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Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to shed some light on their social media usage. This week: Tommy Joe Martins, who will drive for B.J. McLeod Motorsports in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Iowa Speedway.
A lot of people don’t get to hear the perspective of the “other side” of sport, and you are really good at letting people know it’s not all glamorous. I saw a recent tweet of yours where somebody was saying, “You have a nicer house than I do from money you made off racing,” and you were like, “Actually I don’t get paid from racing. I get paid from my job out at a driving school in Las Vegas.” So from that perspective, what’s your social media philosophy in the messages you try to send out there?
I got called out for being a little bit of a shit-stirrer last year with a lot of the stuff that I did on social media. I had my blog that I wrote a lot about our adventures through the Truck Series and our perspective on things from a small team that you’re kind of referencing there.
I don’t think a lot of people heard that story before, so it’s kind of interesting getting a lot of feedback from it. And I’ll tell you, it was 95 percent, really positive feedback. And then there was also the side saying, “Quit complaining,” kind of like the comment you were referring to there. It’s like, “Oh you’ve got it made anyway, you’re getting to drive a race car.”
I’m not looking a gift horse in the mouth here at all. I know how lucky I am to get to do this. But I think the business model and the way all this works and how you get a ride and how you have to wheel and deal back here, I don’t think it’s in a spot where it should be.
When I look at the other side of the garage, obviously it’s hard not to sit there and go, “Man, that looks really nice.” I wish, not even me personally, but just the guys on the team had it a little better, thought it was a little easier. So it’s hard for me not to press “send” sometimes when I see kind of the disparity that’s going on.
What kind of feedback, in general, do you get from people? Have you noticed that you’ve been able to build a following talking about this kind of stuff, where people like the underdog?
I just don’t see it as a detriment. NASCAR, the way they portray this is that they just don’t portray it. It’s just not talked about. So it’s not that they’re portraying it in a bad light, just nobody’s really talking about it.
And with the media and everything, here’s the crazy thing: I ran basically almost half the year in Xfinity in 2014 … and I only had one media member ever even come up to me to even learn my name. So when you see that, if you’re not aligned with a big team, if you’re not a driver that’s coming in with a PR staff (then you don’t get media attention). As a kid, I didn’t know any of that kind of stuff.
So I just think that’s a little weird how the media has kind of handled that. You’ve got basically half the garage area that nobody says a word about, and that just seems weird because it just seems like the stories back here are better. I can probably tell you 15 stories about Mike Harmon, how he’s had a blowout tire on the side of the road and had to get a local gas station crew to come out, bail him off the side. That’s interesting! I mean, that’s funny!
Especially when you’ve got practice coverage (on TV). Like what are you talking about? You wanna talk about Ty Dillon’s struggles the last weekend and how he battled back from qualifying 17th? That’s just not as interesting from a story standpoint.
So that’s it. I just like telling the stories that we have to go through. I find it interesting. In a way, it was almost cathartic for me (while blogging last year) because I was creating kind of my own narrative of the whole thing. And I thought if no one else even read it, it was gonna be my narrative and it was gonna be out there. People would be able to find it.
It’s interesting that social media has allowed people to do that, right? You wouldn’t really have had a platform before to send that message out, even if you had started a blog. If you can’t send the links out to get people’s attention with it, there’s no way to flag people down. So social media, in some ways, has given a small team or a small situation an opportunity to get a bigger spotlight in some ways.
I had Sports Illustrated call me for a story last year. They wanted to attribute me in a story about Dale Jr. when he came out and said he was gonna take time off for concussions. Like what chance did I ever have doing that running 25th in the Truck race? Never. But I had the platform and I had credibility.
I come from a journalism background, so for me the writing part was fun and it was interesting. But the way that I framed it, I was telling the story of the race, but it was in a bigger context. Journalists like yourself and a few other people — especially when I was controversial and said something that stood out — people wanted to latch on that a little bit and go, “OK, well this is really interesting.”
