I was listening this past weekend to the classic “Prairie Home Companion” radio program on my local NPR affiliate Saturday evening as I drove home from Atlanta. At one point during the show, Garrison Keillor introduced a group that was going to perform the classic Marty Robbins song “El Paso.”
As part of the introduction, Keillor mentioned that along with being a performer on the Grand Old Opry, Robbins was a racecar driver to boot. Keillor made a reference to an incident where Robbins had experienced a particularly hard crash, and sang his way through “El Paso” to make sure he hadn’t suffered any memory loss afterward.
That got me to thinking about how many folks know that along with being one of the greatest singers of all time, Robbins was a pretty darned good race driver.
Robbins started out racing as a hobby in the late 50s, racing micro midges. In the early sixties, he moved up to full-bodied cars, piloting a purple and yellow 1962 Plymouth dubbed the “Devil Woman” at the old Nashville Fairgrounds. Robbins would often have to rush away from the track after finishing the feature to make it to the Grand Old Opry in time for his Saturday night show.
It was at Nashville that Robbins made his NASCAR Grand National (now Sprint Cup) debut in 1966, finishing 25th after falling out due to an oil leak.
While continuing to compete at Nashville (and, of course, doing that singing thing on the side), Robbins would compete in 35 NASCAR Cup events between 1966 and 1982.
His best finish came at Talladega in 1974, as he piloted his number 42 purple and yellow Dodge to a ninth place finish.
It was also at Talladega that Robbins “confessed” to being a “sinner” in May of 1972.
As the story goes, Robbins started in ninth position. After running with the lead pack all day, Robbins eventually finished 18th, and was to be named rookie of the race.
But after the event, Robbins drove right to the impound area, and asked the officials to check the carburetor.
Sure enough, the carburetor restrictor plate had been removed from the Dodge. Robbins had turned himself in. He was relegated to a 50th place finish, and fined $250.
Robbins would later say in interviews that he wanted everybody to see him pass the leaders just once.
Despite being only an occasional competitor, Robbins was always a driver to watch. He recorded six top ten finishes over his career, including a seventh in the 1971 Southern 500 at Darlington, a 10th at Texas World Speedway in 1972, and an eighth at Daytona in the Firecracker 400 in 1973.
Robbins suffered a particularly hard crash at Charlotte in 1974 that left him injured. As a crash unfolded in front of Marty on the front stretch, he chose to turn into the wall at around 160 miles an hour rather than to t-bone the stalled car of Richard Childress.
Robbins came away with a broken tailbone, broken ribs, 37 stitches to the face, and two black eyes.
While racing had dealt him a tough blow on that day, it may well have saved his life on another. Six months after suffering a heart attack while performing on stage in Ohio, Robbins went to his personal doctor for a routine checkup to be cleared for racing.
As it turned out, the checkup showed he had two arteries completely blocked, with another 75-percent clogged.
But Robbins would return to racing. He loved racing, and it would continue to be his hobby for the rest of his life. Robbins’ last race came at Atlanta in November of 1982. He died of heart failure one month later.
Robbins was one of a few high profile celebrity racers who excelled in the sport, along with the likes of Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and James Garner. But his unique personality and sense of humor won him friends who didn’t think of him as a singer turned sometimes racecar driver.