The marquee sign at Stuart Family Restaurant on Main Street in Stuart read simply “Congrats 87”.
WHEO-AM (1270) in the town has been providing updates every weekend with race results from Motor Mile Speedway in Radford.
“Everybody in Patrick County is so behind us, it’s unreal,” said Billy Martin, a Stuart resident who owns the late model race team Billy Martin Racing.
Martin’s driver, Mike Looney, won the first late model race of the season at Motor Mile back in April, and since then he has kept winning and winning and winning even more.
Looney won both of the late model races during Saturday night’s season finale at MMS, giving him 12 victories at his home track this season. He’s just the third driver in track history to reach double-digit victories in a season.
“I’m the luckiest man in the world,” Looney told reporters at the track Saturday night. “Everybody in my life has sacrificed for me to race. It’s just so special. Without Billy Martin, none of this would have been possible.”
Looney also has a win at Langley Speedway, in Hampton, this season. In 30 races between MMS, Langley, South Boston Speedway and Dominion Raceway, he has finished in the top five 23 times.
As of Tuesday, with one week left in the season, Looney and company were tops in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national championship points standings, leading by 10 points with one race remaining.
A special connection
Martin and Looney first met at Franklin County Speedway in 1996, when Martin was driving late models and Looney was driving a street stock car.
“I watched him, and he could drive. I could tell he could drive,” Martin, 72, said by phone Monday. “And Mike’s dad and I, we got to talking, and I said I’m going to have to get him to drive for me one of these days.”
It was nearly 20 years later, in 2013, a year after Martin retired from the sport, when he finally got Looney in his car. Martin didn’t have his future driver’s phone number, so he had to call Looney’s brother instead.
“I said, ‘Do you think Mike would be interested in driving my race car?’” Martin said. “And he said, ‘I think so,’ so I called him, and he said yes he would drive, and we’ll see what happens. It didn’t take him long he started winning. I think we’ve won 24 races since he started.”
The two have clicked because Martin said they’re very alike and have similar work ethic. They also both understand the shortfalls the team has when it comes to funding. Martin will be the first to tell you he doesn’t race for the money. He still sells produce in Stuart to help fund the team, though he’s out of stock now and done for the season.
What helps with the money issues, though, is winning. The more Looney wins, the better is it for the team.
Looney had the biggest victory of his career in the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 at Martinsville Speedway in 2016, a race that came with more than $28,000 in prize money. That victory was something of a turning point for the team, because Martin said he was able to take the money and turn it into new engines and save some for a new car that they started running at the start of this season.
“If you’ve got good equipment, you can run better,” Martin said. “So all the winnings go right back into buying parts and new cars if we get them. … I’ve saved up enough money to buy us a new car and that’s made all the difference.”
A special season
Looney got a head start on the competition at Motor Mile this year by racing a couple of times at South Boston before the first race at MMS. He had good finishes at SoBo, finishing fourth, fifth, and seventh.
“Then when Motor Mile opened you might say we were already in our groove,” Martin said. “We were just doing good so we decided we might as well see if we can go for a championship.”
Given how low-budget the team is, Martin said they’re always hoping to win races first and then let the chips fall into a championship if they can. When the team picked up first- and second-place finishes during Motor Mile’s opening night, that’s when Martin started to realize that this season could be different from the rest.
“I said, ‘This is great because the more we win the more I can finance to do stuff because we’re on a budget. A tight budget,’” he said. “And he kept winning and I could buy new tires and just things like that and it just made it good when he won.”
The track championship at MMS was the first for Looney under Martin, and Martin’s first as team owner.
Looney also proved he could not just win at his home track but win anywhere, against anyone. The team traveled to Langley Speedway on June 22 and won the night’s first race after starting on the pole. He was leading the second race when another driver got into the back of his car and caused a tire to go flat.
The team went back to Langley for the annual Hampton Heat, the second race in the Virginia Triple Crown of late model races, a race that brings out some of the best drivers on the east coast. Looney again qualified on the pole position and was running in fourth when again his race was ended by another car’s wrecking him.
Even though he didn’t have the best finish, it was around this time when Martin realized they could be running for something bigger than just a Motor Mile championship.
Shifting the focus
When the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series points standings were released on Aug. 8, there was a new name at the top of the national standings – Mike Looney.
Looney led fellow Virginians Peyton Sellers and Philip Morris by two and four points. Both Sellers and Morris are each multiple national championship winners.
Martin said he always checks the national points to see who is leading every week, but even after winning two races at Motor Mile the weekend before, he never expected to see his driver’s name at the top of the list.
A racing friend of Martin’s in Martinsville had told him a few weeks earlier, when the team was in eighth or ninth, that trying to run for a national championship will “break you up,” because it costs so much money. But when Martin called the friend back and said they were in the lead, the advice changed.
“When we got two points ahead, I asked him, ‘What do you think?’ and he said, ‘Well, I think you need to go ahead and try for it for a little while and really work hard for it because it’s a possibility.’ So we just picked it up and started doing more, working harder and harder if that can be the case.”
Drivers are awarded points not just for winning but also for driving at a track with a full field of at least 16 cars and for how many cars they pass in a race. Martin said that Motor Mile officials were likely to force the team to start races from the back of the field anyway given how many victories they had, but when the team went full-fledged into trying to run for a national title, they decided that’s where they wanted to start, to get as many points as possible.
“When we figured out he had such a good car and he could pass so many cars, that’s where we wanted to start then,” he said.
The latest NWAAS points standings were released on Tuesday, with Looney again back on top thanks to the two wins at Motor Mile Saturday night. Looney leads Nick Panitzke and Jacob Goede, both of Minnesota, by 10 points. Morris is in fourth, 12 points back, and Sellers is in sixth, 18 points back.
With one week left in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series season, Martin said he and Looney decided Monday morning they would head to Langley Speedway on Saturday night for one more push towards the national championship.
They’re going to take both cars, just in case. One will ride on the their famous open trailer, another signature of the low-budget team.
“This national thing is getting close. We could possibly win it if we have a good run down there,” Martin said.
Sellers and Morris more than likely also will be at Langley on Saturday night.
“He’s as good as they are. We just don’t have the funds to compete and buy new tires like they do when they practice and that stuff, but we’re doing good with what we’ve got,” Martin said.
Martin and his wife eat at Stuart Family Restaurant about once a week, he estimates. WHEO-AM DJ Richard Rogers is a good friend of Martin’s going back to childhood. They sit near each other in church, and Martin calls every week to tell him how the races went so Rogers can relay that back to the listeners in Stuart.
Patrick County and the local area has always been behind Martin and his race team. He received congratulatory notes from former classmates and neighbors on Facebook after the team won the championship Saturday night.
Martin is thankful for all of it, especially the sponsors, like Stone Dynamics in Martinsville, which came on board this season, and said he hopes maybe he and Looney can give the town one more big victory before this season is finished.
“I just want to thank everybody for pulling for us and my local sponsors. I’ve got a few local sponsors, and I really appreciate them,” he said.
“The national points, I don’t know … it’s just a dream. I would have never thought we’d even be running for them.”
(This story originally appeared in The Martinsville Bulletin.)