So I had a guy from Sports Illustrated call me and literally say, “I would have never called you if you were sending out press releases. What you did was so interesting.” And I had the credibility because I was a full-time Truck Series driver, had our own little small team and I was writing all of this stuff that was pretty eye-opening stuff and I just thought it caught a lot of people’s eyes.
Quite frankly, if I hadn’t done that, you probably wouldn’t be sitting here, Jeff. And that’s what weird to me: We still would have finished 11th (at Iowa), but nobody would’ve probably known my name. It would have just been something you wrote off, and you’d probably talk to another underdog that finished up there. But just kind of the way that I’ve branded myself, even though it’s not a conventional way, at least it was an effective way where at least some of the media now and other team owners in the garage know your name.
And that’s the biggest thing: You just cannot be irrelevant. That’s in any professional sport, but especially this one — in a sport where you need sponsors and you need eyeballs on you to be able to attract them or for owners to give you a shot — they’ve got to at least know who the heck you are. And unfortunately, I think we’re at a point now where you can’t do that just driving. There has to be something else that’s interesting about what you’re doing, and I think that’s what allowed me to get some attention and at least some notoriety.
That’s true, because I saw your blogs a couple of times, I wasn’t following you on Twitter at the time, and then basically I was like, “Wow, he has so many interesting things to say, I guess I’ll follow him on Twitter, too.” So that really opened a lot of doors, as far as people knowing who you were. That said, you don’t seem to do the blog anymore. Why not?
I didn’t do the blog this year, and you’re not the first person to ask me that. There has been so much indecision from us that I couldn’t even put together a coherent story. It would have taken me three weeks to write out one of them because it was, “OK, we’re going Truck racing. OK, now I’m gonna get a ride with MDM at Daytona. Well now we’re doing our own thing at Atlanta. Well now we’re not doing anything. Well now Brandon Brown is running our truck at Martinsville. Now we’re trading the number to another team. Now I’m getting this opportunity with B.J. (to drive the No. 78 Xfinity car).” And I get that all of those are individual stories, but to me it didn’t even make sense.
I do want to write something on the opportunity that B.J. has given me here, because it has been absolutely tremendous. But honestly, it’s kind of hard for me to write about happiness. That’s kind of this weird place that I’m in. It was easy for me to write about the despair. I think it’s tougher to write about just how happy I am with the situation I’m in right now, and I’ve been really thankful, but that almost sounds repetitive because everybody’s thankful. That doesn’t stand out.
We joke about it on the other side of the garage: Well yeah, they’re happy. Everything’s comfortable, everything’s cool. And so when I’m sitting here going, “Man, this is the best situation I’ve ever been in, everything’s happy, everything’s cool,” I think that’s worth probably one “like” where somebody goes, “Nice. Tommy Joe finally got a good shot. Good for him.”
And then after a while, you’re like, “Eh, I kind of miss the old Tommy Joe where he’s writing and ranting and raving,” because you get a following from writing controversial stuff. But I wasn’t always trying to be controversial. If anything, I was trying to be really open and truthful. And some of that might have come across as controversial. When you get a following from that, I think that there’s a need to have to keep doing that. I didn’t want to always be the guy stirring the pot, so I’ve kind of taken a little bit of a step back.
If I ever see anything that really makes me go, “Man, we have got to change this,” then I’ve gotta say something. It might not be longform journalism like I was doing — I mean good grief, I wrote a few posts that were probably eight to nine pages on my laptop. But I’m gonna tweet about, I’ll say something about it.
I don’t know if you’re allowed to say, but when you’re putting that stuff on social media, obviously NASCAR is seeing it as well. Some high-level people are seeing it, and you’re writing about the economics of the sport not being so great. Did you get any blowback at the time when that was going on?
When I wrote “The Problem,” which was kind of the big one last year, I made a very critical error as a writer. I should have published the complete thought at one time. And I’d broken it into two parts. So when I released that as Part One, it didn’t really end in the greatest place. It was pretty damning, and I actually think we can probably look back and find the tweet because you quote-tweeted me on that one and said, “Wow, this is tough,” or something like that and I was like, “Oh boy, this is probably gonna go in a negative direction here.”
