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Archive for Thursday, April 12, 2007

Easter weekend a time for Martin to give to fans

April 12, 2007

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Mark Martin, fittingly, was sitting in the service department.

As he has for the past couple of years, the Nextel Cup driver was at the Ford dealership he now co-owns in his hometown of Batesville, Ark., holding a "fan appreciation" over Easter weekend.

Tony Stewart was in town last Friday and more than 1,200 people showed up to get one of 500 wristbands that would ensure them of getting Stewart's autograph.

Martin knew he had to do something. So he went through the line handing out wristbands of a different color. "This won't guarantee you'll get Tony's autograph today, and I am sorry about that," he told them. "But with these you'll come to the front of the line when I sign tomorrow."

But Stewart hung around long enough to make just about everybody happy.

"And then this woman came in with a monkey and we couldn't get Tony to leave," Martin joked. "Tony liked the monkey and the monkey liked Tony and he just kept playing with that thing."

Martin and his late father, Julian, tried to buy the Ford dealership in Batesville in 1997. Several years later, Mark got the deal done and decided to make it one part business and one part racing museum.

Several cars from Martin's career are displayed, but the one that really captures what this place is about is the orange and white No. 2 that sits inside the front window.

Martin couldn't find the first racecar he and his father, Julian, built. It was sold to help them build a second one. That second car is the one that's here. Midwestern driving and car-building legend Larry Shaw, a lifetime Martin friend, found and restored it.

Mark and Julian Martin used to pull that car all over the Midwest as Mark established himself as a teenaged racing prodigy.

Today, more than 30 years and a lot of triumphs and setbacks later, Martin has a home in Batesville and one in Florida and a plane that gets him between them. He races as much as he wants to now on a partial schedule for Ginn Racing after nearly 20 years with car owner Jack Roush.

His success allowed him to buy the dealership he used to drive by in his hometown and make it not only a business but a repository for his memories.

"I knew I wanted to bring my stuff back to Batesville," Martin says, "just as much as I knew back in 1978 that I had to leave here."

Martin is not only from Batesville, he is "of" it.

Many of the people around this town are farmers, and most work hard every day because that's what you're supposed to do. While Martin has enjoyed success on a different scale than most of them will ever know, he's never lost that same work ethic.

So as the sun headed toward the horizon to end a blustery April afternoon, Martin was still there, signing one autograph after another.

"I'll stay here as long as I can and I hope we'll get to everybody," he said.

Service, with a smile.

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