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The Callahan Report: Mark Martin On The Pole In Japan Exhibition Race

23 November 1997

SUZUKA, Japan: Until this weekend, Mark Martin had never been overseas. He is considering making a habit of it. Martin went out on a wet track at Suzuka for his qualifying run. When he returned to the pits, he was the polesitter for the NASCAR Thunder Special exhibition race.

[ Mark Martin ] Mark Martin, Polestitter In Japan

Martin has 22 Winston Cup victories to his credit. Four of those wins came this year on his way to a third place finish in the season point standings. Martin averaged just over 80 mph on the 1.4 mile track. He covered the distance in one minute, 2.28 seconds.

"I think the rain helped me a lot, because I don't know where the line is, and since it is wet, it doesn't matter where you are," the Valvoline Thunderbird driver commented.

NASCAR drivers are not used to making high speed runs on rain tires. It was the first time rain tires have been used for NASCAR competition in 35 years. It was in the early 60's when NASCAR last competed on wet tracks. Road courses, such as the one being run this weekend in Japan, are more suited for rain tires. NASCAR does not run rain tires on super-speedways.

There was a surprising run by one of the foreign (non-American) drivers. Lining up beside Martin will be Jim Richards. He toured the course in 1:02.6 with a speed of 80.18 miles an hour in a Pontiac. Richards said, "It's a thrill for me to compete with guys like Rusty (Wallace) and Mark, whom we often watched on television in Australia." Richards is from Melbourne.

[ Rusty Wallace ] Rusty Wallace, Defending Champion

Rusty Wallace is the defending Champion of the exhibition race in Japan. Wallace qualified third with a time of 1:03.126. His speed was 79.52 mph. Wallace commented, "I'm really happy to be back in Japan. I had a great time here last year." Wallace has a new paint scheme complete with Japanese lettering for this race. Wallace beat Dale Earnhardt to the line last year by just over one second. Earnhardt qualified 13th this year.

This is the second year of a three year contract for the exhibition race in Japan. It is part of a world wide promotion for NASCAR.

There are 12 Winston Cup stars participating in the event. Other drivers come from the Winston West series (nine), Japan (four), NASCAR Craftsman Trucks (four), and the Busch Grand National series (one).

Jeff Gordon, who finished third in Japan last year, did not make the trip this season. Gordon underwent surgery on his vocal chords Tuesday in Charlotte. Gordon is resting comfortably but has been told by doctors not to speak for a few days.

Terry Callahan -- The Auto Channel

Editor's Note: The images displayed in this article (plus many more drawings) can be viewed in the Visions Of Speed Art Gallery.