Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to shed some light on their career path and how they reached their current position. Up next: Marlin Yoder, car chief for MDM Motorsports’ No. 41 team in the ARCA Series.
What your current role with MDM Motorsports?
This is going on my third year with the same crew chief, Mardy Lindley, and I am the car chief this year for Zane Smith, who is running for the championship in the ARCA Series. (Smith is currently second in the ARCA standings.)
I understand you have an interesting backstory. When I was talking to people about this feature, several people nominated you to do this. Can you tell me how you grew up and what your upbringing was like? Was racing ever on your radar at all?
No. I was born and raised Amish, and I left the Amish when I was 17, almost 18. We weren’t allowed to follow any sports and could play very few sports. We were allowed to play volleyball but no basketball, no hockey; softball but not baseball. But definitely not racing. That was very looked down upon.
And so this is up in Wisconsin, is that correct?
Yes, I was raised in Wisconsin.
I guess I have preconceived notions about being Amish, like probably a lot of people do, so set me straight on this: You didn’t have a TV? Is that correct? Were you even aware of NASCAR and things like that growing up?
No, we didn’t have TV or electricity or radio, so we didn’t have any music. And since we weren’t allowed to follow any sports growing up, I didn’t know anything of any sports like the NFL or NASCAR or racing in general. I didn’t know anything about it.
So then how did you first hear of NASCAR or racing?
When I was 15 years old, I had a buddy of mine who left the Amish, and I stayed in contact with him. Anytime I would need to get ahold of him, I would call him — but since we didn’t have a phone, I’d have to run across the street and use our neighbor’s telephone. I still remember the first time I used the phone. It took me a little while to figure it out because I had no clue how to use it.
Anyway, he brought me a little AM/FM radio. It was pocket-sized, so I could hide it anywhere — because obviously I wasn’t allowed to have that, you know? I could pick up one country station and I just happened to come across the race one Sunday afternoon. Of course, I didn’t know anything about it, but the MRN guys and the PRN guys did a really good job of painting a picture and make it sound so exciting. So that’s what drew me in.
I just started listening to it, and I didn’t know who anybody was, I didn’t know what the cars looked like, I’d never seen pictures of the race cars. So this was all an image that I knew nothing about, but I would build the image of what I thought was happening and what it looked like.
So you didn’t know the drivers or their past or the schedule — everything you knew was what they’re saying on the radio?
Yeah, like I had no idea what the racetracks looked like. I’d never even seen a picture of a racetrack. I didn’t know what a racetrack looked like or a race car.
When I finally did leave the Amish, that very day I watched my first Cup race and it was the Atlanta Cup race in 2008 in the spring there. I still remember seeing my very first pit stop, and I asked my buddy, “Why are they putting worn-out tires back on the race car?” I had never seen racing slicks. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a racing slick. So when I saw them put racing slicks back on the tire, I couldn’t understand why because I’d always seen treaded tires.
Did racing play into your decision to leave the Amish, or had you left for completely other reasons altogether?
No, it was other reasons altogether. Obviously that was something I started following when I was still Amish, even though I didn’t know anything about it.
I kept following it and I would never miss a race on TV. I would go to the local short track every Saturday night and watch the races. So it just built from there.
Once you left the Amish, you said you went to short tracks. Are you thinking, “Man, I’d love to work in this?” How did it evolve?
For a long time I would just go to short tracks. I’m talking about a couple years. I had a couple more buddies who left the Amish about the same time I did and after I did, and we would all go to the local short track every Saturday, or to a couple of local short tracks Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. We’d go to Slinger and places like that.
We’d watch these street stock races and we were like, “Man, I think we could do that.” So the buddy who left a couple of years before I did, he was the oldest one, so he would drive when we first started. We bought this street stock and we didn’t have any clue how to work on it, we didn’t know what it took to make it go fast.
I still remember asking people what I needed to change to tighten the car up or free the car up because I didn’t know what a right rear spring change does or a wedge adjustment. I had no idea. We were green as you could imagine, so it just started from there. And finally I got my own car and I would race every Saturday night.
