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Small-Town Small-Tire Hero: Martin Connelley Keeps Digging

Martin Connelley had just finished work, a day that started at 6 a.m. and went much the same as his typical day as a UPS delivery driver.

But there was no time to relax, no time to put his feet up, relax and enjoy a peaceful evening. Connelley doesn’t experience peaceful evenings. His mind simply won’t allow it. In fact, there’s a sign menacingly staring at him every time he enters his race shop.

“I’ve got a sign that says, ‘Every time you sit down, somebody is working to beat you.’ Every time I come in here, and I sit down, and I’m just tired, I look up at that and say, ‘I got to get back up and keep swinging the hammer on this thing. Somebody else is doing it.’ I don’t believe in excuses,” Connelley says.

[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in DI #167, the Outlaw Issue, in April of 2021.]

There are no excuses on this night and, besides, he already had other plans. More than 17 hours after he woke that morning, Connelley and his crew chief, Eric Mitchell, started loading their ProCharger-powered silver Mustang onto the trailer at 11 p.m., and left for Virginia Motorsports Park outside Richmond just shy of midnight.

A little more than eight hours later — and 20 minutes after the gates opened at 8 a.m. – Connelley arrived at VMP, maybe catching a couple of hours of sleep along the way. They unloaded the car, went right to the track, and tried to qualify in Ultra Street, which has Connelley’s focus these days.

He qualified 16th and advanced to the finals — making sure to finally get a good night’s sleep Friday night — marking his best finish of the 2021 season.

By Monday morning, Connelley was back at work, full speed ahead on whatever comes next.

“That is more common than rare, and it’s probably 75 or 80 percent of the time at least,” Connelley says of his schedule. “We usually always have to work the day that we leave, and we try to leave that evening. And then, I drove the whole way home and had time to take a shower and go to work on Monday morning. All of us worked Monday. So that is really common.”

Connelley is the working man’s racer through and through, and he wouldn’t change it for anything. He lives in a modest house on a farm in the quiet, small town of Salyersville in eastern Kentucky, and it’s complemented by a modest racing operation.

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There’s nothing fancy and nothing high-dollar when it comes to Connelley’s racing or his way of life. His close-knit team has worked together for more than 10 successful years, and his wife, Michelle, accompanied him to the dragstrip two weeks into their relationship when he was 19.

It was love at first burnout, and husband and wife maintain a healthy competition when it comes to work ethic and zero downtime.

Connelley is fueled by a passion for success in anything and everything he does, which this year means trying to thrive in Ultra Street and NMRA Renegade.

After campaigning two cars a year ago, including the Mustang that dominated the DXP Street classes at both Lights Out 11 and No Mercy 10 in 2020, Connelley and his team made a massive overhaul in the off-season.

Chris Sears photo

They converted the silver Mustang into an Ultra Street car over the winter, installing the engine and transmission out of the orange Limited 235 Mustang, adding a Haltech system and ProCharger power, and jumped into a new challenge.

Connelley sees his present and future in Ultra Street, a thriving class loaded with heavy hitters and an abundance of races. While the results and the major changes and forward-thinking approach haven’t yielded a win yet this year, Connelley is betting success will come.

And if it doesn’t come right away, he will keep working until it does — because, to Connelley, if you’re not working and winning, then what’s the point?

“I had trouble playing sports in school because I was so competitive,” Connelley says. “I didn’t understand why the other kids weren’t as interested in winning as I was. If we played softball or volleyball or whatever, I wanted to win. We played ping pong, I wanted to win.

“It may be unhealthy or whatever, but I believe competition makes us better. We tell each other on the team, sometimes your best ain’t good enough. You got to be better, and we find ourselves in that position sometimes. Like right now, we’re behind with our combination, but we’re going to find it. And we’re going to find stuff that ain’t normally found. We will keep digging until we find it.”

Chris Sears photo

Twenty years ago, when Connelley was still a wide-eyed 19-year-old, he ended up at a dragstrip with his girlfriend, who would become his wife not much later.

It had gradually got to this point as a racer, driving go-carts as a teenager, and then buying a ’98 Camaro when he turned 16, making a down payment from the money he had saved for years. He moved to Mustangs a year later and by 19, it was time to go racing.

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In the meantime, his relationship with Michelle moved as quickly as turning on the last stage of nitrous and, two weeks after they met, they were at a dragstrip.

It was there at Mountain Park Dragway (now known as Kentucky Dragway), a small local track 53 miles from Connelley’s house where he made his first runs and found the woman who would stick with him through the peaks and valleys, and when it comes to drag racing on a relatively shoestring budget, there’s plenty of valleys.

