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DI Interview: Ryan Martin Plays to Win, On and Off the Track

“It’s time? OK, I’ll be right out.” It’s around 8:15 p.m. on a Wednesday and Ryan Martin is getting called back to set for the filming of season 2 of Street Outlaws: America’s List, one of the umpteen spinoffs of the original Street Outlaws. It’s not really a set in the Hollywood sense, with fake rooms in a fake house on a fake street in a fake town. It’s a very real street – a stretch of Highway 107 – in the very real town of McAllen, Texas, where 25 very real race teams have been stationed for the last five weeks.

But we’re not really here to talk about America’s List. We’re here to talk about Martin’s second consecutive championship in the No Prep Kings series, easily the most successful Street Outlaws spinoff. It just happens that rather than spending his offseason unwinding from the grueling 2021 NPK schedule or getting everything lined up for another 15-race season, Martin is here in Texas, racing on the street.

[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in DI #174, the DI Awards Issue, in January of 2022.]

It’s a throwback to Martin’s earliest Street Outlaws appearances in 2015 when Martin’s twin-turbocharged “Fireball” 2010 Camaro first raced into America’s living rooms. But a lot has changed since then. Nearly 10 seasons later, Martin is one of the show’s biggest stars. He also has two No Prep Kings championships to his name. It’s one of the great success stories to come from the show, which itself has an incredible success story as it’s consistently grown and spawned spinoffs since the original show debuted in 2013.

“When the show first started and I wasn’t a part of it,” Martin begins, “I have to be honest and say I thought, ‘Ehh, I don’t know, are people going to watch that? Is that going to be good? Can you go fast on the street? Is it going to be worth watching?’ I realized shortly thereafter that it was starting to bring spark to everything else drag racing. It looked really cool and it was something I definitely wanted to be a part of.”

Martin didn’t just want to be a part of it. He wanted to compete with the best of them.

“I grew up my whole life street racing, but let me be realistic: I didn’t go out on Saturday nights and take my big-tire car out and try to go 4.20s in the street,” Martin says. “But when I knew that that was a thing, I was like, ‘Hey, I think we can do that and I think we can be good at it.’ That’s kind of what drove me to do it.

“A guy that I had helped before when I helped ‘Freakin’ Rican’ [Jose Rivera] out a little bit, he did terrible, didn’t make it on the list, lost to ‘Farmtruck’ a bunch of times. Then I said, ‘You know what, I know we can do better than that.’ I told myself we’re going to go there and we’re going to do good. And that’s what we did.”

Martin parlayed his success on the 405’s list into immediate success in the first season of No Prep Kings, which debuted in early 2018. He won the first race of the season, a feat he’s repeated in all three seasons that followed.

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In 2019, Martin scored his first No Prep Kings championship with his cherry-red Camaro. He then debuted a new, Bill Gilsbach-built, ProCharger-boosted 2018 ZL1 Camaro for the 2020 season, but the COVID-19 public health crisis led to the cancellation of that year’s filming.

Click to read the full issue.

Martin hit the ground running when the 2021 season kicked off in early June at National Trail Raceway, scoring the first invitational class win of the year. He went on to win five more invitationals, two Team Attack races, and one Outlaw Big Tire class race on the 15-race schedule. Outside No Prep Kings competition, he also became the first repeat winner in the Big Tire class at Outlaw Armageddon 7 at Thunder Valley Raceway Park.

The tour ended with a six-weekend stretch of consecutive races, starting at Tucson Dragway in Arizona and winding back towards the East Coast with stops at Bandimere Speedway, Tulsa Raceway Park, the Texas Motorplex, and No Problem Raceway before concluding at Bradenton Motorsports Park.

It was a taxing experience for Martin and his small crew, which consists of crew chief Javier Canales, Martin’s best friend, Michael Beene, Martin’s wife, Cherish, and their young son, Dax. There were no weekends off and no time to unwind, other than the hours going down the road. “I drive the rig, Javi drives the truck with the apparel trailer, and Michael usually flies into the races,” says Martin, who works with Proline Racing’s Steve Petty on the tuning side.

All of that hard work, late nights, and many miles were validated when Martin clinched his second championship at the season finale at Bradenton. After securing the title, he finished off the weekend with his final win of the season.

Just a day or two after getting home from Bradenton, Martin had to head out to Las Vegas for the SEMA Show for two days of autograph sessions. It was just a warmup for Martin’s personal appearance schedule at the PRI Show in Indianapolis a month later, where he signed autographs and took photos with fans at booths for no less than six different manufacturers that support the Fireball Racing team.

During a couple brief breaks on set, Martin sat down with DRAG ILLUSTRATED to talk about his recent championship, the competition level in the No Prep Kings series, the show’s impact on the sport, and more.

The No Prep Kings scene has grown increasingly competitive, especially over the last year or so. What does it take to perform at that level?

