Mike Looney began his storied racing career at Motor Mile Speedway in 1995, when he was just 16 years old. He has more good stories from races at the Radford, Virginia, track than he can remember in one sitting.
There’s his first win at the track – “I can’t remember what year that was” – when his team took a limited sportsman car and moved it up to the late model race.
“I think we sat on the pole and led every lap,” he said. “I beat (former NASCAR Wheelen All-American Series national champion) Philip Morris and I think I won $5,500 that night. That was pretty cool to beat the big boys with an old wore out limited car.”
In 2000, when he was “pretty much a nobody,” in just his second year running a full season he won a track limited sportsman championship with a small team and a home built engine.
“I’ve just kind of made the most of what I can get for most of my career,” he said.
That was until last season. Looney, who lives in Catawba, Virginia, less than a hour from Motor Mile, considers that his home track. He had driven at least one race a season there every year since 1999.
That was when Motor Mile took a year off from racing, so they could “kind of hit a reset button,” according to track general manager Michelle Vaught.
This season, though, Looney and his team with Billy Martin Racing out of Stuart, Virginia, will be back at the newly reopened Motor Mile trying to race for a championship at their home track. As the track re-opens, it will also return to the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series.
Vaught said she and the crew at Motor Mile felt like they needed to take the year off in 2018, but in the offseason track officials got together with drivers and fans to have discussions on what could be done to improve the on-track product and make it more accessible for drivers and fans.
“We had many of our drivers who were devastated, along with our fan base who was devastated about it and they came to our management and our ownership and said ‘hey we have some thought, we have some ideas to make it better,’ ” she said. “So we opened up the conversation with all those people, whether it was a driver, a team owner, a sponsor or just a fan and we had sort of an open meeting.”
Looney was one of the drivers in those meetings. The year away from home was tough for his team. He said they drove in a couple of races at Kingsport Speedway in Tennessee, and the second half of the year at South Boston Speedway in southern Virginia, but the extra travel was tough while working on a tight budget.
“Touring is a huge expense. When you race at other tracks you’ve got to take off work, go down and spend all day Friday and put the whole crew in a hotel Friday night,” Looney said. “But being able to race at home would allow us to get to test more. I’ve got the most experience there. So we’re looking forward to it, getting back to what we know and we’ve been successful at.
“The biggest thing for us is we live here. It’s home. You get to sleep in your own bed.”
Helping small budget teams like Looney’s was one of the changes Vaught said the Speedway looked to make in reopening this year. Going to a two-tire rule instead of four, changing back-gate fees and helping with tickets for drivers’ family and sponsors are a few of the changes.
The response to a return to racing at Motor Mile has been “unbelievable,” Vaught said. Most of the regulars are like Looney – local drivers from within just a couple of hours from the track. The hope is other former Motor Mile regulars will return, and some of NASCAR’s new rules will also bring in younger drivers racing for a national championship.
Motor Mile opens the season April 27, headlined by its Divsioin I Late Model Stock Car. Other NASCAR divisions include Limited Sportsman, Modified 4 Cylinder and Super Street Division. The track will finish the season on Sept. 7.
Motor Mile opened as Pulaski Speedway and was a NASCAR track for one season in 1954. It returned to NASCAR as Pulaski County Speedway in 1988, and was part of the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series up until last year, through the name change to New River Valley Speedway in 1992 and finally to Motor Mile in 2004.
Having a local track also helps attract local fans.
“Somebody that lives here can say ‘I went to school with him,’” Vaught said. “There’s things like that that will be interesting.”
Unlike last season, when Looney was racing often five or six hours from home with no fans in the stands, he said whenever he gets behind the wheel at Motor Mile there’s usually 30 or 40 friends and family there cheering him on.
Vaught hopes the other drivers have just as big of a cheering section.
“Response has been unbelievable,” she said. “Just that return of racing and the hope that we can fire everybody back up about it and get that excitement… I think it’s going to be a breakout year for us.”
Looney and Martin have been laying the ground work to compete for a track championship at Motor Mile, and while that is the goal, he said knowing that is an option doesn’t change how they approach the season. In the end, he’s just excited to be back home and race for the fun of racing.
“We just try to take it one race at a time,” he said. “You can get caught up in chasing points and wind up spending a lot of money that you didn’t need to spend and get emotionally worked up about it. We don’t measure our success by wins or championships. Me and Billy, it’s about us having a good time. He doesn’t put the pressure on me. If I never won another race I’d still be his driver. We measure success a little differently.”
“Mike Looney is such a great story,” Vaught said. “For us, we are so fortunate to have him. He’s competitive here but he’s competitive at other tracks as well. He and Billy both are just great, hard-working, your normal guys. He doesn’t come in with some million dollar hauler. He works on his car. He is a phenomenal story. And we have so many of them.”
(This story originally appeared on NASCAR.com)