Mike Marlar is one of the most accomplished Dirt Late Model racers in America today. During the 2018 season he was crowned as the World of Outlaws Late Model Series champion which, added to major event victories such as his two Knoxville Late Model Nationals triumphs and his two Hillbilly 100 victories, gives the pilot of the No. 157 car a résumé that would be the envy of many in the sport. But even with all of those accomplishments, the Winfield, Tenn. driver wanted to add even more to his list of achievements. And this past summer, he did exactly that.
A conversation with sponsors Tom and Rocky Smith, who back Marlar’s Late Model ride with their Tennessee-based Smithbilt Homes company, eventually led to an opportunity to make a pair of starts in NASCAR. When presented with the chance, the 41-year-old driver seized the opportunity to take a step toward somewhat unfamiliar territory.
“You know, I had never really had an interest in it until the last few years,” Marlar detailed in an interview with InsideCircleTrack.com. “My sponsors, Tom and Rocky Smith of Smithbilt Homes, were at my shop one day and we were talking about some NASCAR stuff and I told them I’d like to go to one of those bigger tracks to drive some. They actually have some connections and they have an engine lease program that they own so they can lease engines to some of the teams. They came back to me later and said they had an opportunity. After the World Finals at Charlotte last year they contacted me and told me they had it lined up if I wanted to do it and, of course, I did.”
The machine Marlar drove in one of his two NASCAR starts may have been different from what he was used to but the site of the event was one the driver knows all too well. The veteran racer took his first ever green flag under NASCAR sanction in the Eldora Dirt Derby with the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race held on the dirt at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway.
Driving for Reaume Brothers Racing in a truck that had previously scored only one top-10 finish, Marlar sailed under the checkered flag in the fourth position. The driver who has made more than 15 starts in the two crown jewel Late Model races held at the famed track now owned by Tony Stewart points out that driving a NGOTS machine is very different from wheeling the type of cars he is more used to.
“Honestly, they’re harder to drive on dirt,” Marlar said of the NASCAR trucks. “They’re just not set up for dirt, they’re heavy and big and the steering is kind of slow on them. I told someone that it’s five seconds a lap slower(than a Late Model) but you’re doing a lot more fighting the wheel in those and using the gas and brake a lot more than you are in a dirt car so you felt a lot more out of control driving it. It was definitely some hairy experiences in the truck race but I missed a few wrecks and made some passes so it all worked out good.”
There are numerous aspects of driving in NASCAR that required adjustment for the dirt racing ace. Spotters and rear view mirrors are not a part of dirt racing. And more, the physical and mental aspects of each discipline are unique to that form of racing.
“What I see as a difference from the NASCAR world is that physically this stuff is pretty hard, it’s demanding on your body,” Marlar explained of driving a Late Model. “With these things here, you’ve got to wrestle the steering wheel in them and they’re really aggressive. There’s a lot of physical work going on in these. In the NASCAR car or truck there’s a lot of mental work going on. It’s mentally tiring because you’ve got a spotter talking to you and everybody around you is depending on radios to drive so when they tell you to move you’ve just got to move and hope they’re doing their job. I think that’s part of the reason you see a lot of wrecks in NASCAR. It was a cool experience and there’s a lot to take in, for sure. I’m looking forward to getting to do a little bit more of it with maybe even in a truck on asphalt.”
Marlar credits the Smiths for providing the opportunity to make the start. And he further points out that there may be more NGOTS starts in the future.
“Thanks to them guys I’ve got to go do it a few times,” the Winfield Warrior declared. “We may do some more of it in the future so we’re trying to figure out the best way to go about it. It was definitely fun. It was a neat experience and the truck race went awesome.”
Aside from his top-5 finish in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Eldora, Marlar also had the opportunity to start a NASCAR Xfinity Series race on the 3/4-mile paved Richmond Raceway. That outing did not prove to be as successful as the No. 66 Motorsports Business Management Toyota was involved in a first lap incident that ended the team’s day early.
“Then I went and drove an Asphalt Late Model and that went pretty good,” Marlar recounted. “I drove the Xfinity car at Richmond and I don’t know what happened on the first lap there. It went okay in practice. My car was a little off but it was a starter car so we weren’t doing too bad there through practice and qualifying but on the start I don’t know if I spun or if the guy behind me touched me a little bit. I felt like I got lifted up by the back wheels but there wasn’t a video of it so I couldn’t tell if he lifted me or brushed me and I got spun around there. I didn’t get to finish so that was unfortunate. But it was a fun experience.”
The highly successful dirt star explained that racing on clay surfaces offers a greater range of driving styles than do the cars and trucks used on pavement in NASCAR.
“There’s a lot of different ways to drive a dirt car,” he said. “Being from Tennessee, I think some of the guys from our region, the way you have to drive on our tracks, you have to drive off of the right front more than the way those Midwestern guys drive. Those guys from the Midwest are more gas on it and spin the tires a lot and drive kind of sideways. Your Southern guys are under control a little more because they drive with the front wheels more.
“In NASCAR, there is only one way to drive,” he continued. “You have to drive straight and with the front tires. There’s a lot of freedom we have in a dirt car that you don’t have in NASCAR. With that truck on the dirt, you were able to move around and find a place to run. With a car, it just really all depends on how fast your car is. What I determined there was that if you have a fast car it’s a lot of fun but if you have a slow car it can be miserable. You’re just very limited on what you can do as a driver. In a dirt car, the sky is the limit.”
When all was said and done, Marlar is glad for the opportunity he was provided.
“It was a cool experience and not a lot of people get to say they got to do that. I’m grateful for the experience and I’m grateful that Tom and Rocky made that happen for me.”
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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