Legendary country singer Marty Robbins' high-profile and high-octane hobby found him driving a few trips around the track with NASCAR royalty. This isn't Garth Brooks goofing around at spring training. Without starting young or racing a full season, Robbins had a decent career, making him more than a novelty attraction or goodwill ambassador.
An Arizona native, Robbins grew up in a time when Bettenhausen was as revered a surname to racing fans as Acuff or Autry was to fans of all things country and western. Spending time in Hawaii while in the military sparked a lifelong interest in performing music, but fast times ahead never entirely overshadowed an appreciation for faster cars.
After Little Jimmy Dickens lured the future Grand Ole Opry star to Nashville, Robbins and his son Ronny would become regular spectators at the Nashville Fairgrounds' race track. Eventually, the country singer, best known for "El Paso," invested in his first car. It was the souped-up Ford Coupe often called the "Devil Woman" car, designed by Bobby Hamilton's father.
A Competitive Part-Timer
By the 1966 NASCAR race in Nashville, Robbins had the equipment and raw talent to try his hand at the big leagues. Robbins used his celebrity over the years to meet stock car royalty. By '66, he was ready to become a part-time peer. Despite finishing 25th, with Richard Petty claiming one of 200 career victories that afternoon, that experience launched a 13-year career as a part-timer.
After participating in just one race per year in 1966, 1968, and 1970, Robbins competed 20 times in five years. With little professional on-track experience, Robbins did quite well from 1971 to '76, notching six top 10 finishes. This includes a top-five performance at the Michigan International Speedway's Motor State 400, which was also won by Petty. He also had a strong performance at the 1972 Talladega 500 and 1973 Daytona 500.
His most famous moment Nascar racing came far from the finish line. At the 1974 Charlotte 500, Robbins collided with a wall on purpose to keep from t-boning the car of Richard Childress. This rash, dangerous decision may have saved the influential team owner's career or life.
Robbins raced sporadically until the end. His final NASCAR appearance came at the 1982 Atlanta Journal 500, held a little over a month before the country music legend's untimely death. The following season, the Coors 420 at the Nashville International Speedway was renamed to the Marty Robbins 420.
The Nudie Suit of Race Cars
In the spirit of his era's male country singers and their wardrobe choices, Robbins brought a bold, colorful look to the track. The various cars Cotton Owens built for Robbins sported an eye-catching, two-toned magenta and chartreuse paint job. Variations of this look appeared on Robbins' cars during his racer days, including Fords, Buicks, Plymouths, and Dodge Chargers, for years to come. Had it appeared on track more often, this design could've made for some of the most iconic-looking rides of its time.
The youth and the relative inexperience of the next crop of potential NASCAR superstars drive home the scope of Robbins' limited yet impressive accomplishments. Barring injury, someone like promising rookie Bubba Wallace will have more races under his belt this time next year than Robbins compiled over 13 years. If Wallace matches Robbins' record of six top-ten finishes in that span, then he'll have momentum heading into 2019.
If Robbins toured less and raced more frequently, who knows whether he might've eventually spun out his gaudy-looking car in the victory lane.
This article was originally published in April of 2018.