I got a lot of positive feedback from that, because I said what a lot of people were feeling, and maybe I’d put some backbone to it. But I didn’t do a very good job of explaining the reasoning for it was because I love NASCAR so much, and I’m so passionate about it and I care about it so much. I think I did that better in the second part, so I should have just released the whole thing.
But it was like so long — like 10 pages long — I was like, “Man, nobody’s gonna read this!” Johnny Sauter’s wife came up to me at Bristol, said she read it and said, “Man, I loved this. This is so great. I made Johnny read it.” You know Johnny, how stubborn that guy is sometimes. And Johnny said, “It was good. It was too long.” Typical Johnny Sauter, short and to the point. But he was right, and that was one part of the blog, not even the whole thing!
So I think I did the right thing breaking it up, but I did the wrong thing. So when I did that little cliffhanger in the middle, obviously that didn’t sit super great with NASCAR. They didn’t love that. And they called me and said, “We just don’t see how this helps the sport.” I honestly think they had a pretty good point — it probably did not help much. But I made them talk about it, and at least maybe got the discussion going if nothing else happened.
But they were right. They said, “We don’t wanna fine you for conduct detrimental to stock car racing.” So they were actually pretty nice about it, but it was also kind of a heated talk, I think all the way to the top of the food chain. And that’s kinda crazy to think, “Man, I wrote a blog on my personal website and there was like this inner-circle meeting between Jim Cassidy and Brian France and all these guys like, ‘What are we gonna do about this?'”
I probably put them in a weird box because if they fined me 15 grand, I’m probably out of business! So then how does that look? So they were in a no-win situation and I stirred it up, so I probably didn’t make myself look a lot better. And they were saying, “How does this help you? This makes you look like you’re talking crap about something that you’re doing.” So after that, there was kind of a tipping point moment where I was like, “OK, I probably need to think about this a little differently.” That was probably the worst one.
But Claire Lang had me on her show saying, “NASCAR said they’re not gonna fine you, here’s some drivers backing you up saying, ‘You were right!'” It was just this big, weird thing that happened for like three weeks, and I could just see everybody in the garage area looking at me different. And it’s so weird because I’m a driver, I’m not trying to be a writer! It’s cool, I enjoy it, but I’m trying to be respected as a driver. It kind of like shifted the narrative for me in this weird way.
For people that don’t know a lot about your background, and I’ll include myself in that, what’s your story? How did you get latched onto racing in the first place?
So I started racing go-karts when I was young — typical story as everybody else — but not as young as everybody else. I started when I was 16.
This is in Mississippi?
This is at the local dirt tracks in Mississippi. This is like Meridian, Pontotaoc, Water Valley — I mean small-town Mississippi dirt track racing. And we ran WKA. We ran a few select events. We were pretty good. I think we finished in the top 15. It was me and my dad. We didn’t know what the heck we were doing at all.
You dad didn’t have a racing background?
None of my family had a racing background. I’ve been the only one who has ever cared anything about this. My dad has played along, because he has a successful business, he’s been able to finance 99 percent of this. And that’s why I’m sitting here; that’s why I get to do this.
I don’t know why so many guys have run from (talk about bringing money), honestly. I’m so thankful that my dad has let me do it. The thing is that we don’t have just as much money. If my dad had multiple millions of dollars, I would be over there at RCR. Without a doubt, I would. But we don’t have that. We only have a few thousand dollars. So that’s why we’re sitting here in this very eclectic trailer (from the late 1990s).
But we ran Late Models, and we did that over there at Nashville Fairgrounds for a long time. Ran ASA in 2009, something called the ASA Challenge Series, where we ran big tracks. Man, we were at Rockingham in a Pro Late Model. Like wide open, the whole way around there. And Nashville Superspeedway in a Pro Late Model. So kind of crazy stuff.
