While legendary crew chief Larry McReynolds, now a NASCAR analyst on SPEED, always will be remembered as Dale Earnhardt and Davey Allison’s crew chief, he first led NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie and current points leader Mark Martin midway through the 1982 season.
The duo combined for a 10th-place finish in their first race together at the year’s second event at Pocono Raceway, and concluded their 13-race run together with a fifth-place effort at Riverside before Martin’s family was forced to close the shop doors.
Following are McReynolds’ recollections of his time with Martin and the driver as a 23-year-old rookie:
SPEED: How did you get hooked up with Mark Martin in his rookie year in the Cup Series in 1982?
McReynolds: “The race team I was working for in Greenville shut the doors at the end of May and I stayed through most of June to help them prepare for an auction. Mark’s mom, Jackie, came to the auction and asked what I was going to do and whether I was interested in talking to them about a job as Mark’s crew chief. When the auction was finished, I rode up to Charlotte, talked to her, took the job and finished Mark’s rookie season out with him in 1982. Our first race together was the second Pocono event that year."
SPEED: Assess your 1982 season with Mark.
McReynolds: “We struggled financially although they tried hard to give us everything we needed. We were a very small, young team – even Mark was young – but I don’t think anybody outworked us. We got down to the last few races of the season and Jackie told me not to shortcut anything but we needed to watch our dollars. I got the feeling they were well outside spending the sponsorship money and into their own money.
“I told Jackie that Riverside, the last race of the year, was very expensive to get to. ‘Why don’t you just rent Mark a ride out there? It probably would be much cheaper,’ I told her. She said, ‘We started the season with the intention of running every race and we plan on living that out and won’t let one Riverside race stop us.’ So, I came up with a game plan – why don’t we do some cost-cutting measures such as driving out there? We all loaded up in the Suburban, Mark’s dad drove the hauler and we followed him. I was really glad we fielded our own car because we finished fifth, even with cutting a tire down under green, which meant a lot to finish the year on a high note because we were a third-place car."
SPEED: What did Mark and his family’s determination to get to Riverside show you about him even as a rookie?
McReynolds: “I didn’t need Riverside to show me Mark Martin’s determination – I saw it from the day I walked in the door and started working with him. He is one of the most focused, determined individuals I’ve ever met, whether working on or driving the car. I’ve met some pretty determined people – Davey Allison was about as determined an individual as you could encounter – but Mark Martin was always focused 1,000-percent on every lap on the track."
SPEED: Back in 1982, did you ever expect Martin to be as successful as he has become?
McReynolds: “I absolutely expected Mark to reach this level of NASCAR success. There was no question in my mind that although it didn’t look too bright and rosy in 1982, he would be a top-notch driver. I knew a lot of our results were the product of being a young and inexperienced team. While we didn’t want for anything, we had to be very careful about what we spent. But I knew how successful Mark would be long before working with him in ’82. I had been racing against Mark in the Southeast when he would go down there and run some of the bigger races. I knew that kid would be a winning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver one day. That was never a question."
SPEED: What were Martin’s strengths and weaknesses in his rookie year?
McReynolds: “Mark’s strength was how much he understood a race car because he had to work on his cars from the time he started racing and was very racing savvy and mechanically inclined. His weaknesses were the fact he was just a bit on the immature side but so was I. We were only 23 years old and back then, that was considered very young at the Cup level. I was in only my third year in the Cup Series and here I was named Mark Martin’s crew chief.
“I have always downplayed that first year because I was so very young and inexperienced. I usually designate my first year as a crew chief as 1985 because in 1982, we were just a group of guys working together, Mark included, and we did everything. I worked with him on making decisions on the car and made the pit road decisions, so yes, I carried the crew chief title, but I don’t even look it as the crew chief because I was so inexperienced. Mark was much more savvy about the race car than I was."
SPEED: How has Martin impacted NASCAR?
McReynolds: “As much as the sport was going to the younger drivers, the 18, 19 or 20-year-olds who are fit and on top of their game and what a sponsor is looking for, I think Mark has proven that at 50, he still does all the right things for the sponsors and fans and on the race track. Mark is a huge exception to the younger driver rule. Everyone knows Mark’s personality, determination and first and foremost, his ability to drive a race car."
SPEED: What do you think Mark’s chances of winning the Sprint Cup championship are?
McReynolds: “I have to fall back on something Mark said Sunday on NASCAR Victory Lane on SPEED – it’s awfully early to predict. If you look at his performance this year, the last five races – five top-five finishes since Michigan, including a win and a second-place finish in the Chase – his chances are as good as anybody’s. But I think he knows if he’s going to win the championship, he’s going to have to beat his teammate Jimmie Johnson. With a lot of racing to go and a few wild cards like Martinsville and Talladega, Mark’s chances are as good as anybody’s."
SPEED: What will Mark’s legacy in NASCAR be?
McReynolds: “The legacy that Mark Martin has created for when he eventually retires is the fact you can be successful, competitive, win races and be a championship contender while also keeping your nose clean week-in and week-out. I’ve been in the sport ever since Mark came into the Cup Series and I don’t know that I can ever remember anybody having anything bad to say about him. He has been ill at some people but I can’t recall hearing him say anything bad about another driver. Mark probably was the driver who created the practice of ‘if a car catches you and you’re not even halfway through the race, don’t sit there and race him because if you race him, you’re wearing your stuff and his stuff out and the guys behind you will probably catch you. Let him go. Don’t race side-by-side with 350 laps to go.’
“He races smart and that is one reason why if you see Mark being towed to the garage area, chances are that it was 100-percent unavoidable or was someone else’s fault. He doesn’t put himself in the wrong position. He knows when to go and when not to."