Article by Greg Pogue
Nestled into the rolling Maury County countryside an hour or so south of Nashville sits the Marlin family farm once owned by local racing legend Coo Coo Marlin.
Two-time Daytona 500 winner and now retired NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Sterling Marlin, Coo Coo’s son, manages the nearly 850 acres, mostly raising beef cattle for selling at market.
But there’s also a huge race shop where Marlin, 55, maintains a covey of race cars to be driven at Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway by him or his son, Steadman. In fact, Marlin won the Late Model race there on April 6. This coming despite Marlin revealing last year that he had Parkinsonism, a disease that mimics some symptoms of Parkinson’s disease but is manageable with medicine.
In a NASCAR Cup Series career that spanned 33 years, the 1983 Winston (now Sprint) Cup Series Rookie of the Year ran 748 races, winning 10, including the Daytona 500 in both 1994 and ’95, making him one of only three to win the race in consecutive years. His last race came during the 2009 season.
Friday morning, FOX Sports Tennessee sports writer Greg Pogue sat down with Marlin in his race shop to discuss a variety of topics, but mostly racing then and now.
Greg Pogue: I understand that you are retired, but then I see that you not only drove Saturday night at Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway, but you won the Late Model Series race. Well, are you retired or not?
Sterling Marlin: I am retired from Cup. I still like going to a few local Saturday night races and running Nashville. I still have guys who helped me back when I first started in the late ‘70s still come out and help me on the car. The same old group goes back and still can run good and win races. That feels good.
GP: Why do you still do it?
SM: I’ve just always enjoyed working on race cars and trying to make them the best you can make them and go fast. Two years ago (at Fairgrounds Speedway), we won three out of six (races). Last year, we didn’t win one. We ran second two or three times, but a couple got away from us. We’ve really worked hard over the winter on a couple of cars, and it paid off for us.
GP: What is the thrill you still get out of racing?
SM: I’m not playing golf or fishing or whatever. I don’t like to fish. I don’t have the patience for it. Don’t like to play golf because I’m not worth a damn at it. I still like to race just for fun and enjoyment.
GP: How important is local racing for the local guy who does it as a hobby? I’m talking about a guy who works Monday through Friday and then goes out there and either drives or helps work on a car, no matter the classification. Why is it important to still have local racing for the hobby guy?
SM: A guy gets off on Friday after working a five-day a week job, he doesn’t have much time to work on the car. Well, you don’t have to tow it three hours, four hours to a racetrack, and then tow it four hours back. It just burns you out. People just really love it, especially if you have a really good sponsor. The track in Nashville is 30 minutes away from here and centrally located. A lot of great racers have come through this place and went on to win the Cup championship, the Daytona 500, a little of everything.
GP: You mention drivers who came through Nashville racing who went on to win the Daytona 500. You won it twice. What was it like winning that first one? After all, it was also your first Cup race win, too.
SM: It was really neat. I had run second like 13 times. It was a tough race to win. There was always caution that would come out, a bad pit stop or lose a motor or pulling into the pits fast. There was always something. I came off turn four and finally saw that checkered flag in the air. It was like, "Man, I had finally won a race and it was the Daytona." So, that was a pretty good deal.
GP: The second win at the Daytona 500, did that validate the first one? What was winning the second one like?
SM: The second one was really good. My first two wins were Daytona 500s. We went to Daytona in ’95 and had a really fast car. It was when Chevrolet came out with the new Monte Carlo. The car we won those races with, we really were saving for the Busch Clash. He said, ‘Get into this car and make two or three laps and see if the nose and fenders rub. It was about half of a second quicker than the other cars that we had worked on for 10 days. So, we said, ‘Whoa, we have us a fast car here.’ You really never know what you got. I don’t think anybody passed that car during the whole week. It was just flawless.
GP: How much did winning the Daytona 500 change your life, professionally and personally?
SM: It showed you could win on any Sunday. It kind of put you on the top tier of drivers. We were kind of mid-tier having not won a race. I had a bunch of seconds and a lot of top fives. But it put you in that top echelon of drivers. People would see you in the grocery store or the co-op or tire or whatever and say, ‘Hey, man, glad to see you won Daytona. You keep going and doing good.’ There was a lot of support.
GP: You are known for twice winning the Daytona 500. But you’re also known for the one you didn’t win in 2002 when you got out of your car during a red flag to fix your fender. You got sent to the back of the pack when you obviously had a great car and a great chance of winning a third Daytona 500. Talk me through that and what happened.
