Gateway to the Big South Fork

Mike Marlar

Two years ago, Mike Marlar thought he was on the verge of retirement.

The Winfield man, whose prowess on dirt tracks across the country has earned him the nickname “The Winfield Warrior,” had just turned 40. He decided to run his first national points series — the World of Outlaws — and then hang it up.

“My goal was, win this series, then retire,” he said. “I knew if I retired I could look back and say, well, we were national champions. I didn’t really have intentions in 2019 of even racing much.”

As it turned out, Marlar did something that it is believed no one else has ever done — win a national series in his first try. He was crowned the 2018 World of Outlaws champion, a fitting end to a highly-respected career in dirt track racing.

But, as it also turned out, 2019 had much more in store than Marlar anticipated. Perhaps most notably, he got the opportunity to run a Nascar race for the first time. In August, he climbed behind the wheel of Reaume Brothers Racing’s No. 33 Toyota race truck for a Nascar truck series race at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Oh. In his Nascar debut, he started 23rd and drove to a fourth place finish.

“It was an awesome night,” he said. “We just had a blast with it. We all knew this was it — our one shot. So we just wanted to take it and do the best we could with it and have fun with it. It was a very hectic race with lots of bumping and rubbing going on. We were in some near misses with wrecks and stuff. It was a lot of fun.”

Six weeks later, Marlar raced another Nascar event, the Go Bowling 250 at Richmond, an Xfinity Series race.

“It turned out that 2019 was one of the best seasons I ever had,” Marlar said.

So much for retirement.

“I always wanted to have a plan for that to happen,” he said. “But I think reality has set in that there’s probably nothing else I am ever gonna love this much.”

He Came By It Naturally

As a young kid in Winfield, Mikey Marlar grew up in his dad’s salvage yard — learning about cars.

He also grew up around the race track. While David Marlar is a long-time local business owner and also served a lengthy stint on the Scott County Board of Education, representing the 5th District, he was also a race car driver, hitting dirt tracks around the region at every opportunity.

And watching his every move was his oldest son.

“By the time I was six or seven, there were cars and junk everywhere,” Marlar said. “Dad was just trying to make a living. And I always had a mechanical mind, so I was always out there peeking at stuff, just curious.”

Between running a business and raising a family, racing was a hobby for David Marlar. But behind him was his son, Mike, pushing him to race more.

“I was always encouraging him to be out there every week,” Marlar said. “He let me start working on his cars and making sure they were ready to go. And by the time I was 16, I had the bug really bad.”

So, Marlar did what any teenage son of a salvage yard would do: He talked his dad into letting him fix himself a car. With his father’s help, he built an entry-level car out of some of David Marlar’s spare racing parts.

“I never knew if I would be good at it,” Marlar said. “I just wanted to give it a try. I watched and studied and analyzed the guys every weekend I could go to the track.”

As a high school student, Marlar stuck close to home. He would race at Big South Fork Raceway on Fridays and Lake Cumberland in Somerset on Saturdays. And, he discovered, he was pretty good at it. So good, in fact, that he discovered he had a future in it.

“I realized if I could win on Friday and win on Saturday, I could make more money than I could if I had a job,” he said. “As a teenager, I could make $500-$600 on the weekend, driving a race car. I was like, wow, this seems like a lot of fun and it’s paying.”

David Marlar was a pretty good race car driver in his own right. He retired in the early 2000s to support his son’s career, and was limited by business and family obligations when he was driving. But back when he used to climb behind the wheel at tracks like Lake Cumberland, there weren’t many who were better.

“He has a natural ability to be good riding dirt bikes, driving a race car … anything that has tires and gas in it, he’s pretty good at operating it,” Marlar said of his father. “He has a lot of natural talent. If he had been in my situation and his dad had had a way for him to start (full time), he would’ve been really great at it.”

Racing as a Business

By 2003, when Mike Marlar was in his mid 20s, his success on the dirt track had begun to be noticed. He had just finished second in his first points series — a UMP Modified regional series.

He was approached by CJ Rayburn, the largest manufacturer of dirt racing cars, and asked to join their team. That started Marlar down a path to bigger and better things.

Marlar’s break-out race came in 2004, when he won a national event in West Virginia. The payout was $25,000.

“All the top people in the U.S. were there — the best drivers and the best teams,” he said. “People knew our names after that. It was an awesome feeling.”

David Marlar had long since quit driving by that point so that he could support his son. Together, they were finding a way to forge a career in the business.

“Dad and I, we were just trying to do what we could do,” Marlar said. “We had some sponsors trying to help. But that day in West Virginia, that was the day it all came together. It was kind of the signature moment that we could do this. From there, there were a lot of fun nights and a lot of success.”

There were bumps in the road, of course. The Great Recession, which started in 2007, resulted in a lot of money being pulled from dirt track racing. The years that followed were lean years.

But, by 2013, everything was back to normal. And Marlar was at the top of his game.

“From 2013 until now, I have been fortunate to have a lot of success and a lot of good things have happened,” he said.

Fast and Steady

Mike Marlar has never really been a points series racer. Instead, he’s a purse racer — choosing the highest-paying races, regardless of which circuit they’re on. “Trying to do it in the best economic fashion,” is how he describes it.

“We might go to a Lucas Oil Series race this week, and next week it might be World of Outlaws, and the next week it might be something else,” he said. “Last year, there was a $50,000 World of Outlaws race one weekend and the next weekend there was a $125,000 race sanctioned by Lucas Oil. So you’re better off financially to not run a series.”

