Marty Smith on Writing, Vulnerability, and The Human Element

People just fascinate me.

Some live a life without much fervor; the flow shows them where their resistless bodies go, not expressing much feeling throughout. Then, you have the individuals made of pure fearlessness. A spark rests in their powder keg of a heart. One huge chunk of us -including me- is a perplexing mix of both. A gambler with caution, a rambler with a GPS.

Though people as a whole catch my eye, few have truly captivated my attention.

Marty Smith is one of those scarce entities, his magic with a keyboard the reason why.

Ever since 2006, Marty has worked for ESPN, covering the sport from behind the computer screen and in front of a television crew. As the years have passed, his works keep getting stronger, and his following has grown.

As a NASCAR fan, his insight and realism is refreshing. As a young writer, every word leaves me speechless. His pieces helped me realize what I wanted to do in this beautiful sport. It gave me my fire.

Dropping all caution and the GPS, I asked if I could speak with him. He responded with an encouraging, “I’d be honored.”

Though I knew how tall his tales grew on a page, I wasn’t prepared to hear those sorts of stories, especially from a man who is enchanted by his own masterpieces. “It’s something I thoroughly enjoy. It’s the best way of expression of the soul. It’s something that’s been cultivated through time.”

The knack for this was inherited from his mother, Joy, a “tremendous writer” who believed in then-teenage Marty and his gift. She pushed him, and, because of that, he “owns a lot of [his] success to her.”

Marty’s fire was never fully in NASCAR. That seems crazy to read now, but it’s the truth. He watched it as a kid, but it wasn’t what he aimed to pursue. The course changed when, as a Sophomore, he switched to Radford University in Virginia. He lost his athletics in the shakeup. A friend pushed him to go into Sports Information, similar to Public Relations, and it involved a small amount of writing.

A high school sports writer soon sought him out for the Roanoke Times. He gave him the summer job of going to a local track and watching the races.

“Two laps in, I was hooked,” he said. “Blue collar people getting together made me feel at home.”

After graduating and moving to another paper, he was sent to Richmond in May of 1998. There was a moment where, as Marty sat on the pit wall, two iconic cars blurred by. One was the #24, the other was the #3. The fresh-faced writer realized what he was doing, where he was.

“I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘Oh my God . . . That’s Dale Earnhardt.’” This would become the point where he understood he was well on his way towards something much more grand than himself.

One day, a woman called with an interesting request. “She says, ‘I want you to do a story about my son.’ I responded, ‘Well, who’s your son?’ She goes, ‘Paul Brooks. He’s just been promoted to Vice President of NASCAR.’” Marty did the interview with the “very gracious, humble, talented” Brooks, and that led to becoming a columnist at NASCAR.com. The young site allowed him to write about what he wanted, a stimulating endeavor that let him grow.

That’s where he resided until six years ago. He was taken from the computer desk and thrown before the world, lacking TV experience. As a bird pushed from its comforting nest would, he quickly adapted to the change and soared.

Ever since that second lap at that small track, Marty hasn’t stopped loving racing. I could tell; his voice was alive and rich, tumbling like a ball of yarn descending down a staircase. On and on, he described the 2012 season. “It was a good season, fantastic for Brad [Keselowski]. I appreciate his willingness to not play the corporate game. [I’m] glad he’s willing to speak.”

That lust for speed and burnouts doesn’t cloud his judgment, however. “You can’t sugarcoat it . . . There were worse and bad races, but there were some fantastic races!” He singled out the finish at the Texas Chase race as an example. “[Jimmie Johnson and Brad] were running their cars to the ragged edge.” He went on to talk about Martinsville, about its authenticity and how technical and physical it can be. Other thrilling stops are road courses.

When it comes to favorites and his pieces, the recent story he posted about Shane Hmiel tops the list. Including 30 hours of reporting, 15 days of watching the struggle, it resides in a special section of his heart. Another singular encounter was with Dakota Meyers. The man braved a downpour of bullets and ignored orders so he could carry 36 of his men to safety in Afghanistan. The act earned him The Congressional Medal of Honor.

Yet, the tale he told me about Dale Earnhardt Jr. just caught me in its grip.

“Back in 2008, I did a cover story for ESPN Magazine on Dale Jr. breaking away from the family business to Hendrick Motorsports, and what it really meant in the depths of who he is.” Dale Jr. went on to remember a time with him and his late father. “‘I was eight or nine, [him and his father] would be in the shop, and there would be a five-gallon bucket on the floor. Dad said, ‘Go pick that bucket up, boy.’ I never did because I knew I couldn’t do it . . . All he wanted me to do was try.’” He summarized that his jump to Hendrick Motorsports was his way of moving that five-gallon bucket.

I could see why Marty deemed him a “rockstar.” He explained how methodical Dale Jr. is with answering media questions, even if they aren’t the most developed inquires. There is admiration in how the driver also deals with the “mammoth pressure” that’s attached to him.

When questioned about his favorite moment of racing, there was a pause, then the exclamation, “Man, I’m getting old!”

He rattled off Jimmie Johnson’s win at Atlanta in 2004 after the devastating plane crash that took those very close to Mr. Hendrick and the organization. Then there was Johnson and Matt Kenseth dueling at Texas in 2007. The 2004 Daytona 500 where Dale Jr. went to Victory Lane. When he spoke of Kevin Harvick winning, three races after Dale Earnhardt passed, the common theme came through.

“I’m obsessed with the human element. I love that, where sports can be a vehicle for human emotions at the time. It’s cathartic . . . I appreciate when the human element resonates.”

That is obvious in his writing. He meshes racing with the murkiness of the soul. From time to time, he adds in another factor: family. Why? “It matters. When you become a parent and a husband, perception changes. The world becomes far less self-absorbed.”

This was also noticeable. While we talked, tiny interruptions from his kids cut in, making me smile wide. It only lamented his humility and his relatable nature.

“I enjoy [talking about] those things. I want it to matter to [the readers]. I appreciate that it matters to people and to you.” The ability to open up and let people into that tender part is what makes writing even more fulfilling. “When you allow yourself to become vulnerable, it takes it to a whole other level.”

Sometimes being susceptible is a part of life. Or it can be forced upon you. When Marty’s father died, it was that time to let his guard down. He found strength and a voice in the music of Eric Church, who is now a very close friend. “When my old man died, it was the perfect vehicle for my emotions at the time.”

Sort of like that human element he mentioned before.

Sort of like those people that charm my own curiosity.

The passion that Marty has in his heart came through during our entire conversation. He does everything he can to give respect to every opportunity he’s come across. What he feels for writing, the sport, and life itself is something incredible. I can’t do that justice at all.

But he can. That’s why his skill is astounding.

It fascinates me.

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4 thoughts on “Marty Smith on Writing, Vulnerability, and The Human Element”

  1. You have beautifully presented the specialness of Marty Smith. He is more than a writer…he is a wonderful story teller. He draws you into the story he is telling and makes you feel as though you are seeing and feeling the things he is describing. You travel the journey he is taking and are completely caught up in the emotions he is feeling. He is by far the best NASCAR has to offer, and we, the fans, would be poorer without him.

  2. Marty Smith is one of the most insightful NASCAR Journalists, relaying the sport well to both old school fan and racing newcomer. He is ‘matter of fact’ and holds nothing back. Refreshing.

    Very well written and I have enjoyed reading your post. I’ll be sure to read some of your older posts!

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