BROOKLYN, Mich. - Mark Martin woke up alone in a $2-million motor home on Father's Day, nearly a thousand miles from his wife and son.
Solitude is a sacrifice made on his own terms. All the days the rest of us bookmark in our lives - birthdays, anniversaries, funerals - are merely a flip of the calendar page for Martin. It has been like this for 30 years.
Martin is a stock-car racer. All the other labels - husband, father, businessman - are relevant, but nothing compromises the commitment to his profession.
"When my father died in '98, I didn't get to stay," Martin said, taking a reflective pause from surfing the Internet on a computer in his motor home early that Sunday morning at Michigan International Speedway. "They had his funeral on Wednesday so I could be at the race track Wednesday night and be ready to get to the race car on Thursday morning."
Martin's friends and associates unequivocally consider him a doting husband and a wonderful father, but the life Martin has chosen judges a man only by the tick of a stopwatch. Only 43 guys get to do this every weekend, juggling NASCAR's whirlwind circuit of 38 races.
A racing schedule has run Martin's life for 30 years. The driver from Batesville, Ark., has established a solid resume, winning 34 Nextel/Winston Cup races and finishing second in the championship points chase four times.
Now 45, Martin cherishes every one of those moments. But every one is etched in sacrifice. As his career winds down and Martin grows more introspective, he takes inventory and faces some disconcerting truths.
"I don't have time to have friends," he said. "You come to an understanding that you are so consumed by something that you don't have time for personal relationships beyond your crew chief, guys who work on your car, and maybe your wife and kids.
"It takes time to maintain a relationship. I could be very best friends with Bobby Labonte, but if we talk to each other for two minutes once a week, how good of friends are you really?"
False impressions easily are made. People only get a glimpse of the motor coach sequestered in the infield of a race track, or hear the roar of a helicopter taking drivers to a private jet minutes after each race is over. They assume that racetracks are easy streets paved in fame and fortune.
Martin makes no apologies for any of his perks - including the motor coach and a six-passenger Cessna Citation jet- but folks tend to focus on the highlights and gloss over everything else.
Financially broken in the spring of 1983, Martin posted an auction notice on a race team he had begun building as a 15-year-old, selling everything he owned - cars, tools, trailers.
He got bounced back to the American Speed Association (ASA) circuit and had to re-establish his credibility, a process that would take more than two years. The majority of drivers who get dropped from the Cup series never make it back, but Martin was resolute.
"All I knew was racing," Martin said, "so I had to make a living racing."
He won the ASA title in 1986 and started one Cup race in '87 before returning to the Cup series for a full-time ride with Jack Roush's team in '88.
Martin thrived under Roush's tutelage - finishing third in the points race in 1989 and second in '90 - but more challenges would have to be overcome in subsequent years.
Nearly crippled by a deteriorating vertebra in his lower back, Martin had bone-graft surgery in November 1999 yet was back racing for the start of the 2000 season at Daytona.
"I found what I was good at and I pursued that ever since I was 15-years-old with 100 percent of my heart and soul," Martin said. "And the reason I've been successful is that I've been willing to make more sacrifices, more compromises than most people that I raced against.
"But those results came at a price. I spent many a Thanksgiving at truck stops eating by myself, many a Christmas in a race shop working on cars. I did a lot of my own work. I made a lot of sacrifices, but it's what I wanted to do. I wanted to win. I don't regret it."
Once addicted to bad habits - alcohol and fast food - Martin has become consumed with all things healthy. Admittedly obsessive and compulsive, Martin now channels that energy toward a four-day workout schedule that begins at 5:30 a.m.
At 5-6 and 130 pounds, Martin is hardly the most imposing guy on the NASCAR circuit. But the attention he pays to his body is impressive.
Martin tries to squeeze in family time whenever possible. But it's difficult to go on outings with his son because inevitably fans recognize him and expect him to spend his day signing autographs and posing for photos.
The demands of the fans soon will disappear. Martin didn't get into details, but those in his inner circle are preparing for another year of Nextel Cup beyond 2004, then maybe a two- or three-year part-time spin on the less-demanding Craftsman Truck Series circuit.42.11068 -84.24795 ERROR: Template storyimage.ldo not found in theme default for section sports!
Mark Martin woke up alone in a $2-million motor home on Father's Day, nearly a thousand miles from his wife and son. Solitude is a sacrifice made on his own terms. All the days the rest of us bookmark in our lives - birthdays, anniversaries, funerals - are merely a flip of the calendar page for Martin. It has been like this for 30 years.