ROSSBURG, Ohio – You’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone in the Eldora Speedway infield on Wednesday wearing a bigger grin than the one Mike Marlar carried after final practice for the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
For the 41-year-old from Winfield, Tenn., it was the moment he soaked in his presence on the big stage.
Marlar, the reigning World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model Series champion and one of the heavy-hitters in the dirt late model world, is making his NASCAR debut this week in one of three entries for Reaume Brothers Racing during the seventh annual Eldora Dirt Derby.
He’ll drive the No. 33 Toyota Tundra during the 150-lap race on Thursday night, guaranteed in the field as one of 32 drivers in attendance for the lone NASCAR national series race on dirt during the year.
The chance came thanks to a connection built by one of Marlar’s long-time backers, Smithbilt Homes.
“This is amazing. I’ve wanted to do it, and it’s funny, because I never really had any interest in NASCAR until the last couple of years,” Marlar told SPEED SPORT. “But the last little bit, I’ve gotten kind of interested in it and really wanted to have a shot at driving in it. Tom and Rocky Smith from Smithbilt Homes are buddies of mine and sponsored me on my (dirt late model) stuff during our World of Outlaws (championship) bid last season.
“One day we were at the shop talking, and I said, ‘Man, I’d love to have the shot to get up to 180 miles an hour at some point,’” Marlar recalled. “They got revved up about it, and here we are, making some baby steps toward that dream becoming a reality. To have this opportunity with Josh Reaume and the folks on his team is pretty special and I’m already having a lot of fun.”
Marlar was quick to point out that driving a NASCAR truck was nothing like the dirt late models he’s been used to driving in the past with the World of Outlaws and the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series.
“It was a completely different world,” Marlar noted. “We went out for the first session (Wednesday night) and were like 13th, because we didn’t make it out for the period when the track was a lot faster, but I was still making consistent lap times, I felt like. They told me I was doing well, but I tried to speed up at one point to see what I could do and over-cooked it and spun. We got hit and it messed the body up a little bit, but we should be alright.
“It’s all a learning process for me in this deal; these things are big and heavy and there’s a lot of driving that goes on in them,” Marlar added. “They’ll get out from under you really quickly.”
As he’s prepared for his maiden Truck Series voyage, Marlar has been surrounded by plenty of grassroots-level support, particularly from those closest to his regular dirt late model operation.
“Ronnie (Delk, Marlar’s late model team owner) will be here Thursday night for the race; he let us use his hauler to pit out of for this deal, and that’s awesome that he agreed to take that step for us,” Marlar said. “He’s headed up to watch and we’re thankful for him, but I really do have so many great people around me who have combined to help me do what I do and made all this happen recently.
“It’s really surreal sometimes what this has all turned into.”
Though it’s only a one-off start for now, Marlar did tip that he hopes to parlay Thursday night’s Eldora race into additional NASCAR starts in the future – on the pavement, no less.
“I would love to do some more of this stuff,” said Marlar with a smile. “I love my dirt late model racing, don’t get me wrong. I’ve had so much fun doing it and it’s so competitive; it’s a sport you’re never going to completely conquer because there’s so many talented guys doing it now, but in the future, if I got the opportunity to do this (NASCAR) thing a few more times … I’d love to get that opportunity.
“My goal there is to be able to get cleared to go 180 or 190 (miles per hour) at some of the bigger tracks, but I know that’s a process,” he added. “NASCAR told me I’d have to run the dirt first and then graduate on up from there, so who knows if it’ll happen, but I’m having a blast and making the most of it.
“I just want to live in the moment and enjoy it, but still bring the same determination I do to my late model races.”