“I think she pretty well understood how involved I was in it,” Connelley says. “But my wife has sacrificed more than most women would even consider. They think they would until they have to get in there and do it. We don’t drive new cars, we drive just cars. I think her car is 15 years old, and mine’s 20 years old. We’ve sacrificed a lot of what people consider or think is supposed to make them happy. We sacrificed a lot of that stuff so that we can drag race. All of us on the team, we all sacrifice and stuff. But my wife has probably sacrificed the most, whether she realizes it or not.”

It’s something that drives Connelley each day. He’s pushed by success with his team and his wife, and making the most of his resources, and doing so offers more pride than any type of material item.

That mindset was embedded in him early on. While he didn’t grow up racing with his family, he did learn the value of hard work and the benefit of a simpler lifestyle.

In fact, he joked his parents only bought their first computer 5-6 years ago so they can watch their son race. Making the most of everything has been drilled into Connelley and that’s been evident in his racing career as well.

It was just Connelley and his wife early in his career, pulling an open trailer with a $1,500 truck. They found success, winning two local championships in 2005, driving anywhere to race, and making the most of their situation.

“It was usually one-day races, but, man, we stayed in some rough hotels and motels. We’ve slept in rest areas,” Connelley says. “The truck had a hole in the gas tank. It would only hold half a tank of fuel, and we’d have to carry five gallons of fuel in case we got somewhere in a pinch. That year was a significant deal because it was just me and her doing it.”

To get the silver Mustang in 2009, Connelley, his wife, and Eric Mitchell made a 32-hour trip to Nebraska, driving 15 hours to pick it up, spending two hours loading it up, and then another 15 hours back. The purchase came uniquely as well.

“My wife owns the silver car,” Connelley reveals. “When we bought it, she was the one with the money. It wasn’t even a race car then. We still had to put it together and she was the one that got it. I wasn’t going to go get it. She’s like, ‘Yeah, this is what we need.’”

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It was their next foray into serious, major outlaw drag racing, making the purchase that January in 2009 and racing it by May. After Connelley made all the necessary overhauls to make it race-ready, Mitchell drove the car, which had a small-block nitrous engine, for the first two years.

They didn’t race at all in 2011, saving up their money to make the change to a big-block nitrous engine. That led to a move to X275 in 2012, which proved to be Connelley’s breakout year.

He won the first radial race he entered at a track in Reynolds, Georgia, showing his talents on a larger stage in his burgeoning career.

“That was pretty significant to us because that was the first big stage we were probably ever on,” Connelley says.

He raced that combination for the next three years before feeling the weight of broken parts and a combination that kept leading to more and more heartache.

Eddie McCarty, who lives just down the road from Connelley, owns the orange Mustang and asked him to drive it starting in 2015. They raced mostly local events that year, but it was highly successful right off the bat. That continued the next year before going back to the silver Mustang in 2017. By then, the car had a small-block turbo combination in it, but that didn’t change those struggles, as that motor got torn up as well.

McCarty, who also owns the ProCharger-boosted engine that’s now in the silver Mustang, got Connelley to campaign his car the next three years, including the terrific 2020 season where he raced both cars. Along with the success in DXP Street and Limited 235, Connelley and his team won the NMCA/NMRA race in Martin, Michigan. Connelley remains plenty thankful for McCarty’s involvement.

“One way or another, we’ve been kind of doing this together and it’s worked out great,” Connelley says. “A lot of time partnerships don’t work out that good, but this has been one that’s worked out great.”

The entire time, Connelley has praised a group that has worked together for more than a decade.

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It includes his wife, Mitchell, Cory Brooks, Dalton Winfield, Jason Waterman, who owns the DXP Street engine, and Krusty Ramsey. Connelley has worked with Mitchell for far longer than 10 years, but this group has come into its own in recent seasons and Connelley can’t help but marvel at what they’ve accomplished.

It’s the complete opposite of a high-budget team, but it’s a group loaded with talent, ingenuity, and a remarkable knack to outwork just about everyone.

“We joke that we have a team that a lot of big teams can’t pay to get, and it’s just like whenever we go over to the track and do something, if somebody is better at something, they roll up, do it and get it out of the way,” says Connelley, who also credited sponsors RPM Transmission, T&D Rockers, Red Horse Plumbing, TRZ Motorsports, Menscer Motorsports, and ProTorque Converters.

“We all decide that one person is going to make that decision, and then that person makes the decision. If he’s right or wrong, it was everybody’s decision, because we all agreed that person is the best to make that decision. We all wear it as a team whether it goes good or bad, and that is one thing we’re pretty good at. We don’t point fingers, but everybody holds themselves accountable.

“We have a very good understanding, and you never hear somebody say, ‘Well, I was doing that and somebody else come over here and pushed me out of the way,’ because we understand what each other’s strengths and weaknesses are. That makes for a really, really good team when you have people that understand that about each other, and everybody’s working on a common goal.”

Connelley wasn’t necessarily seeking a new challenge, but he did want to go wherever the top competition was, and therein lies the main reason why he jumped headfirst into Ultra Street.

