“The best way to make a small fortune in racing is to start with a big one.”
– Junior Johnson, NASCAR driver and team owner
My parents sometimes joke that I was born at the racetrack. For all intents and purposes they are right. While I may not have come into the world in the same way Ricky Bobby may have, in 1996 when I was born, my parents had owned a stock car racing team for several years. And so as they traversed the southwestern United States for races, I went with them. While my dad worked with the team in the shop on the cars we raced, I went with him, Hot Wheels cars in hand. When race day came, I went with them, right in the middle of the action. Mine was a wacky childhood, with experiences that are both unique and hysterical. Funniest part about it all, is I hardly remember any of it, as the journey had run its course by the time I was 5, and the team was sold. All the stories you are about to read are secondhand; stories that I was once told myself. From Baywatch lifeguards to miniature race cars, internet companies to NASCAR greats, and other odds and ends, this is the brief-yet-bright story of Mark IV Motorsports.
Our #40 AOL car at the top of the hill at Sears Point, our home track
Mark IV Motorsports gets its name from my dad’s nickname while living in southern California. The fourth “Mark” to join a group of friends, he was aptly dubbed Mark IV. His best friend, my godfather, is Mark II. Mark IV Motorsports was a small team and spent most of its time racing in the Southwest Tour. Much like baseball, racing has numerous developmental leagues, all around the country, filled with drivers racing their way to Sunday mornings and afternoons. The Southwest Tour was one of those leagues. As its name suggests, all of the races were located in the southwestern U.S. We raced in Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Sears Point, 15 minutes from my house in the Bay Area of California, to name a few. In addition, they ventured into the Northwest Tour and the Midwest Slim Jim Tour for marquee events.
The Southwest Tour gave rise to some of the biggest names in NASCAR today; Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch being the two biggest. It is a little crazy to me, even now, that we had brushed fame so closely. That is not to say we were famous, but rather we raced against people who one day would be. Both Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick have won championships at the highest level of NASCAR, and are considered among the best drivers in the field today. This close proximity to soon-to-be-famous men (quite young at the time), manifested itself in a couple of ways. At one point, Mark IV Motorsports considered Kevin Harvick as a possible driver. Of course he did not end up being our driver; if he had been, I more than likely would not be where I am today. Another brush came in 1999: the championship had come down to the final race: Kurt Busch versus Damon Lusk, driver for Mark IV Motorsports. The outcome of the race would determine the championship; unfortunately for us, we exited the race on lap 15, and went from second to fourth in the points at the end of the season. So now, when I watch those drivers race today, I often chuckle in the back of my mind, as I’m sure my father might as well. Before these drivers were at the top of the NASCAR world, they competed for the same victories at the same races we once raced at. Legend even has it that I once ran onto the track after a race for Kurt Busch’s autograph. He is still to this day my favorite driver in NASCAR.
The #40 AOL car racing beside Kurt Busch in the #70
Our success on the track was not as grand as it may sound. The aforementioned 1999 season was our best in the history of the team, and the only season in which we competed for a championship. However, we were successful, maybe even pioneering, in another sense: sponsorship. Most Southwest Tour teams are sponsored by the driver’s business, meaning half the field were business owners who raced for fun on the side. That was how the teams were funded; cheap sponsorship and out-of-pocket money. This was all a result of the times. The internet was in its infancy, and viral videos didn’t exist. The only people who saw the car sponsors were those who were at the race, and Southwest tour races were sparsely attended. That’s not to say things have changed much now, but it was certainly a different time in the mid 90’s. However, we were fortunate enough to land a budding Internet company, who provided internet for a just few million Americans.
You may have heard of them, as they would eventually be the internet provider for 30% of America. America Online, or AOL, became our primary sponsor, in addition to companies such as Kleenex, Ritz Camera, and Save-Mart. AOL was young at the time, not the household name they would ultimately become. Nevertheless, that sponsorship was important to the success of our team. At that level of racing, there was no such thing as being a team owner as your full-time job. Both of my parents maintained their professions throughout their ownership. The sponsorship lightened the financial load my parents had in running the team much smaller. AOL’s sponsorship would eventually provide some of our most memorable moments.
There’s a phrase that goes “you can tell the men from the boys by the size of their toys.” That phrase rang true in our shop. Our #40 AOL race car was blue with yellow trim and detailing. It was a simple livery, but we were a simple team. Fancy paint schemes were for the Sunday races. We did receive some fun items from AOL, however. The crew had sharp, matching shirts (I have one in my closet), amongst other things. No one was able to top young Austin though. One day in the shop, the sponsor’s representative had a present for me. This was one of the few memories from the race team I can recall. The sponsor rep had brought me one of those small, plastic, electric-powered cars that little kids can sit in and drive. It wouldn’t have been that memorable except that mine was special; it was an exact replica of our race car. At last, both Albertson boys had their own race car. My dad’s reached speeds of 180 mph, while mine reached speeds of 4 or 5. I would imagine it drove my dad, and everyone else on the team, crazy, but I loved that thing.