Came close to winning a few races out there, really close, a couple of heartbreaks and stuff. Memphis Motorsports Park was one of them, sat on the pole, broke the track record there. I think that still stands, actually; I think we’re still holding onto that one. That’s kind of a home race for me, being near Mississippi.
Then finally my dad kind of made this decision, which is, “We don’t have a lot of money, so if we’re gonna go do this, we might as well do it at a high level. I’m just gonna buy a couple of trucks, and let’s just go run trucks.” And that was kind of a foundational shift for us, where we were like, “Well Tommy Joe isn’t gonna get picked up by a team,” because we’d had teams come up to us and say, “We want you to bring a couple hundred thousand dollars for the year.”
So we learned that and went, “This isn’t gonna happen unless we just do it.” We got that mentality shift of, “We think it’s worse for Tommy Joe to be running around at local levels. Even if he’s competitive and winning, nothing’s gonna come from it. So if he wants to get to NASCAR, we just gotta go.”
And we did that with our Late Model team in 2009. We ran four races, finished around 20th. Didn’t do that great, but not bad. This was when the Truck Series was pretty good — 36 trucks showed up, and we were around 20th every time we ran. That’s pretty good for a Late Model team, and I had never done it.
Literally my first race in the truck, we took it out of the trailer at Nashville Fairgrounds, we ran it out there at an open Late Model practice — in a Camping World Truck Series truck! I ran two laps, and they said to take it easy because we’ve got to load this thing and run tomorrow. And that was it: I got two laps of practice before my first truck race. They wouldn’t even let me have a license if they knew that.
And so I did that in ’09, ran ARCA, a couple of races at Daytona. We just kind of bounced around. In 2014 we took a real shot at it. We wanted to run in Xfinity full time, and we tried to do it from Nashville, which as small team, that was a horrible, horrible decision. NASCAR was making so many design changes to the Xfinity cars back then, aero package and everything, we felt like we were changing the car, we spent so much money changing the car, running back and getting parts and everything. Our guys were just so worn out, being a small team. It was just an absolute mess. Our equipment wasn’t probably good enough anyway. We kind of set them up to fail. And so we took another shot at it in 2016, we came back.
So I think a lot of people ask me, “What makes you think that you deserve to be out there in NASCAR?” Quite frankly, I think a lot of guys deserve to be out here in NASCAR. They deserve to be, but unless you go and make it happen yourself, it’s just not gonna happen. So I see guys that I have so much respect for like Bubba Pollard, Jeff Choquette, a lot of these guys, and I just wish that one of them would kind of do what we did, which is just go buy one truck and one motor. And it’s gonna cost you a little bit, it’s probably gonna cost you $60,000, $70,000, $80,000 to do it — but then you’ll just have it, and you can go run four or five races a year at the short tracks or something. I’d just like to see that.
NASCAR (needs to) get to a point where that point of entry isn’t as quite as high, the car isn’t quite as much, the engine isn’t quite as much, the per-race cost isn’t quite as much. If you did that, I think you’d see guys like that take a shot. But right now the point of entry is so high, it’s just really tough to get those guys in here. So it’s what we did: We just took a shot, figured if we just finish and not tear it up every time, we can come close to breaking even and only lose a little money. So we’ve just kind of done that for a few years.
You are here racing, but you had to come here and leave your day job, which is at a driving school in Las Vegas. You said you’ve been there for a few years?
Yeah, I have been. And that’s just a deal where that’s like the dark secret. I’m sure some of those guys (on the good side of the garage) are getting paid, but who’s paying them? Is the team paying them?
I’m sure in the case of the Cup drivers, it’s the team paying them, and they see them just like any other artist, right? Like if you owned a ballroom and you said, “I’m gonna get Adele to come play tonight,” well the expectation is you’re paying Adele, but you think that you’re gonna sell enough tickets that it’s gonna make you money.
