added. “Back in 1977 and ’78, the promoter there at the Fairgrounds would bring in late model super stars. Guys like Freddy Fryar, Larry Shuler, Tom Reffner, Donnie Allison. I got a chance when I was a teen-ager and just getting my career started on asphalt to race with some of the great pavement drivers, ever.”
But it was in 1976, in a rare dirt-track race at the old Bolivar Speedway, that stands out as one of Martin’s top moments.