'I Miss Him Bad'
In his best season, Mark Martin is haunted by the mystery of his dad's death
Things couldn't be better for Mark Martin on the racetrack. On Sunday he dominated the MBNA 400 at Dover, Del., leading 380 of the 400 laps to give him a career-best six wins this season. Off the track, however, he continues to grieve over the death of his father, Julian, who was 62, in an Aug. 8 plane crash. In fact, the unknown circumstances of the accident, which also took the lives of Julian's wife, Shelley, 38, and their 11-year-old daughter, Sarah, still keep Mark awake.
Julian was flying his twin-engine Piper Cheyenne home to Searcy, Ark., after visiting relatives in Santa Rosa, Calif., when the plane crashed near Great Basin National Park in Nevada. The National Transportation Safety Board is conducting an investigation, the results of which may not be available for months.
"I'm a pilot," says Martin, who owns a 1995 Cessna Citation jet and flies it back and forth from the hangar adjacent to his house in Daytona to Winston Cup races. "So it's not just O.K. for me to say, 'Well, something happened to their airplane, and they crashed.' My father was a tremendous pilot. He could do anything and was afraid of nothing. I want to know what killed my hero."
Last week Martin received a copy of the cockpit voice tape and had listened to the final minutes 50 times by Saturday. "I've heard his last words," Martin says. "He called and said he'd lost cabin pressure [at about 27,000 feet] and needed immediate descent. The air-traffic controllers didn't hear him and called back, asking, 'What did you say?' and he said, 'I need immediate descent' "
There has been speculation that Julian and the others lost consciousness before descending to a safe altitude. Martin doesn't believe this theory. "His voice sounds urgent," he says, "but at no point does he seem as if he's suffering from effects of lack of oxygen."
Mark was only five when Julian took him out on backcountry gravel roads in their hometown of Batesville, Ark, and taught him to drive. The son sat in the father's lap behind the wheel while Julian floored the accelerator, forcing a sometimes sobbing Mark to steer the car to avoid crashing. Julian drank to excess, often drove recklessly and had a rocky relationship with Mark's mother, Jackie, whom he divorced, remarried and divorced again. In recent years Julian had quit drinking and was devoted to his second family.
"He didn't always do the right things, but I don't hold any strikes against him," says Mark. "When he did good things, he was good." Julian had an intensity and a work ethic that he passed on to his son. While managing his own thriving trucking business, Julian moonlighted as his son's car owner and chief mechanic during Mark's early racing days.
While Martin waits for the investigation to conclude, he relishes the distraction that racing provides. "I'm doing the best I can, but I miss him bad," he says. "There won't be closure on this until I know what happened."
Indy 500 Boycott May End