Just over 18 months ago, Martins Motorsports entered its third iteration. After failing twice before in the Camping World Truck Series, this time, it began fielding a full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series team for Tommy Joe Martins.
The idea was to plan out a two-year layout, hoping to set up Martins with full ownership of the team come the 2022 season. And almost two years later, that’s still the plan.
“This is it for me, I’m done this year,” Craig Martins, co-owner of Martins Motorsports, said. “[Tommy Joe] knew that going in that this was the last year for our family. It’s sink or swim now.”
Since kickstarting the team last February at Daytona International Speedway, Martins Motorsports has been put through the ringer, as many lower-funded teams have due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But failing to qualify for its debut race hurt. After that, it was about rebounding.
That’s exactly what Martins did. He ended the 2020 Xfinity season finishing a career best 20th in the driver standings while the team was ranked 22nd in owner points. Mission accomplished in year one.
Ending the year on a hot streak (11 top-20 finishes over the final 18 races, including his first career top-10 finish, coming at Texas Motor Speedway) and the team getting its bearings, expectations were higher going into 2021.
But the front half of the Xfinity field also got deeper, with additions of a third full-time Kaulig Racing car and fourth Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Plus, other underfunded teams bettered their respective programs over the offseason.
“I felt like if we could just do what we were doing last year, that would actually be a bigger accomplishment,” Tommy Joe recently told Jayski.com. “A top 20 this year, to me, carries more weight than it did last year. I just wanted to back up what we did last year and it would actually be tougher to do.”
The key to the turnaround has been personnel. Going into its rookie Xfinity season, the team had Danny Johnson as its crew chief. But Tommy Joe noted he had Johnson doing too much. Though he was doing a “fine job” as a crew chief, he was ultimately spread thin covering all aspects of the racecar.
In July of 2020, a crew chief change was made and industry veterans Frank Kerr and Buddy Sisco took over the helm of the No. 44 team.
“I’ve always been reluctant to spend money on everything we’ve ever done in racing,” Tommy Joe added. “What I’ve learned now is you’re going to spend the money either way. So if I’m asking way more out of my people, then there’s probably going to be more mistakes.”
Tommy Joe believes each car needs two quality people looking it over. If a team of Martins Motorsports’ caliber doesn’t have that, they’ll likely struggle.
Over the offseason, Kerr joined Live Fast Motorsports to crew chief the No. 78 Cup Series car. Replacing him at Martins Motorsports is Dan Stillman, someone who has been in NASCAR as a crew chief since the 1990s.
Through the opening 15 races of the season, Martins Motorsports has shown strides of improvement, getting as high as 15th in driver and 18th in owner points. But of late, the team hasn’t finished better than 20th in the last six races, including three DNFs with two blown engines and a wreck at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Music City Moments™️
Really fun track in a really cool city. We keep running better than our finishes show, but we're back to racking up top 20 finishes regardless. Super happy to have had the folks with @AANAdjusters with us this weekend.
Looking at a redemption story in Pocono. pic.twitter.com/2BQ6KosCRg
— Martins Motorsports (@TeamMartins) June 21, 2021
Despite the recent string of tough luck, Tommy Joe’s goal remains the same.
“We are, positionally, about where I wanted us to be,” Tommy Joe said. “Finishing in the top 20 in both is still the goal. My goal going into the year was to score 600 points. If you think about that, there are 33 races, so it’s a little less than 20 points per race, which is basically an inside the top 20 average finish.”
Currently, the No. 44 team has an average finish of 22.7 with 229 total points.
Rodney Riessen, co-owner of Martins Motorsports, believes adding Sisco and Stillman has paid off. And for Tommy Joe, the driver, he’s learning new aspects of what it takes to be competitive.
“Tommy Joe has never had to race with the big boys, but now our guys get frustrated because we drop back three or four spots when we never used to on restarts,” Riessen said. “We’re not racing some of the backmarker guys like us, we’re racing the upper teams. That’s a different style of racing and he’s learning to race in a different place in the pack.”
What is also helping the team is a slight increase in sponsorship. The No. 44 car had YouTube comedy duo SuperMega on its car at Charlotte, while Gilreath Farms Red Angus and AAN Adjusters have continued the same commitment they had in 2020. Instead of sponsoring the team for one race, Market Rebellion re-signed for three.
The team still has a handful of races open for the remainder of the 2021 season, but establishing the commitments from last year was something Tommy Joe was admittedly worried about. Another checkmark.
On the business side, Tommy Joe has taken up more of an ownership role in 2021. Compared to previous years, about 50% has been taken off Craig’s shoulders, in terms of decisions that are made from a competition standpoint. That now falls almost squarely the driver’s shoulders.
But, Tommy Joe is learning on the fly from his dad, who owns Cross Concrete Construction Inc. out of Mississippi. He’s always been enamored with numbers, though attending Ole Miss University to pursue a journalism degree.
“I always had a fascination with sports games and the management aspect of sports,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed it and managing a salary cap on a baseball team. When we started the first iteration of Martins Motorsports, that we’ve fooled around with ever since, I was fascinated with how much are we going to get paid by NASCAR, how can you make that work with just the money you’re getting paid by NASCAR.
