CATAWBA — Epic.
That’s the word Stuart-based Late Model Stock car owner Billy Martin chose to classify what’s been a dream season for his wheelman Mike Looney of Catawba.
A year after failing to win a race and finishing 355th in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series standings, Looney delivered big-time goods in 2019, winning 12 times at Radford’s Motor Mile Speedway and then adding another victory at Langley Speedway in June to make a serious run at the national title.
Fueled by 13 wins, 23 top-five finishes and 29 top-10s in 34 starts, Looney wound up second in the national standings, a scant eight points behind title winner Jacob Goede of Wisconsin.
“To put together a season like we did was really huge for us,” said the 41-year-old Looney, who previously never had finished higher than 67th in the national points chase.
Fueled by strong financial help from the 72-year-old Martin, Looney’s top race car has been a rocket ship all season, leaving a high percentage of his competition constantly fading in his rearview mirror.
“Oh, yeah, we feel really proud of what we accomplished,” Looney said. “Winning the Virginia state championship was huge. ... Lee Pulliam has got four, Philip Morris has got five, Peyton Sellers has got one. There were three of those guys that we had to beat every week.”
Next on tap is Saturday’s ValleyStar Credit Union 300 at Martinsville Speedway that pays an all-time high $32,000 to the winner.
“Looking forward to it,” said Looney, whose father, Ronnie, was a dirt-track racer back in the day.
“That was before I was born,” Looney cracked. “I’ve got the seat of the pants feel, I guess!”
Looney’s fortunes began to turn in the LMS game when he hooked up with Martin, a long-time racer who liked Looney and his driving talent so much that he was eager to pony up some of his retirement money to become the primary backer of the overachieving team.
“Everything has been good since I teamed up with Billy Martin,” Looney said. “He was able to take a lot of the financial burden off so I could just work on the race car.
“At the top level of the sport, you have to surround yourself with good people, and it just brings the results ... mostly my family and friends and we’ve got a few retired guys.”
Nothing fancy about these gear heads. It’s a no-frills bunch of six to eight nearby volunteers on Looney’s team that turns the wrenches on his hot rod in a small one-bay garage behind his father’s house.
“To put a season like we did, it’s just really huge for us,” Looney said. “I think it’s going to take a little while for it to sink in on what we accomplished.”
Looney, a savvy driver who has the wherewithal behind the wheel to escape more trouble than most, likes the hot rod he’s bringing to the low-banked .526-mile oval.
“We had a fast car in testing,” Looney noted. “We’ve got a fast race car and now we just have to go down there and do what we can do.”
Looney makes most of the calls during a race when it comes to strategy and what changes should be made to make his ride even stronger.
Martin, who knows all the ins and outs of the racing game, said he knew his team was on the right track early when it dominated the LMS class at Motor Mile.
“We got to winning so many races at Motor Mile,” Martin said. “We went down to Langley because we were trying to compete for the Triple Crown ... South Boston, Martinsville and Langley. We just went down there to get a practice race in and we had never seen the place and he qualifies on the pole and wins the first race.
“Mike can drive anything anywhere. He’s a really good race car driver. He takes care of it really well, very seldom does he get in a situation where it can be wrecked. Now, once in a while you can’t help that.
“I actually believe that he could drive a [NASCAR] Cup car and make some of them better than what they are,” Martin said. “He just has such a feel for the car. Seat of the pants, I guess you might call it.
“For anybody to outrun him … now Philip Morris is the ‘King’ and Mike outran him so much that Morris just quit coming to Motor Mile,” Martin duly noted.
Martin, who still hauls produce out of his Stuart home as a side gig, remains one of the sharpest guys in the garage, according to Looney. Martin’s backing has taken the low-budget team to a point where it has the goods to win at any place and time.
“I bought a really good race car and we have a really good engine,” noted Martin, who is currently battling tuberculosis. “We didn’t waste any money but we did buy the best that we could get and it’s made a difference.
“I saw Mike win the first race he ever ran at Franklin County — I believe he was 16 — in 1995 or ‘96. I was watching him race and I said, ‘That boy is pretty good!’
“So when I decided I was going to quit driving, I gave Mike a call and he [said], ‘Yeah, I will drive!’ Then he won five or six races in a row, and it just ballooned from there. It’s a good story.”
The Looney-Martin hookup paid dividends quickly when the team captured the 2016 LMS showcase at Martinsville.
“We won it 3 years ago, and it was so amazing that I cried,” Martin said. “The most I had ever won before was $3,000. Wound up winning $28,500 down there. And I took every bit of that money and bought two new engines with it. I think I spent it wisely because this new Ford motor that we bought has won 11 races this year.
“It’s set on go ... and it’s ready!
“I just can’t believe it hardly. I’ve spent a lot of my time going up and down the road getting engines. The man who builds our Ford motors lives in Apex, N.C., and that’s two hours from my house. And it’s two hours from my house to Mike’s garage. I’ve put in a lot of money and ended up getting some good sponsors and it’s just great.”
“I don’t put any of the money in my pocket,” Martin noted.
“Mike started driving for me in 2013, and I told him when he quit that I would quit!”