Hal Martin embodies the spirit of his native New Orleans – he works hard and plays even harder.
Martin plans to take that work ethic with him to NASCAR when he makes his Nationwide Series debut this afternoon at Kansas Speedway. The 26-year-old is entering three Nationwide races for Tri-Star Motorsports this season in preparation for a full 2013 campaign, in which he will be the oldest rookie in the division.
When he debuts, he’ll also be the only driver from the greater New Orleans area competing in NASCAR. But Martin, nicknamed the "Ragin' Cajun," is accustomed to the unorthodox. His path to the Nationwide Series might be one of the most unique in the history of the sport.
Finding funding in today’s economic climate was no easy task. And yet, Martin has redefined the rules, taking a hometown door-to-door approach instead of seeking the big national sponsorship package. All of his backers are Louisiana-based, a relatively fresh approach to securing cash to run the full schedule.
“That’s honestly the hardest thing we have to do,” Martin told SB Nation by phone this week. “It’s all about preparation. You have to have a detailed plan and you have to make them interested. You have to make them understand that it’s a lot more than just having your name on a car.
“It’s about activation, hospitality and getting people to the events under their banner.”
Martin got a relatively late start in the racing game, having begun his karting career at 15 years old. But his story actually starts about five years prior, competing in remote-controlled car sanctions across the Southeast. He even credits the discipline for preparing him for a stock car career.
“It really taught me great deal about hand-eye coordination,” Martin said. “I was pretty good at it and toured the region racing at a lot of different venues. At one point, I was even nationally funded by some of the bigger names in the hobby. So I was exposed to seeking sponsors at a relatively young age.”
After finding success in R.C. cars, Martin successfully transitioned to road-course shifter karts at 15. Martin's first start was run for charity, finishing fourth for the Ronald McDonald House. From there, Martin’s career advanced pretty rapidly, winning the Louisiana State Championship in 2004 – his senior year of high school.
“I think we got a top-five in that first race, but more importantly, we raised a lot of money for charity,” Martin said. “We went door-to-door asking homes and local businesses for support and that really benefited me later.”
Martin transitioned to full-bodied Late Model cars in 2006 and became one of the top-rated drivers in the Southeast. He competed everywhere from Texas to Florida, but he quickly outgrew Late Model racing and by 2009 he decided that he wanted to take a more professional approach and compete across the country.
During that season, he made starts in the ARCA Racing Series, ASA Midwest Tour and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (a 26th-place finish at Memphis).
But it wasn’t until his second start in ARCA that Martin first thought he could make a career out of racing. That race weekend – at Chicagoland – got off to a humbling enough start as Martin spun out during qualifying, relegating him to a 33rd place start – but he ultimately finished third.
“We passed 30 cars that day,” Martin said. “It wasn’t a situation where we played fuel mileage either. We caught a break or two with the cautions and passed 30 cars straight up. I still consider that entire season my breakout year.
“That race gave us a lot of momentum and we turned a lot of heads. Chicagoland was my breakout race and where everything really came together.”
His momentum was briefly stalled in 2011 as his crew chief, John Quinn, was hired away by Tri-Star Motorsports in the Nationwide Series. But what seemed like bad luck at the time was actually the beginning of the process that would see Martin join the team himself.
After the 2011 season concluded, Martin received a call from Mark Smith, the owner of Tri-Star Motorsports. It turned out Quinn had actually referred his old driver to Smith, and it was just a matter of working out the sponsorship.
A contract was signed during the summer and reunited Martin with Quinn, a combination the driver expects to produce immediate results.
“We worked well from the get-go,” Martin said. “We both have an engineering background (Martin graduated from the University of New Orleans with a degree in mechanical engineering) and we built a good relationship while in the ARCA Series. I was devastated when he left for Tri-Star, but I was excited for his opportunity.
“He put the bug in Mark Smith’s ear and once we got some funding behind us, we were off to the races.”
Martin has placed reasonable expectations on himself. He’s treating his three-race debut as a glorified test session, hoping to learn all he can before embarking on his full-season tour in 2013.
“We’re realistic in our goals,” Martin said. “This is our first season and there’s going to be some growing pains. This is the first time that many of us are working together and we’re bringing a brand-new car to Kansas. It’s going to take all of this season alone just to shake it out."
Martin sees himself as a representative of the entire state of Louisiana. He wants his success to be a reflection of the people still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina and of the attempts to rebuild the region.
“I’m from Louisiana and my sponsors are from the region, too,” Martin said. “I’m going to enjoy every bit of this and prove that southern Louisiana can be a stock car breeding ground, too.
"We like to have fun in New Orleans and I’m bringing that pride and sense of adventure to NASCAR. I’m grateful to have made it this far and I’m just looking forward to the challenge.”