Yeah, I was driving. So I would race most every Saturday night, and in between when I wasn’t racing, I would go help buddies on their Super Late Models and that sort of stuff.
Every night until two in the morning, I was working on my car or working on a buddy’s car just for fun, just to learn. That’s what I enjoyed, was just learning about a race car, what makes it go fast, what makes it turn, what everything does.
At that time I was doing roofing, and so I would roof houses during the day or build pole sheds or whatever during the day, then I would come home and work on my car or work on my buddies’ cars. So finally I decided, “Man, why don’t I go to North Carolina and see if I can do this for a living? I should get paid to do this, because this is so much fun.”
And so that’s what happened. A couple years ago at the end of 2014, I decided, “Man, this is what I’m going do. I’m going see if I can do this.” So I took two weeks off of work — the first two weeks of 2015. Of course we were slow anyway roofing houses in Wisconsin at the time of year.
So I came down and I didn’t know anybody down (in North Carolina). I had talked to one guy on Facebook Messenger who I raced against when I was driving, but I had never met the guy. I raced against him, and then he moved out of Wisconsin down here to Mooresville, and I had seen that, I was friends with him on Facebook. So I started chatting with him. And so that was my only slight connection down here.
So I came to Mooresville, and the first week, I knocked down every shop door I could think of. Anything from Super Late Model teams to Modified teams, Cup teams, Xfinity teams — every shop I could think of. And I’m on Google finding race shops, and I’m finding race shops at that point for race teams I’ve never heard of.
And you’re just showing up?
I’m just showing up and knocking on a door like, “Hey.” I told them my story, that I want to work on race cars, never done it professionally, but I want to learn, this is what I want to do.
In that first week, that buddy I was chatting with, I met up with him and he’s like, “Yeah, man, if you find a job, I have a spare bedroom, you can stay at my house.” And I’m like, “Well, that works out perfectly.” So I got to know him, he’s this really nice dude.
And what’s his name?
Kyle (Wolosek). I got to be really good friends with him, and he’s helped me out with quite a few things. When I first moved down, I would have questions and at that point he had quite a bit of experience and he would help me out a lot.
So the first week, no luck. The second week, no luck on Monday. On Tuesday I stopped at a Super Late Model team, but they also ran some Truck series stuff. So I had never heard of the team before, and it turns out they were from Wisconsin. The team owner was originally from Green Bay, Wisconsin, and so I left my resume — which wasn’t much of a resume — because I didn’t get to talk to him; he was in his office.
So I leave and I’m only two minutes down the road and my phone rings and it’s a 704 number, a Charlotte number. I’m like, “Uh oh, here we go. Somebody’s calling.” So it was him, it was Richie Waters (who owns Wauters Motorsports), and he wanted me to come back and talk. So I did. Went back, we sat down and probably had a 20-minute conversation, and he gave me the shot. He told me I could start as soon as I want. This was on a Tuesday, and I told him I could start on Monday. So I went back home.
You drove all the way back?
Drove all the way back, it’s like a 14-, 15-hour drive, and got all my stuff that I could fit in my car and the rest of my stuff I left there for that time. I put everything in my car that I thought I could possibly need — clothes and such — and I came down and stayed at Kyle’s house and it went from there. I worked for Wauters in 2015 and it’s just gone up from there.
So what did you start out doing? What job did he offer you that you started doing?
I started out just a general mechanic, just kind of helping. And obviously at that point, I didn’t know a lot. But with him being a smaller operation, it was a lot easier for me to learn. And I was able to learn all aspects and all areas of the race car. I was a tire specialist on a Super Late Model deal. He taught me how to do that stuff. And then a general mechanic as well.
How did it evolve to where you are now as a car chief?
So we went to the Snowball Derby that year with Richie at the end of 2015 there. And at the Snowball Derby, the company I work for now (MDM) was just starting up. So all these guys run the Snowball Derby, that was like a week off for everybody. Everybody goes to the Snowball Derby.
