Racing, jokes Sterling Marlin, is sort of like malaria:
“Once you get it in your system, it’s hard to get it out.”
Sterling knows about racing’s addiction. He’s 55 and been hooked on it since he was a tow-headed toddler tagging at the heeds of his racing pop.
“When I was just a baby my mom took me to the racetrack to watch daddy race,” says Sterling, referring to his late parents – the irrepressible Eula Faye and the colorful Coo Coo, Middle Tennessee’s first nationally-prominent NASCAR driver.
“I literally grew up at racetracks.”
Sterling began racing as a teenager at Fairgrounds Speedway. He won three track championships and quickly worked his way up through the ranks. In 1976 he made his Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) debut.
Over the next 17 years he ran 279 Cup races without a win.
Then, in 1994, Sterling won the sport’s biggest race, the Daytona 500.
The next year he came back and won it again.
Having established himself among the sport’s elite, the self-described farm boy from Maury County won more than $30 million during his Cup career. But he never forsook his roots, remaining as humble and down-home as ever.
In 2003 Sterling finished third in the championship standings behind Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, and the following season appeared on course for the title until he was sidelined by a late-season crash.
Sterling recovered, but his career didn’t. He struggled with second-tier rides for a few seasons before surrendering.
“I didn’t have the car to compete for wins, and I didn’t want to just be out there riding around,” he said.
Sterling made his 748th and final Cup start in 2009 at Martinsville, Va.
As was his way, Sterling quietly faded from the big-league scene. There was no Farewell Tour, no long goodbye. One day he was there, the next day he was gone.
Well, sort of.
Although his NASCAR career ended, Sterling never quit racing.
He returned to Fairgrounds from whence he came, back to where it all began some four decades ago.
“I love that old track,” Sterling says of the 54-year-old facility. “There’s a lot of racing history there, as well as a lot of my family’s history. Daddy raced there. I raced there. Steadman (his son) and Sutherlin (daughter) raced there. Someday I hope my grandson (Sterlin) can race there.”
Having stood in Victory Lane at Daytona and basked in the national limelight before millions of TV viewers, Sterling now runs Saturday night fender-benders before a sprinkling of loyal locals.
The winner of millions of dollars in purses now is content to race for gas money.
“I don’t care about all that stuff,” says Sterling, in reference to fame and fortune.
“I had a great career in NASCAR and I accomplished things that most drivers only dream about. I enjoyed it while it was doing it, but now I don’t miss it (Cup racing). Today I race for the fun of it, just like I did when I was a kid starting out.
“I guess it’s like they say – no matter how far you travel, there’s no place like home.”
Larry Woody can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.