Call him crazy, but Mike Looney believes he can do it.
The 41-year-old Late Model racer from Catawba has enjoyed a career year in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. So good, in fact, that Looney is currently ranked fourth in the national standings.
The NASCAR Whelen All-American Series is the sport’s national program for grassroots-level racing. The series is comprised of fifty-seven dirt and pavement short tracks throughout the United States and Canada. More than 10,000 racers compete annually during a season that begins in January and ends in September.
Now, with one month remaining before the checkered flag falls on the 2019 season, Looney is vying for grassroots racing’s most coveted prize: the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national championship.
It’s simply unfathomable. Ask Looney, and he’ll tell you that it just isn’t designed to work this way. After all, Looney’s full-time job is working on cranes, not racecars. There are no big sponsors bankrolling weekend trips to race tracks across the east coast. No one on the race team boasts a pedigree.
Two Late Model juggernauts are the frontrunners for the national championship. 2005 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national champion Peyton Sellers of Danville and Ruckersville native Philip Morris are currently tied for first in the national standings. Morris is pursuing a record-setting sixth national crown this season.
By contrast, Looney’s unheralded rise in racing has been defined more by beating the odds, not racecar drivers. He and car owner Billy Martin are throwbacks; their bootstrap mentality exemplifies NASCAR’s do-it-yourself image of yesteryear. Together, they are adept at achieving success on a shoestring budget. From oil-stained rags to potential NASCAR riches, it’s the consummate Cinderella story.
“For somebody like me to be able to put a season together to compete with everyone in the nation is pretty mind-boggling,” Looney explains. “This is a longshot. It always has been. The guys I’m racing against, they’ve done this before, and they know how to get it done. This is the big time.”
Looney has won nine Late Model races in 2019; one at Langley Speedway in Hampton, Virginia, and eight at Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, Virginia. Looney vaulted to the top of the national standings by a two-point margin over Sellers after a sweep of Motor Mile Speedway’s Late Model twinbill on August 3rd. He currently trails Morris and Sellers by a mere 18 points.
For the first time in Looney’s career, the Victory Lane visits are becoming routine. The brief post-race celebrations are popular attractions for his ever-increasing fan base, but fanfare is noticeably absent. After emerging from the racecar and acknowledging those in attendance, he typically kneels in a moment of silent meditation, forehead resting against the no. 87 emblazoned on the door. He’ll flash an aw-shucks grin for the cameras. He responds to interview questions with a drawling, porch swing charm. It’s homespun. It’s unassuming. It’s trademark Looney.
The throng of fans that have gathered get a moment with Looney in turn. There are handshakes and hugs, and fist-bumps offered to the children. Looney remains spellbound by the support.
He is relatable to his legion of fans. He is affable and authentic. Looney is an everyman; a reflection of the blue-collar majority that constitutes grassroots racing’s largest demographic. As a result, seemingly everyone pulls for Mike Looney.
“It’s really special. It’s very gratifying, and very humbling,” says Looney. “A lot of people have seen me go through the hard times. A lot of those folks have seen the dues I’ve paid and the sacrifices that I’ve made. It does me good to feel like I’ve finally made them proud.”
One of Looney’s biggest supporters stands just outside of the limelight as those Victory Lane ceremonies commence. Looney’s rollercoaster career in racing has reached its zenith thanks to Martin, a 72-year-old racing lifer from Stuart, Virginia.
A fixture in Virginia’s local racing community since the 1970s, Martin’s extensive career as a driver includes nearly fifty wins on dirt and asphalt tracks across the region. He is a two-time Franklin County Speedway (Callaway, Virginia) Late Model track champion. Martin made history with the latter title in 2012, becoming the track’s oldest Late Model champion at age 65.
When Martin’s drive to maintain a presence at the track outpaced his abilities behind the wheel, he selected Looney to fill his seat. It was the first such partnership for Martin, and it resurrected Looney’s career. What has transpired since has been story book.
The Billy Martin Racing team helmed by Looney hit overdrive in 2016. On October 16th, Looney stunned the Late Model community with a spectacular upset win at Martinsville Speedway in the prestigious Valley Star Credit Union 300.
For the underfunded race team, the triumph was indescribable. The improbable victory was a sentimental capstone for Martin, whose unbridled passion for racing dates back to his childhood growing up in the shadow of the legendary Wood Brothers Racing shop.