My replica of our AOL car. It seems as if I was imagining a podium finish.
This last story is my favorite; it’s what truly made our experience unique. I don’t quite know the specifics, but at some point in 1999, my dad met someone with a unique job title. They were from the production company for the TV show Baywatch. My dad, always trying to promote the sponsor’s brand through the race team, was excited by the opportunity to feature our car and sponsor, AOL, on an episode of Baywatch. Some time later, though I don’t know any of the details, our race car would be the main storyline of an episode of Baywatch. This was a huge deal, not only for us, but also for our sponsors. At the time, Baywatch was one of the highest watched shows in the world, particularly popular internationally. And so, our whole team, crew members and all, made the trip down to Los Angeles to be on hand for filming (we also had a race in L.A. soon after). There are a few silly and unrelated stories that arose from that weekend.
A special paint design was featured for the episode. The side of the car features a rolling wave, and a Baywatch decal. The surfboard was an added touch for the photoshoot.
I don’t mean to brag, but I, like many 3-year-old’s, was a pretty damn cute kid. I played with Hot Wheels cars everywhere I went, and so when paired with all the racing stuff surrounding the film set, I became irresistible to the Baywatch life guards. A gaggle of blondes in red one-piece swimsuits were always gushing over me (remember that I was told all of this, meaning I didn’t make it up). Our crew members soon caught on, and my parents were repeatedly asked, “Can I borrow Austin for a little bit, I can take him off your hands for you.” I became lifeguard bait for our single crew members as they pursued the actresses. Now, I was always a touchy-feely kid. I had to touch everything. I have no idea why, but seeing something simply wasn’t good enough for me. And so the story goes, that on one of these escapades with the lifeguards, one of them picked me up, and reached out for squeeze. My little 3-year-old hand planted firmly on the lifeguard’s breast. If anybody above the age of 5 were to do that, it would likely be an extremely awkward occurrence. However, 3-year-old’s are exempt from this, and it perhaps only made me more of a hit with the Baywatch lifeguards. How I miss the freedoms of being 3.
The plot of the episode was that our driver was the cousin of one of the characters, a young boy. The cousin was a race car driver in town for the Los Angeles street race, and he met all the lifeguards. David Hasselhoff’s character, star of the show, was supposedly a former driver when he was young. When our driver gets sick and can’t race, Hasselhoff comes to the rescue and races in his place, rekindling a rivalry with NASCAR great, and driver at the time, Mark Martin. There is a scene where our driver (played by an actor) suggests that Hasselhoff take the car for a drive, at which point a man no other than my father, is seen reaching in the car to hand the steering wheel to Hasselhoff. While some get their “15 minutes of fame”, my dad got about 3 seconds. He wasn’t supposed to say anything, but couldn’t resist and said “Here you go!” to Hasselhoff as he handed him the steering wheel. They kept the scene in the show, and moved on from there. Unfortunately, my dad was uncredited and thus does not have an IMDb page. Nevertheless, we all took a photo with Hasselhoff in front of our car hauler, concrete evidence of our involvement.
My mom, left; David Hasselhoff, middle; Me, middle; My dad, right
AOL had always outclassed the Southwest Tour, and soon they realized it. They were moving up to sponsor a Winston Cup car, one that would be raced on national TV every Sunday. In 2001, they would complete their record-setting merger with Time Warner, and they would be providing internet to one-third of America. Additionally, my parents faced a choice. NASCAR may race nationwide, but it’s heart lies in Mooresville, North Carolina. This is where every major race team has their headquarters, and it’s where all of the crew members live and work. And with them comes the trade secrets of NASCAR; the inside knowledge of how to shave tenths of seconds off of lap times. My parents were unwilling to move to North Carolina, and without our marquee sponsor, there wasn’t much sense in keeping the team. Everything was gone by 2001, sold to the David Gilliland team, someone else with NASCAR ambitions.
Despite the fact that our race team wasn’t a huge success, NASCAR and racing was still a mainstay in our house for a long time. Sundays weren’t for the NFL; it was for race day. And while we wouldn’t sit and watch the race for 4 hours, it was always on in the background of whatever we were doing. Because of this, I have an appreciation for the sport. I don’t see it as 300 trips around an oval. I see it as a battle; minds vs. fatigue, bodies vs. gravity and G-forces, machines vs. machines. Racing is an incredible event, one that requires unmatched mental strength and focus, and a dedication to the craft. There are so many nuances, so many minute differences that determine success, so much history and tradition in the world of racing and NASCAR. It’s a world I was born into, one I appreciate, and one that can’t be understood as long as people see it as a long collection of circles. In that vein, I wanted to share this collection of stories with the express purpose of showing you, the reader, the world of NASCAR as I see it, through my eyes.
Welcome to the world of NASCAR.