There have been exceptions, though. Three times over the years, Marlar has run series. He’s won two and finished as runner-up once, making one wonder how many championships he might have accumulated by this point if he had chosen to run series for his entire career.

Marlar’s first championship was the Battle of the Bluegrass. In the 15 years between 2003 and 2018, he spent most of his time purse-racing, wherever that might lead him. In 2018, he broke that mold when he decided to run the World of Outlaws series.

“I wanted to run a national touring series and do that just one time,” he said. “We were fortunate to do it.”

So what’s the key to Marlar’s success? A little bit of luck, a little bit of skill, and a lot of perseverance might be described as the best formula.

“At the level I’m at, you have to drive the car perfectly, and you have to set the car up to make it handle perfectly,” he said. “If you win a race today, you have to do everything perfectly. You have to have a lot of things go your way. You can’t have bad luck. It’s a combination of everything.

“It used to be way more about the driver and less about the car, but as technology keeps advancing the car has come into play a lot more in winning a race,” he added. ‘But you’re not ever gonna win a race without driving the car.”

A Team Effort

Marlar is quick to point out that it takes more than just the driver to make a successful race team.

“I always compare the driver to the quarterback of a football team,” he said. “You can have the best quarterback in the world but if he doesn’t have a good offensive line blocking for him, he’s getting run over every play. It takes a lot of people playing a lot of positions to have a successful team.”

Marlar’s team consists of his owner, Delk Equipment Sales of Jamestown; his crew, Jerry Sprouse and Josh Davis; and, of course, his wife, Stacy.

“We are the team, night-in and night-out,” he said. “Without them, I promise you we’d be half as successful as we have been. They’re very, very good.”

Davis joined Marlar when he was 14, just a high school kid who hung around the shop because he liked racing. Now he’s 28, and receives national recognition for his work. Sprouse, too, is nationally known. In fact, opposing teams — including some that are owned by Nascar drivers — are constantly trying to hire them away from Marlar.

“We’re all just neighbors in town here,” he said. “Those guys enjoy it and love it and have become very successful at it.”

As for Stacy Marlar, she’s a civil engineer. But she chose a career in teaching at Oneida High School so that she could have summers off and travel with her husband.

“She changed her whole career so we could do this,” Marlar said. “It takes a lot of sacrifice but at the same time it’s a lot of fun.

“It’s not something you can do without everyone’s support,” he added. “My dad quit driving race cars because he saw the direction my career was going and he thought we could have more overall success if he was there to help me. In the end, your family gets more enjoyment than sacrifice out of it.”

What’s Next?

Marlar often gets asked why he isn’t running more Nascar events. The answer is, simply, financials. It takes millions of dollars — ties to deep-pocketed sponsors — to break into Nascar, even when you’re driving race trucks on Friday nights. He calls 2019 a one-time shot, made possible by his friends at Smithbilt Homes in Knoxville. Maybe it’ll happen again, but if it doesn’t, that’s okay.

“I’m lucky I got to do it the few times that I did,” he said. “It’s not like the NFL or the NBA where you get in on talent alone.”

For now, the coronavirus has slowed everything down. Dirt track racing is just starting to come back, but until the crowds can return to the tracks, there isn’t financial incentive for the races to be held. So Marlar has been enjoying some rare down-time at home in Winfield.

“I’ve always been intense and go-go-go,” he said. “I’ve learned to relax.”

He’s used his time off to make upgrades to his shop, to take care of home improvement projects, and enjoy time with his wife, Stacy.

“Through the years, we’re just here through the summer long enough to get the cars ready for the weekend and we leave again,” he said. “I have been able to take care of things that have been neglected. And with Stacy being out of school, we’ve been able to just hang out and enjoy life a little bit.”

But with the home improvement projects taken care of, Marlar is getting anxious to get back on the road. And when he does, he’ll have an entire community following him and supporting him.

That part of it has surprised him, Marlar said. In the early days of his career, there was no Facebook or other social media networks, and he didn’t think many people cared back home. As Facebook has revolutionized the way people communicate, it turns out that there are lots of people keeping up.

One thing that has always been clear, though, is the support he has had from his family.

“In my early years, Skylar (brother) was growing up and a teenager, and we had a lot of fun,” he said. “There were trips where it would just be my dad, myself, Skylar and Cameron (brother) just taking off for the weekend and going across the country for a race. We had a lot of good memories from that. Now they race a little bit, kinda as a hobby. It’s fun to be able to coach them along and help them with their cars. We all love it. It’s just been a family love of ours for a long time. Whether it’s a national event with a lot of pressure or just going to a local track and watching our friends, it’s always been a lot of fun.”

Marlar keeps up with other local drivers, too. There aren’t a lot of them anymore, not since the two local tracks closed. But there are a few. He points out names like Jim Butler and Jared Terry, friends from high school who raced and were good at it, and newer names, like Dustin Duncan and Keven Sexton.

“There’s definitely some talent in our hometown,” he said.

The key to being a race car driver, Marlar said, is persistence.

“I don’t feel like I’m an ounce more talented than my dad or my brothers or some of these boys that are racing around here and just getting started,” he said. “It’s just a matter of going out there and getting accomplished. We can talk about the good nights and the fun nights, but there were also a lot of nights where there was heartache and crying on the way home. You just have to stay with it, and eventually you’ll get there.”

This article first appeared in the Independent Herald.

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