A lot of dedication, time and money. This series is very time consuming. A lot of series are six or eight races and you go test for those, of course, but that really only takes six or eight weekends depending on how long the series is. This is 15 races and super competitive.

For me to try to stay at the top, I would leave a racetrack from doing pretty good and somebody just too damn close to me and I had to go figure out how to get another two or three numbers. We spent a lot of time on the road. We spent a lot of time testing and trying things. Sometimes, we succeeded, we moved forward, and we got our couple numbers. Sometimes, we went to the next racetrack no better than we were, and sometimes we even went backwards.

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It’s a very time-consuming series that a lot of people don’t understand. It may be nine months long or whatever the schedule is, but it feels like that’s the only thing that you can possibly do for that entire schedule.

How challenging is it to keep up with such a packed schedule like you ran last year?

It’s extremely challenging. If you tank a motor and you need to get that fixed, you’re stuck. Not everybody has spares. I’m thankful that I ended up with two motors, and this year in NPK, we ran the same motor and never even pulled the new one out of the wrapper, which is unheard of. That doesn’t usually happen, but we were fortunate enough to do that.

I had a pretty good year as far as parts failures go, but that’s what will get you: parts failure. Being in the wrong place, having to travel a really long distance to the next racetrack, and not having time between to go rebuild your motor or go to the machine shop or go get your transmissions or go get your torque converter fixed.

It’s an expensive series, too, because to compete on the level we compete in, I almost feel like you have to have two of everything: two converters, two transmissions, I have two motors, I have spare blowers. If you don’t have all that stuff, I don’t know how people make it. A lot of people borrow stuff from me and buy stuff from me because I feel like I’m pretty prepared, but if you don’t have that stuff, it’s very hard to stay at the top.

How did this championship compare to the last one?

This meant a lot to me because any time you can go back to back, that’s a huge achievement. With the first championship, you get a huge target on your back. People are automatically driven – and I don’t even take offense to it – but they’re driven to knock you out of that position.

I’ve been fortunate enough that in the four NPK seasons, I’ve won the first race in all four seasons. I didn’t win the championship in the first two, but I still won the first race. So what it always did was it made me the points leader. Everybody was always chasing, trying to knock me off the top. It just puts a target on your back and you’re always running.

I always have people trying to knock me off of where I’m at. It was more so this year. The competition was harder. More people felt like they were after me. I felt like for the first time, every single person that’s there doesn’t want me where I’m at. I think that’s what made it mean a lot more to me, just knowing that so many people were trying to get me to fail.

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How do you plan to keep stepping up? What’s it going to take to go three in a row?

I think for 2022 my goal is to step my engine program up a little bit. There’s been a couple newer version Hemis that have come out since I’ve been racing my gray car. We sold both the motors we were using for NPK and we ordered two new ones. Both those motors are a step up. I don’t know, they may be worth 100 or 150 horsepower.

My goal is to be 3-5 numbers faster than I was last year. I feel like if you don’t have those goals and aspirations every year, you’re going to eventually fall even with people or fall behind. The way I look at it is the heavy hitters, the people that have the money to do it and the people that are going to put the time in it are going to do what they can over the wintertime to try to think that they picked up enough numbers to outrun me. It’s my job to take that exact same outlook. Whatever I went last year, I need 3-5 more numbers this year than I had last year. That’s what we’re going to do.

We made some shock changes and we’re going to run the motor a little different and we’re going to try some ProCharger stuff. We’ve got a couple camshaft profiles to try, even with the new motors. Now that we’re finished filming America’s List, we’re getting ready to hit the ground running and do some testing with the NPK car.

Now talking about the show in general, you’ve really embraced your role as a star of the show. You were all over the place at PRI signing autographs and meeting fans at sponsor booths. How have you approached that side of this, being a face of the show and for your sponsors?

Stepping up to take a major role in the Street Outlaws franchise in general, it’s shown me the influence that we have on people, which is maybe why I handle myself certain ways.

I feel like a lot of people step up to the plate to want to work with you. When you do decent, people want their stuff in your car. I feel like it’s all about giving back to those people who support us and give us good products and service, companies like Proline, HP Tuners, Summit Racing, M&M Transmission, ProCharger, FuelTech, and RK Racecraft.

We don’t just get a plethora of free parts sent to us, but every now and then we do get help. It doesn’t matter if it’s a discount, a move to the front of the line, or whatever, we have to make sure we pay those people back. Those things like PRI and SEMA or a few little commercials we do or some ads on social media are our way of paying back – drawing people to their booths at PRI or making sure the people who look up to you know whose stuff you use. If I want a blower, I’m calling ProCharger. I whole-heartedly mean that, not because they’re sponsoring me, but because they absolutely have the best product and that’s why I won a championship. That’s why I think it’s important to give back to the people who give to you.