And I’m sure you view Kyle Busch the same way: We’re gonna pay Kyle Busch, but we’re gonna sell sponsorship and make money on this. Same thing in Xfinity: they seem him as a property. And that’s fine. He is, and he is unbelievably talented.
But some of these other guys, I’m just not sure, because I have always had to bring at least some money to be able to run. Like with B.J. McLeod, he’s basically put me on a silver platter here, I’m basically running for him for nothing. So this is without a doubt the best deal I’ve had in my entire life. It just doesn’t come around for a lot of guys.
The best deal you’ve had is you don’t have to pay to drive?
That’s basically it. So I’m not making anything, but we’re not losing that much money, either. We just basically help him out a little bit on the tires, do other little things, but it’s not nearly as much what we’re spending on our own team– and I don’t make any money from it. We’re not really losing a lot of money. So it’s been a great deal, and I think a lot of guys would probably say the same thing.
And so I don’t know how (other drivers) are getting paid. Like if they’re bringing sponsorship to a team, they would probably have to take a cut out of that for them to make money. The way the business model is there is just really strange, and I just don’t think a lot of people know that. Or maybe they don’t wanna know that.
You think that you’re a professional athlete. I mean, I guess I am. I don’t really see myself that way, I’m a race car driver. I don’t feel like I’m a professional athlete. But we are racing in the second-highest series in the country! This is it, you know? We’re equal to IndyCar ratings-wise! This is it. There’s only one more bar here, and for three-quarters of the garage to not be getting paid as drivers, that’s just weird. I’m gonna sound like a crybaby, but I’m saying it, because I wanna get paid. We probably should get paid racing at this level, you know?
The people that are following you at your Tommy Joe Martins account, @TommyJoeMartins on Twitter — will this story have a happy ending? How do you see this going for yourself over the next few years here?
OK, we gotta think of the end goal here. So for me, I’m 30, and I look around and see William Byron. He’s 19, and he’s a badass, and he’s a great kid too, he’s awesome. He’s gonna get a Cup ride at Hendrick. So if I’m thinking I’m gonna get a Cup ride at Hendrick, that is the wrong thought.
So realistically, all I can hope to do is grow enough of a following that I can raise more sponsorship for myself. And not even to go to a better team — that’s not really the goal here — it would just be to have a career. Just have a career.
I’d like to do this for five or 10 years and get to drive, and then shift into the business of the sport because I love that part of it, as tough as it is and as crummy as it is. It’s almost like banging your head against the wall. Like how do you make money with a business that only loses money? How do you do that? I guess part of me enjoys the challenge of it.
But that’s it. That’s my career trajectory here, just hang around, get to race. I’d like to race full time and be in the points. That’s really the main thing, even if it’s on a small team. Even if it’s for B.J., just run full-time and see where we wind up, finish in the top 20 in points a few times.
I learned a long time ago I’m probably not going to be given a chance to win many races. And I just know that, running in the middle of the pack for smaller teams. You’re not gonna get a chance to win.
But you do have a chance to gain a lot of respect in the garage. And so that’s kind of currency for me, is if I can get other team owners, respected people in the garage to go, “Tommy Joe’s a pretty good driver. He’s got a goofy name, he talks a lot on Twitter, but he’s a pretty good driver and I know if I got him in my car, he’s gonna take care of it, he’s gonna get the best he can out of it and he’s gonna bring it back to me in one piece and not do anything stupid and a lot of other drivers respect him,” well that’s about the best situation I’m gonna find myself in. I’m 30 years old. I got a late start on this deal. I’m kind of in the middle of my career. I see it ending in five to 10 years if I’m lucky.
I think that’s a good trajectory. I don’t wanna look back on that and say, “That was bummer.” If I got to race in NASCAR at the higher levels — Trucks and Xfinity for 10 years — man, that’s really cool. So I don’t have any crazy ambitions here.
But I think it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. It always is, running where we’re running. When we’re running for a small team, there’s more bad days than good. So if you follow along, don’t worry, I’ll probably satisfy your taste for blood here. Because there are probably gonna be more bumps in the road.