“When I was a little kid my parents would take me to Bowman Gray Stadium and I would watch the Wood Brothers. We lived right on Route 8. I’d be sitting out on the front porch of our old farmhouse, and they would come down the road towing that no. 21…and I would get so excited, you just wouldn’t believe it,” beams Martin, noting that the no. 87 was derived from watching Buck Baker compete during his first trip to the track.
“They have a Racers Reunion every year in Danville. After we won the Martinsville race, Glen Wood and Rex White called me up to sit at their table,” Martin continues. “You just wouldn’t believe how that made me feel.”
The lessons learned from the Martinsville Speedway win are serving to motivate Looney and the team as they face their most daunting challenge yet.
“I never believed I could win at Martinsville. I was lucky enough to be a part of a bigger plan that day,” Looney says. “Before that day, I would’ve told you that this was impossible. That day taught me that anything is possible.”
Looney’s toughest opponent in his national championship bid is a familiar nemesis: funding.
The team is almost entirely financed by Martin’s life savings. The longstanding financial support of a few local businesses help with the basic necessities, but overall, the team’s coffers amount to a fraction of the operating budget of his counterparts in the national championship race.
“Billy is not a wealthy man— he’s retired, and has gone back to work for half a week just so we can buy tires. That means a lot,” says Looney of Martin’s financial commitment to the team. “A man that age going back to work so that I can race…it means a lot to me.”
Martin sells produce -he is affectionately known as the Watermelon Man in his neck of the woods- to help offset the costs necessary to compete. In good years, the business yielded a sizable sum that Martin earmarked for racing. But he isn’t able to do it as frequently anymore on account of his illness.
Martin was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017. The location of the cancer is tricky and coupled with other risk factors Martin’s medical advisors have determined it to be inoperable. Martin is managing the illness well, and his most recent scan was positive. Martin’s attitude is positive, too.
“When I told Mike, I had to go get a brain scan – the first-place lung cancer travels is to the brain – he said they wouldn’t find anything up there but a mouth,” Martin jokes. “I haven’t worried about it to start with. I’m a Christian. It doesn’t matter.”
Martin and Looney embrace their role as the national championship dark horse. In truth, they’re colorful racers; their on-track achievements are an outgrowth of their life experiences.
Martin was once a marathon runne, and credits the physical and mental benefits accrued from years of running as an invaluable asset in his battle with cancer. He ran the Los Angeles Marathon in 1989 and ’90, placing 2,553rd in a field of roughly 18,000 in his first attempt at age 42.
Looney is a banjo player and an avid bear hunter. On bear expeditions, Looney travels with a team of approximately ten hunters and eight dogs. He doesn’t travel with a gun. Looney’s role, as he explains, is to “go sniff ‘em out.”
Family is foremost. And for Martin and Looney, family and racing are synonymous.
“If you grew up hard, having to work for everything, getting nothing handed to you, you learn how to appreciate what you do have. You learn how to make more out of the opportunities you get, whether that’s in life, or in a racecar,” states Looney. “All our guys work full-time jobs. They come to the shop at night and work their tails off. It’s all a big family. It’s a unique operation. I’ve drove for a lot of people, but I’ve never had anything this good.”
Looney had been a journeyman driver prior to his partnership with Martin. A Pure Stock track championship at Franklin County Speedway and a Limited Sportsman title at Motor Mile Speedway preceded his transition to grassroots racing’s preeminent division. He spent his 20-year Late Model career piloting a carousel of racecars for various teams, garnering a handful of victories. Looney was a perennial contender, but insufficient financial resources repeatedly throttled his potential. Before strapping into Martin’s no. 87, Looney had only logged three full-time Late Model seasons.
2019 has been a landmark season for Looney. Locally, Looney is speeding toward his first Late Model track championship; he currently boasts a 215-point lead in Motor Mile Speedway’s track standings with four races remaining. Morris has competed in five of Looney’s eight victories at Motor Mile Speedway, underscoring the magnitude of his remarkable run.
One particular statistic has proven instrumental to Looney’s current ranking in the national standings. Looney has started seventh or worse in seven of his eight Motor Mile Speedway victories. NASCAR awards bonus points to winners who start worse than fourth on the grid; to date, Looney’s national points total has been bolstered by 24 bonus points.
In summary, if Looney and Martin win the 2019 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national championship, it will be emblematic of their racing careers: they will have won it the hard way.
“I guess we are underdogs,” ponders Martin. “I never thought we would accomplish so much. I can’t explain it. It’s a dream. Just a dream.”
-J.W. Martin, Motor Mile Speedway