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Five-Time Indianapolis 500 Starter, Gifted Mechanic Martin Dies at 80

John Martin, a veteran of five Indianapolis 500 starts and the eighth-place finisher in the rain-shortened 1973 event, died Nov. 20. He was 80.

A gifted mechanic and engineer, who performed much of the work on cars he drove, Martin was active in racing until his death. His most-recent role was working near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at Billy Throckmorton’s Grant King racing shop, restoring and preparing a variety of racing engines for vintage car meets, including normally aspirated Offenhausers, turbocharged Drake Offys, Volkswagen midget car engines and an abundance of vintage sprint car powerplants.

Last summer, he drove in Vintage Race of Champions (VROC) Charity Pro-Am race during the SVRA Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational at IMS, a race he competed in every year since the inaugural in 2014.

The Cushing, Oklahoma-born Martin, who lived in Missouri, Wisconsin, California and in the Indianapolis area, made a total of 52 starts in the United States Auto Club National Championship series and under the Championship Auto Racing Teams banner, placing within the top 10 on 17 occasions in Indy car events. His highest showing was a pair of fifth-place finishes, scored in the Ontario 500-mile races of 1973 and 1975. 

He attempted to qualify for every Indianapolis 500 between 1971 and 1982 and was successful for five consecutive events between 1972 and 1976. Driving an ex-Peter Revson McLaren fielded by himself, Martin placed eighth in 1973, when the car was called the Unsponsored Special, and 11th in 1974 when it ran as the delightfully named Sea Snack Shrimp Cocktail Special. 

Long after he was no longer driving, Martin continued to work on teams in a variety of capacities, including engineer, fabricator and spotter. Far into the night prior to an event, Martin could be seen dressed in an apron and engrossed in a mechanical exercise of some kind. 

His early days of driving were as an amateur road racer with the Sports Car Club of America. While living in Wisconsin, he converted a 1963 Corvette Stingray into an A-production racer and won a national title with it in 1965. He also took part in several United States Auto Club stock car races between 1966 and 1969, and contested SCCA’s Trans-Am series in 1968 with an AMC Javelin. In 1970, he drove a Surtees in the SCCA Continental series for stock block-powered Formula 5000 cars and placed within the top 10 in eight out of 11 starts.

A great storyteller, the laid-back Martin was blessed with a rich baritone voice which the professionals would describe as a “radio” voice.

He is survived by his wife, Linda, and a married daughter, Kristen De Muth.

Services are pending, but a celebration of life is being planned for some time in December at the Grant King racing shop.

 
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