“I feel like I’m a good driver so I can make up a little bit of the slack of the performance gap in the car. But what is the cheapest way for us to run this? Limited sets of tires, the motors, older cars, who can we get payroll wise that fits into that?”
Seeing how well Jeremy Clements Racing and Brandonbilt Motorsports, two small, family-run operations are performing, is a sense of encouragement to Tommy Joe. But the No. 44 team is also trying to spread approximately $250,000 of sponsorship money (the most Martins has ever had in a single year) across the 33-race schedule. That’s nearly half of what the No. 51 team is running on.
“I think we’re close to the limit of that, and I’m not trying to downplay it,” Tommy Joe said of the team’s potential. “I’m looking across the garage right now and I see where Jeremy Clements is parked, and he’s parked in front of an RCR hauler, Stewart-Haas hauler, but that’s it. That’s the limit.
“I look at them as a great representation of what the maximum is for a family race team in this series. I think we can be a playoff caliber team, but we’re probably always going to be on that fringe, bubble, either last one in or first one out. That’s it. If you’re doing that, you’re kicking ass.”
Being competitive has been a heavy investment on Martins’ family, though. Craig, though he declined to give a number of how much he’s invested in Tommy Joe’s career said, “Let’s just say it’s been a really difficult time for our family over the last 10 years. I don’t want to talk about the amount of money we’ve spent, but it’s been substantial.”
So there’s no reason not to believe why this is Craig’s final year of investing.
“We’ve gotten pretty good at doing it without a lot of money,” Craig added. “If he could just get a couple of more [sponsors] to come on, he could do this. But I think Tommy Joe has come to the conclusion that probably the only way Martins Motorsports goes forward is with a funded driver.”
Tommy Joe agrees.
He’s tired of taking money from the family pie. And there’s a real possibility that he steps out of the seat, opening the No. 44 car up to a funded driver.
Thanks Dad. pic.twitter.com/5wlSjnyvhB
— Tommy Joe Martins (@TommyJoeMartins) June 20, 2021
If that happens, similar to BJ McLeod, Tommy Joe could take his funding and drive a partial schedule elsewhere.
He said, “What I know in my heart is that Tommy Joe Martins, the driver, is probably never going to raise enough money for us to consistently not have to worry about it every year. I think for our team, we would need some level of about half a million to a million dollars of sponsorship per year to be in a good spot. I’m never going to raise that kind of money; I never have.
“I just know that I have what is a partial season in sponsorship, really. It’s probably another funded driver that can come in here and pay the bills for us. I think as good as I am behind the wheel, I think I’m also a good general manager for this race team. I think I have enough business sense to realize that.”
And if Tommy Joe wants to make his living in NASCAR, the best route might be to exit the driver seat.
He doesn’t believe that will be as hard as it sounds.
“I’m 34 years old, and I’ve realized something in this sport,” he said. “I’m never going to make any money if I’m adamant on being the driver. The people that started making money in this, they started making money when they got out of the driver seat, generally. I make $500 per week; I make $25,000 per year working for my family’s team. And really we can’t afford to pay me that. I can’t work on a racecar, that’s not what I do. I do marketing and management. I took a pay cut to come over here [from being a part-time driving instructor in Las Vegas].
“You just get to a point in your life where you go, ‘Alright, I’m 34, and if I want to have a family and have a life, how long am I prepared to just not make any money?’ I’ve done it with less sponsors; I’ll take a pay cut, I’ll take no money, I’ll pay for my own travel and do whatever I have to do to stay in the car. But eventually you start to go, ‘What am I doing this for?’ I’m done trying to stretch my money as thin as a pizza rolled out across the table.”
Craig and Riessen’s (owner of Rodney Riessen Construction, LLC.) construction companies have always been the safety net if the No. 44 team fell short in funding. That likely won’t be the case past 2021, as far as shuffling in money to pay the bills.
“We both say we’re done at the end of the year, but of course, we’ve both said we’re done three times,” Riessen said. “I just think that our goal is, next year I won’t have an ownership role per se, I’ll be more of a sponsor role. I think that’s the same thing Craig will be.”
Tommy Joe said the duo spent nearly $250,000 on equipment, just to get the team off the ground.
But compared to the other two times the family team gave NASCAR a go, this time around it’s going much better, despite spending more money.
“We’ve established ourselves as a quality team in NASCAR and Tommy Joe Martins the driver, I think, has at least established myself as a top three series level competitor that has the respect of my peers,” he said. “That’s probably all I’m ever going to get out of this. I’m never going to make $75,000 per year getting the sponsorship I get. I’m never going to make $100,000 per year.
“We’ve got good enough equipment and good enough people, if someone can bring a good amount of money to us, we think we’re a pretty good destination for that. If we got what we really needed, I think we could do something really special. It is a little tough when you go, ‘Man, I built the team and I can’t really afford to run for my own team.’ That’s kind of a weird thing.”
And even though running a race team has put the Martins through tough moments, Craig doesn’t regret it one iota, despite saying he wouldn’t do it again.
Craig said, “We’ve had some really heartbreaking times, but we’ve also had some fun times. For a dad, it’s been a great opportunity to spend time with my son. Quite honestly, you can’t put a price on that.”