I think it’s also important to choose wisely who you work with to make sure you’re representing a good company.

What’s your take on the impact Street Outlaws and No Prep Kings have had on the drag racing community?

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With all the different versions of the shows, whether it be street racing or racing on the track, I think Street Outlaws has sparked a huge interest back up in the drag racing community in general. Before, you could only watch NHRA on Sunday nights. Now, any given night, you can watch a Street Outlaws program, 3-4 days a week.

It’s put some characters in the mix that people can follow instead of going, “Hey, John Force is a badass driver,” or whatever, which isn’t taking anything away from him because he was my idol as a kid. But this has let your average Joe find people that they can follow and latch onto and ride with through the whole chain of events, whether it’s on a street show or on a track-based show or on a build-based show.

I feel like, as goofy as this sounds, it’s taken away some of the real uber-professionalism to make the average Joe think, “Hey, that’s a relatable thing for me. We drag race on the weekends or we grew up street racing and I can relate to that.’ It’s made drag racing more relatable than the nitro cars.

I think it’s dramatically affected drag racing as a whole, from parts manufacturers selling parts to getting people back at the racetrack, to getting people buying cars, to getting people watching TV. I think the viewership speaks for itself.

There’s a lot of talk every year about what would happen in NPK if this pro racer or that pro racer showed up and participated. Stevie Jackson, Rickie Smith, whomever. Does that get under your skin? The notion that NPK –  likely because it’s rooted in a television show – is lesser than where those guys race? Truthfully speaking, there aren’t many racers at any level that would welcome a 15-race season.

Does it bother me for people to say, “Hey, if Stevie Jackson came over here, he’d come over and do good,” or whatever? No, because let’s be realistic. There’s a few guys you could name like Stevie Jackson, for example, who we know is going to do good. He’s going to do good wherever he goes. He’s going to do well in whatever platform he’s in, whether it’s NHRA, drag radial, Lights Out, No Prep Kings, Outlaw 10.5, it doesn’t really matter. He’s going to do good. I think the flip side of that is if I go and decide to race on radials, I’m probably going to do good there too.

To me, the people who put in the work and hustle and use the right parts and get the right engine builders and test their ass off and all that stuff, those are the people who are going to be at the top of any class. If somebody like [Jackson] came in, he probably would do good. But that being said, I don’t feel like it discredits what we do. Now, a lot of the average Joes don’t understand that and there’s a lot of Stevie Jackson nut-huggers out there that will go, “He’s the best there is and he’d wipe the floor with y’all.” I wouldn’t be scared of him. There’s a lot of us that wouldn’t be scared of him.

But on the same side of that, when it comes to whoever is deciding who can come over to run the Future Street Outlaws or whatever, there’s a lot more to this than just racing. It’s got to do with characters for the show, what kind of following you have, and honestly, did you support this as we started it or did you constantly spend all your time and effort in trying to bring it down? I think that’s got a lot of bearing on who ends up able to take a shot.

On a similar note, are there other places to race that peak your interest? Like do you see NPK as a potential stepping stone to NHRA Pro Mod, Pro Stock or Top Fuel, Funny Car? Or are you exactly where you want to be? 

Not right now. I’m where I want to be right now. Pro Mod doesn’t appeal to me. To me, that’s a class that the spectators can’t support it because there’s not enough people that watch it. Everybody watches what we’re doing, for whatever reason. It doesn’t matter if it’s because people like all the characters or they think we’re the fastest cars alive. None of that really matters. The only thing that matters is that people watch what we do. Right now, I’m going to tell you, in my opinion, No Prep is the hottest thing going, NPK especially. If I move to any of those other classes, I think it would be a step in the wrong direction.

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With No Prep being such a hot commodity right now, where do you see room for growth? Is there room for a series that isn’t a TV show? What about a handful of major independent events – like a Lights Out or Snowbird Nationals – specifically for No Prep racing?

I don’t know if just No Prep racing survives fantastically without the television show. A lot of people are scared to do No Prep racing. A lot of people that are doing it now were always scared to do it. A lot of people that are hating on it are talking about how it’s dangerous and people wreck and blah, blah, blah. We don’t have any more wrecks than anybody else has. But if you take the money and the TV out of the equation, I feel like there’s too many people that would be scared to do it.

Does it support its own series? Could there be another series that could be better than NPK? I don’t think so because everybody’s going to want to do NPK. These races pay $40,000 a piece. When you have payouts like that, it’s really hard to want to go anywhere else. If you build a No Prep car, do you want to go to the A group or the B group? I think NPK is probably the A group and any other series would be the B group.

Now could it support one big race or two big races a year like Lights Out or something like that? Yeah, I think it could. I think you open that thing up to anybody – to the Stevie Jacksons or the Todd Tutterows – and you can probably have a hundred cars on the property to race No Prep.

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