Martin's trip adds new perspective
CONCORD, N.C. -- Gil Martin recently reached into the refrigerator at the Richard Childress Racing shop and pulled out a bottle of water.
He stared at it.
Then he cried.
Only 36 hours earlier, the crew chief for Kevin Harvick was at an orphanage in Monterrey, Mexico, passing out two-gallon jugs of water so the kids wouldn't have to drink from the nearby polluted river. He remembered vividly the looks on their faces, "like we'd given them a bucket of gold."
Now here he was about to take two sips out of a bottle and toss it in the trash as though it was nothing.
A gamut of emotions raced through his mind that made everything he was about to talk about on the new Sprint Cup car, all the frustration the organization experienced from a down year, all the frustration he experienced after being replaced as Harvick's crew chief following a successful 2011 season and then re-united with the lame-duck driver -- Harvick is leaving for Stewart-Hass racing in 2014 -- in the Chase, seemed insignificant.
"I've already been telling these guys I really don't want to hear anybody complain this year, because we've really got nothing to complain about," Martin said as he stood in the back of an RCR hauler during a recent test at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Martin made the Dec. 6-9 trip with his wife Ronda, son Ford and 14 others -- including Nationwide Series drivers Justin Allgaier and Jeff Green -- as part of the Back2Back Ministries program founded by Motor Racing Outreach chaplain Lonnie Clouse. He made the trip hoping it would teach his 17-year-old son about how the other half lived and give him a better appreciation for what he has approaching this Christmas season.
He wasn't prepared for it to change his life, but it did.
It changed it in a way Martin never imagined, in a way he hopes he never forgets.
It made him better appreciate the Christmas spirit, that it is better to give than to receive -- particularly when you're giving to those who have little to nothing.
"Gil came out of his shell," Clouse said. "He realized that NASCAR has their own little bubble that we get stuck in, that we get so busy going from event to event to event that we miss out on other important things in life."
If you don't know Martin, he's always been a man of few words, inherently shy in many ways. He's not been one to talk about feelings or how his day went. He's not been one to share his emotions beyond maybe the frustration of a bad performance at the track.
Mention the trip to Mexico and he becomes a fountain of expression. He describes in great detail the 10-foot by 10-foot homes the orphans live in on a riverbank called Rio 3, how the walls were built out of everything from a refrigerator box to beer cans flattened out and linked together, how the floors were dirt and the children were layered in more dirt than one could imagine.
He talks with passion and sadness about how the decades of trash, human and animal waste, and dead animal carcasses surrounding the landscape created a stench that was almost unbearable -- how he and the others tried to cover up their disgust so as not to offend those who live there.
He expresses himself in a way he seldom has before outside of chassis design and wedge adjustments.
"I guess I've been conditioned through this sport when things happen, you deal with them and the moment, and you're done with them," Martin said. "I don't reflect on the day that much, and that caused me to have to do that. I think it affected me in a positive way."
It obviously did, and he could have gone on for hours talking about the experience.
"It's a deal to where I don't want to ever lose sight of that smell because I feel like I'll forget," Martin said. "And I never want to forget."
Neither does his son or wife, or any of those that stepped out of their comfort zone to help. They all were changed by the experience, but Martin seemed to experience the biggest change.
"Every night after our trip to the orphanage we had to come up with a picture of the day," Ford Martin said. "The first night, my dad went on for about 10 minutes, talking about meeting the kids, going down the slide.
"I saw a different person come out in him. He really opened up to those kids a lot. He's a [behind-the-scenes] kind of person. He doesn't want to stand out. But he really opened up to those kids."
That was most apparent on the first day as Martin joined his son, whom the orphans who spoke little English called Justin Bieber, on a 50-yard concrete slide built on the side of a hill.
Martin is not the most athletic person. He's not the most physically fit.
But there he was with kids ranging in ages from seven to 10 sliding on pieces of scrap cardboard like he was a kid again.
"I had no business sliding down that," said Martin, his smile growing as he recalled that moment. "But when you had those kids begging you to come down it with them, you couldn't tell them 'no.'"
Whether it was providing water, building a shelf, putting up a Christmas tree or simply giving a kid a hug, Martin and the others did it with an appreciation and respect for life they'd never experienced.
"The conditions were totally appalling in one of the orphanages," Martin said. "The things that the kids were living in there, the people here [at the track] would never dream of walking into a place like that, much less living in it.
"But those kids were so inspirational. They didn't know they were living in such a bad spot."
It made working with Harvick not so bad, I jokingly told him.
"He's definitely a handful, isn't he?" Martin responded with a laugh.
But a handful of Harvick doesn't sound so bad after you've looked into the eyes of hungry, needy children. The images were so overpowering that Martin put pictures from the trip on walls around his house so he doesn't forget.
They were so overpowering that they were the first thing Martin and his family thought about when they sat down for an early Christmas dinner.
"We think we have problems," Ronda Martin said. "'We didn't run well this past year, our cars got a little behind, we've got to get the 2013 car ready.' Well, their biggest problem is mom and dad abandoned me and I have nowhere to go.
"Or I don't know where my next meal will come from."
It's all about perspective, and Martin has a different one on life these days.
And thanks to him and others on the trip, Christmas will be a little merrier than normal for at least 30 orphans. After buying stockings and putting up a tree, and then realizing there would be nothing to open on Christmas morning, they responded with more love.
They went on what Martin calls an ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) shopping spree, emptying a Wal-Mart near the orphanage of everything the kids could use.
After hearing that some never owned blue jeans, Martin made sure each had a pair gift-wrapped and placed under the tree as though Santa had been there himself.
He was working on having a ham delivered for Christmas dinner as well.
Yes, Martin was touched -- in a very good way.
"We're not saving lives [in NASCAR]," he said. "We have a tremendous amount to be thankful for. Quite frankly, I'm looking forward to this year. I'm going to look at it with a completely different perspective.
"So, if you see me by June and I'm running around with a pissed off look on my face, remind me of this conversation."
Or just hand him a bottle of water.