SM: We had a good car all week. I had led just over half the race. We had a restart, and we had that don’t go below the yellow line. Well, (Jeff) Gordon, I got up beside of him, and he ran down below the yellow line, and I was straddling it and caught him in the left rear and spun him. I hit my fender on his tire. The bad thing about it, we had a checklist that morning before the race, and the (crew member) was supposed to trim that fender about a half inch.
It started wearing on the tire. It was not on the side wall, but on the tread. We got stopped over there. That’s when NASCAR got to stopping the races. If they had done it like that we’re supposed to have, based on the caution, we would have won the race. I thought we had won the race.
Anyway, (crew chief Tony) Glover said, "How bad is it?" I said, "Well, I don’t know how bad it is. There is smoke boiling in the car." He said, "Well, get out and look at it." I said, "Well, what else do you want me to do?" He said, “Well, fix it if you can." And I said, "OK." So, I got out and pulled the fender. I still couldn’t get it off the tire. It was in so tight. It was down in the chords.
GP: You have said that you had seen Dale Earnhardt get out of his car to fix something. Did that help in your decision to get out yourself?
SM: Yeah, early in his career, he got out to fix his windshield or something. I knew (race officials) would get us. But what were they going to do, put us in jail? It was damn if we did and damned if we don’t. We had to pit anyway to get a new tire.
GP: After going to the back of the field, you still came back to finish sixth, right?
SM: Yeah, we finished sixth.
GP: What do you think about Cup racing today, especially the new Generation 6 car?
SM: I like this new car. The Car of Tomorrow didn’t favor a brick. I think that really hurt the fans a lot because they couldn’t associate it with what was sitting on the (car dealer) showroom floor. They have done a really good job this year with the new one, the Gen 6 car. It looks a lot better and sharper body lines. It looks like the Impala at the Chevrolet place. They did a good job making the car a lot safer. That’s the main thing, making the car safer. And they did.
GP: You said you love working on cars. A lot of the drivers who came through when you were driving Cup, and some still do, spend a lot of time working on the cars. But now, a lot of younger drivers don’t. How important is it for a driver to be able to know what they are driving and how to fix it?
SM: Well, back in the day, Rusty (Wallace), Ricky Rudd, Earnhardt, myself, you didn’t have all the bump stops and crazy shocks. I used to go in and say, "What do we have for springs?" Because when I got into the car, I knew if the car was too tight, we would come off those springs and go more bar, less bar, we knew what we needed to do.
Now, they have 30 to 40 engineers on a team. The driver just tells them what the car is doing, and they try to fix it. But it has gotten so out of control with engineers and all the crazy springs and shocks and setup to run. It made where a guy like me and this race team, it makes it about impossible for us to do it because you can’t afford all the technology, unless you have a pocket full of money to do it. I think it hurt turning all those loose.
GP: One of the main story lines this year on the Sprint Cup Series has been the running feud between drivers Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano. What are your thoughts about that?
SM: There are going to be dust-ups between a lot of different drivers. I know they have been into it since last year. The deal at the California race, it looked like Joey’s front end might have taken off on him and pushed him in a little bit, and he got into Denny. But when you’re coming to the checkered, you gotta do what you gotta do.
I know he didn’t mean to hurt Denny. And Denny just stood on the gas trying to keep the car on the wall. He should have just turned his wheels and spun it out, and he probably would have run fourth, fifth, 10th or somewhere. But he came off the bank and hit that inside wall with no safety barrier, and he just cracked his back.
GP: Obviously, Hamlin is not happy and has continued to reiterate that. And then you have Tony Stewart chiming in with his negative opinion of Logano, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. defends him.
SM: Yeah, well, I don’t know. I don’t pay a whole of attention to it. In the old days, they would just throw those helmets down and go at it and fight. Now, they all want to cat fight, push and shove. I’m waiting on somebody to pop somebody.
GP: Did you ever have any flaps with any of your fellow drivers?
SM: Not really. Me and Ricky Rudd got into it one time. He turned me at Bristol on the last lap. I wasn’t too happy about that. But other than that, you have to race them guys week in and week out, and you got over it. Or they got you back, and then you lost a lead, and now we just called it a clean slate.
GP: Do you watch the Cup races a lot?
SM: Not a whole lot. We go to the river a lot during the summer, and somebody usually has a radio on, so I keep up with who’s leading and who’s doing what. If I’m in the house, I watch the start. I can’t sit inside. I have to be outside doing something. I might come back in at the tail end and see who’s leading.
GP: When people look at your driving career now, what do you want them to say?
SM: I just ran hard as I could with what I had. When you look back on it, I should have won 20 races. Always had something — a pit stop, an air hose breaking on the last stop, miscommunication in the pits, you blow up or get caught in a wreck or something, you know.