Cain: Racing desire still burns within Sterling Marlin

Holly Cain

Sterling Marlin officially joined Twitter in August 2018 — a humble, low-key acknowledgement the retired two-time Daytona 500 winner was keeping up with the times even in retirement on his Tennessee farm.

His social media debut caught many off guard, though.

So one day after signing up, Marlin tweeted again and had a little fun with the disbelieving masses. His message read: “See? It’s not fake news. It’s really me. Now what’s a hashtag?’ ”

That tweet alone received nearly 3,000 likes and garnered more than 100 responses from diehard fans to folks in the industry to a new NASCAR generation — all who appreciate Marlin’s place in the sport’s history.

For so many who know Marlin, it was exactly the kind of social media arrival to expect. Since retiring from NASCAR competition in 2009, Marlin keeps racing at Nashville Fairgrounds and helping the racing career of his teenage grandson also named Stirling but spelled with an “i.”

He manages his farm in Columbia, Tennessee, and works on race cars he restores and preps for others.

In the last few years, especially, Marlin has been dealing with health issues. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2012 and recently underwent Deep Brain Surgery to treat it — “a commonly performed surgical treatment,” according to a news release his daughter, Sutherlin House, shared.

In between treatment, whenever he’s physically able, Marlin is working on cars at his shop, guiding the early careers of his grandkids — four of them, two girls and two boys aged 9 months to 15 years. And one thing he can count on is that every time he shows up to a race track, the crowd quickly and loudly will offer its welcome and approval.

“Big crowd Saturday night and got an ovation,” Marlin said last week in a phone interview. “I imagine people knew I had been to the hospital and had surgery and all that stuff.

“I love racing and still wanted to do it. I enjoy it.”

AARON

It has always been a mutual feeling of fondness between Marlin and the racing community. He is an example of perseverance. Of kindness. Of those throwback days when things were just simpler even in their grandness.

It took 278 Cup Series starts in 17 partial and/or full seasons before Marlin earned that first Cup victory in the biggest race of them all, the Daytona 500. He drove the No. 4 Morgan-McClure Motorsports Chevrolet to victory in 1994 over former Daytona 500 winner Ernie Irvan, who led the most laps that afternoon.

Marlin answered the win the very next year with a second Daytona 500 trophy, leading a race-high 105 laps and beating Dale Earnhardt to the checkered flag. Marlin is the last driver to hoist Daytona 500 trophies in consecutive years, and he’s the first to earn his first and second Cup career wins in the sport’s biggest race.

I was fortunate to cover a lot of Marlin’s career, which spanned 33 years from 1976-2009. His full-time work beginning in the late 1980s was truly a portion of the early halcyon days of the sport. He competed against NASCAR Hall of Famers such as Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Tim Richmond and Bobby Allison. He raced against the next generation of NASCAR Hall of Famers: Bill Elliott, Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin.

He bridged the sport’s eras, finishing his career contending with Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson for race wins in the early 2000s.

He drove for old-school owners such as Billy Hagan, Junior Johnson, Felix Sabates and the Morgan-McClure organization, and he did then for one of the sport’s new-look teams owned by IndyCar champion owner Chip Ganassi.

In all, Marlin won 10 races — at the sport’s most famous venues, from Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway to Darlington Raceway to the newly built Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He finished a career-best third in the 2001 Cup championship and led the 2002 championship standings for 25 weeks before getting hurt in the 29th race of the season at Kansas Speedway. He missed the rest of the year recovering from injuries but returned to compete four more full seasons before stepping away for good after making a handful starts in 2008 and 2009.

Andy Lyons

“I look back at all the stuff we done,” Marlin said. “I sure came through there at the right time to see all the fan growth, me, Earnhardt, Harry Gant and all those guys I got to race against. Richard Petty, Bobby Allison. It was fun, really fun.

“I got in at a good time and got out at a good time. Saw all the growth of the sport. And the spectator growth was absolutely crazy. We’d go to Bristol in the early 70s with Daddy and there would be 17-18,000 people. When we were running in the 2000s there were 140,000 people there. I got to see a lot of growth in NASCAR.”

Marlin was a NASCAR legend, even before he won his first race — always up for a joke, never without a smile and always a straight-shooter. He speaks in a distinctive, clipped, thick Tennessee drawl, and his words come out quickly and punctuate the air. There were many in the garage who used to pride themselves on a convincing “Sterling” impression, including one of his own public relations managers, whose spot-on impression even made Sterling smile.

He was such a good-natured competitor, and I found this out first-hand.

Marlin’s father had been a well-known NASCAR racer, too. Very early in my career I formally double-checked if his father, Coo-Coo spelled his name  “O-O, O-O or U-U, U-U.”

And without missing a beat, Marlin turned and answered “O-O, O-O.”  It seemed a reasonable question to him even if it made several others turn their heads and laugh. The exchange remains an inside joke of the “early days” to many of my friends today.

It was indicative of Marlin’s presence. He was always the “Southern Gentlemen” and without fail, smilingly referred to me as “Miss Holly.”

I always appreciated the good will and was glad to have the unlikely opportunity to return the favor in the winter of 1995.

One late January morning, Marlin was standing outside the Daytona garage during the old “testing days” for teams before the Daytona 500. Marlin called me over to the chain link fence, where he was talking to a guard on the inside, and asked me to vouch for him.

Marlin didn’t have any kind of credential and the guard was not buying his story he was actually the defending Daytona 500 winner.

I assured the speedway security Marlin was indeed a Cup driver, and we walked inside smiling about his predicament. A couple weeks later he won his second consecutive Daytona 500.

Marlin and his longtime friend and crew chief, Tony Glover, were especially patient and kind even as they were racking up the wins — always willing to answer questions about the latest technical rule issued by NASCAR and how it would affect the car and the racing.

After all these years, I was especially eager to catch up with Marlin, now considered a Tennessee racing legend. He still has that same sense of humor, that same genuineness, that same truth.

Marlin was a guest at Bristol Motor Speedway, site of last week’s NASCAR tripleheader, last year. He says the kind words, the chance to catch up with old friends and introduce himself to new ones was very special.

He wasn’t at the track this year but, like most weeks, caught the races on TV. He remains one of the sport’s most enduring, popular drivers — a celebrated career he has answered by living a good, happy life and still inspiring people with his positive spirit as he carries on fighting health challenges.

“All right, Miss Holly,” Marlin still said as we ended the phone call this week. “Good to talk to you.”

The pleasure was all mine.