While he enjoyed immense success in 2020, winning in both DXP Street and Limited 235 at Lights Out and making one record run after another in DXP Street, his eye was on Ultra Street. If he wanted to be considered the best with the style of racing he’s passionate about, that’s the class where he needed to be entrenched.

“That’s one reason why we committed to Ultra Street is that I think it’s the healthiest class right now in the racing that we do, and it has got the biggest following right now, I believe, as far as racers,” Connelley says. “Everywhere you go there’s always usually a 16-car field at least, sometimes 32. I think that class has a really good potential to grow and be bigger.

“You get so many guys together that just absolutely refuse to quit or refuse to lose, and that makes for a heck of a race. It makes for a heck of class, and that’s what we got right now. We’ve got a lot of those guys that are coming together that had that same attitude.”

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Count Connelley as one of those refuse-to-lose types, a common theme in Ultra Street. That was part of the intrigue, as was making the total overhaul on the silver Mustang.

They went from a nitrous-assisted engine to ProCharger, the key change in an offseason filled with them on the car. The goal, though, is never to stand pat.

For Connelley, that’s boring, that’s uneventful and, worst of all, it’s creating a stagnant mindset, which might as well be a four-letter word.

“I’m a firm believer in progression. You never sit still, and if you do, something’s wrong,” Connelley asserts. “The E.T.s always move. I was taught by a guy years ago that if you’re winning, you tend to relax, and you just ride that, and somebody catches you. That stuck with me. He said, ‘Never quit digging,’ and we always keep digging. We’re digging to get there, and we understand that’s where it’s going. We want to be right there with the frontrunners whenever it happens.”

Connelley’s 4.57 at 154 in Virginia puts him in a good spot, but looking at the progress of the class, it’s running full speed ahead and not slowing down.

A year ago, it was a big deal to go in the 4.60s in Ultra Street and earth-shattering if you managed to dip into the 4.50s. Now, it’s an every-race deal and par for the course. Connelley is confident it will be in the 4.40s by the end of the year — and that he’ll be among that group.

“We’ll go 4.40s at the end of the year. In the fall, when the weather comes back to us, Ultra Street will go 4.40s and we’ll be there,” Connelley says.

With such an ambitious goal and set-up, and diving into an entirely new class, Connelley knew campaigning two cars wasn’t feasible in 2021. That was the practical side of the vast number of changes, but also the reasonable one.

He admits he was spread thin trying to run two cars a year ago, especially considering the work schedule of everyone on the team. So Ultra Street, along with a bit of the NMRA Renegade class in NMRA, where Connelley will also drive the silver Mustang, is the current plan of attack and at the forefront of his mind.

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Connelley wants success against the best and he’ll stop at nothing until he reaches it. Based on his progress in Virginia, when he qualified 16th due to arriving late but beat the No. 1 qualifier and impressed his way to the finals, it may come sooner rather than later. He likes where the team is headed and Connelley is confident a breakthrough is coming.

“This is kind of the E.T. we like to be in, and what they’re running, and we feel more comfortable,” Connelley says. “We like the tires and there’s a lot of things about it we like. We’re enjoying it because it makes us really dig in and work hard. After all, the competition is so tough. We are at a level where 10 cars in any race could win, and that’s where we want to be, in that shark pool.”

“We want to race where the best are,” Connelley continues, “and Ultra Street is still a class where most people in that class work, and they own their own business or whatever, and they still have jobs. Most people do their own tuning. They’re still racers racing out of their shop at home.

“This is like the top level of that as it gets. We want to go out and race the best. This is where we see it, and with what we’re able to do financially and time-wise with jobs, and this is the top level of that.”

Martin Connelley and team with photographer John Fore III

In the end, it all comes down to winning and losing. Connelley has hated losing and always chased winning for as long as he can remember.

It’s the fire that burns in him and pushes him to be great and drives him to keep working when conventional wisdom might be saying to shut it down for the night, or don’t make that eight-hour drive to Virginia in the middle of the night after working a 12-hour shift.

Connelley, though, sent that kind of thinking packing long ago, so he’ll keep working, keep succeeding and keep trying to push the envelope, thinking solely of that sign in his race shop: “Every time you sit down, somebody is working to beat you.”

And then he’ll stay standing, get back to work and get back to winning.

“We hate losing so much. That’s part of it. You have to hate it. That’s what makes you stronger,” Connelley believes. “But if you really, really hate it, you try to not do that, and you really, really dig deep, and you try to do whatever it is in your power to accomplish the goal that you’re trying to accomplish. It may not even be winning on that day. I may be finding this or that, whatever the problem is at the time or we’re looking for another number in the split or something, but you have to dig sometimes. I mean, with anything else, it’s hard sometimes, but you’ve got to find a way to keep at it.”

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