Thread the Needle!

Welcome to “Thread The Needle!” A weekly column that explores the rich history of motorsports by way of the thrift store t-shirt.

For years, Mark Martin has borne the universal sporting booby(shut up)-prize title of “Best Driver Never to Win a Championship”. I’m not so sure about that. Mark “Mr. Consistency” Martin has plenty of titles under his belt. No, he’s never been a Sprint Cup champ, but since when was that the only title? Someone explain to me how his five IROC and four ASA National titles over three decades don’t count.

Martin has been at it a while. Born in Batesville, Arkansas in 1959, he made the jump from local dirt tracks to asphalt for the 1977 ASA National Tour. Martin took home Rookie of Year honors amidst a field of stock car legends like Bobby Allison and Dick Trickle, and he won the title his sophomore season. Martin’s first few NASCAR seasons were marred by inconsistency though, as a journeyman driver he raced on six teams in seven years. Eventually, he settled in as top shoe for Roush in 1988 where he spent the prime of his career until leaving the team in 2007. He raced as recently as 2013 and even though he won’t be running this year, he has refrained from uttering the word “retire”.

On to the t-shirt… the vintage of this particular example is 1993, and it’s typical of the period. The shirt features aggressively shaped neon curves and uses gradient coloring to create the illusion of depth and the sensation of speed. It is a starkly composited image, featuring almost no stylistic relationship between the subject and its surroundings. The coloring, and composition are extremely consistent with other examples from the early computer design era. No sponsor other than Valvoline is highlighted, and a backside print is lacking, making for some difficulty with regards to placing the car in the season. Since there is no particular race or track referenced, my assumption is that it is a fairly common shirt (as these things go) and was available over the course of the season at multiple venues and retail outlets. 

The car featured is the #6 Valvoline Thunderbird that Martin drove through 1996. No, it’s not nearly as cool as the Folgers Thunderbird he drove in 1990-91, but by ’93 he wasn’t so hot either.

In 1990 he was the favorite to win the Sprint Cup Championship, but an illegal carburetor spacer landed him a 46 point penalty at Richmond. He ended up coming in second that year to a slightly more marketable nickname. “The Eliminator” won by a tiny margin of 26 points. Martins next season was particularly unremarkable, though he still took 6th overall.

Folgers dropped him in ’92, and Valvoline stepped in, resulting in the livery we find on today’s shirt. No, he never managed to regain his momentum in the Sprint Cup Series, but he never lost his will to fight either. The Folgers car may represent the elusive and ethereal spirit of a racer possessed with the conviction that he’s the best; but the Valvoline car is a symbol of dedication, perseverance, and hard work. No, Mark Martin never won that title, but who cares? The man is fast.

Special thanks to Etsy user SportSnapBackHats for the images. If it’s still available, you can purchase the shirt here.

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