(MDM) saw me there and somehow or another they had heard about me through the year, through 2015 they had heard I guess some good things about me or something. So I heard that they wanted to talk to me. Well I had never even heard of those guys either, I didn’t know who they were. So I somehow got ahold of their phone numbers or something and I called them and they wanted to hire me on the spot.
So I started with them in January or February of 2016; they hired me as a car chief for Marty Lindley. The first year we ran the K&N East schedule with Kyle Benjamin and finished second in points that year. Then last year we ran Harrison Burton in the full K&N East schedule and won the championship in the East series. And now this year, we’re running for the championship with Zane Smith in the ARCA series.
That’s a pretty incredible journey. Obviously you’ve sort of found this dream and been able to achieve so much. But there had to be a lot of emotional parts of it along the way. You left all your upbringing behind, your family and friends. Do they know what you’ve been able to accomplish? Are you in touch with any of those people?
I still talk with my family a little bit. Like I’ll get a letter from my mother maybe twice a year. And she’ll call me like once a year as well. And then usually I’ll take like a week over Christmas and I’ll go to Wisconsin for vacation. So I’ll see my friends and family. But I’m not allowed to spend a lot of time with my family, because I now have nieces and nephews, and so I’m like a bad image I guess.
They don’t want you to influence them or something.
Right. So my nieces and nephews see Uncle Marlin come into the house, he’s driving a truck, he’s not dressed like they do, and that’s what raises questions.
The Amish are really big on hiding things in the outside world to the children. That’s just their big thing, is to hide everything from the outside world so they don’t know. Then when you get to be 17, 18 years old like when I was and I want to leave the Amish, you don’t know anything or anybody. You don’t have anything and you don’t have any money because they keep all your money until you’re 21.
When I left, I didn’t have a penny to my name and just the clothes on my back. So it’s really hard to leave. And it was pretty hard at first, (because) we were a really tight-knit family. My family is really tight-knit. So when I left, it was a little difficult I guess in that aspect, but I was determined there were better things for me than stay Amish. I always felt like there were bigger and better things that I would be able to accomplish in my lifetime than being a farmer staying Amish and doing all that. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I felt like I personally didn’t want that.
And my parents still to this day don’t agree with that. In March, it was 10 years since I’ve left, and they still won’t ask me any questions about my life or what I do.
I was there last Christmas, I was there at my parents’ house for a couple hours, and they never once asked me about my life. Like I haven’t talked to them in a year, and they never once asked me what I do, what I’ve accomplished. If they want to know, they pretend like they don’t want to know and they don’t ask any questions. But they also don’t know anything about racing, so I did tell my mom — even though she didn’t ask — that we won the championship, we won five races on the K&N East deal and won four ARCA races with just random drivers who we ran last year on a partial schedule. So it was a real good year last year. We had a lot of success.
So I tell my mom this and it all goes right over her head. Like she has no idea. She’s like, “What does that mean? Is that good?” I’m like, “Yeah, winning the championship is top of the line, that’s what everybody wants to do. That’s the goal.” And so they don’t grasp what that’s all about.
Wow. That’s unbelievable. Well that takes a lot of guts and bravery to do that in the first place and go after this dream. You’re certainly successful and achieved more than you probably ever dreamed you could. Do you have further goals and aspirations in NASCAR that you want to get to, or are you just living the dream right now and happy you made it to this point?
No, I’m not satisfied, definitely not. I want to win races and championships on a top level. Like the Cup Series is my next step, that’s where I want to go next. Unfortunately, I’ve had to turn down a few opportunities this summer about a month ago just because I’ve committed to my crew chief and I’m committed to this team to win races and to win this championship this year with Zane Smith on this ARCA deal.
When that’s over with, then I’m going to take that next step if that opportunity comes, and I think it will. I’ve been making some really strong connections. But yes, that’s my next step. I definitely want to win races and championships on the top level.