"Driving a race car is my way of making a living, my way of putting the bread on the table at home."
That is the opening line to "Twentieth Century Drifter," a top-10 Country hit in 1974 for Marty Robbins. It tells the tale of the independent racer's plight, his dreams of finishing in first place, and the woman who prays he'll safely "be drifting home."
As we all know, driving a race car was not Robbins' way of making a living. That of course was writing and recording some of the most iconic tunes in music history. Rather, racing was perhaps Robbins way of living, plain and simple. It was once said that he "sang to live but lived to race."
The man famous for such songs as "El Paso," "Ruby Ann," and "Devil Woman" - the latter of which he named one of his race cars - made 35 starts in what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. The majority of those - specifically 10 - came at the Talladega Superspeedway, and he also made two starts in the Daytona 500. He never won, in fact the best he could manage was a fifth-place at Michigan in 1974. As Robbins himself once put it, he would stay out of the leaders' way, find a car that was running about his speed, and then chase that car all day long.
At Talladega in 1972, Robbins decided he wanted to find out what it was like to run up front. He figured out a way to knock the restrictor plate out of his carburetor, which allowed him to run a good deal faster than the other drivers. He made it as high as fourth place and wanted to pass the leaders, but by his own admission he lacked the experience to do so and went ahead and parked his car. When NASCAR tried to give him the Rookie of the Race award, he confessed to what he'd done, which as he put it was the difference between being illegal and cheating.
Robbins made his final start at the Atlanta Motor Speedway on November 7, 1982. His day ended after a crash 89 laps into the race, leaving him with a 33rd-place finish. A month later on December 8, he died after bypass surgery following a heart attack - his third - at the age of 57.
The following May's race at the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway was renamed the Marty Robbins 420. The Buick in which he'd competed his final race was repaired and driven on a parade lap before the race by his son Ronny. Darrell Waltrip won the race in dominant fashion, leading all but 38 laps and lapping the field. Waltrip's trophy was a frame encasing the uniform Robbins wore in his last race and a gold record.
Marty Robbins is regarded as one of the all-time greats of Country music, owing to an eclectic style from Western ballads to rockabilly to blues and everything in between. He is also remembered as one of the greatest hobby racers in NASCAR's history. His line in the record book reads six top-10 finishes, including that fifth-place effort at Michigan.
What the record book doesn't show, however, is the amount of living he packed into his 57 years, a mark that would take most of us twice that amount of time to achieve.
Follow this link to listen to "Twentieth Century Drifter," and also check out this montage of interview clips of Marty speaking on various subjects including the Talladega incident detailed above.