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Nigel Marlin No More

11/4/2008
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All you need to know about how much the NASCAR world has changed over the last decade is spelled out with two seemingly forgettable headlines on ESPN.com's NASCAR page:

"-Team co-founder McClure indicted on tax charges"

"-Kodak ending sponsorships of NASCAR, Penske"

As NASCAR began to grow into a full-fledged big league sport during 1980's and '90's, there were few cars as identifiable as the bright yellow number 4 Kodak Chevy of Morgan-McClure Motorsports. But by the turn of the century, that growth had moved into a much higher gear, setting a pace that left teams like MMM and sponsors like Kodak broken down on the side of the speedway and, as of last week, officially extinct.

In 1983 a group of buddies and business partners in Abdingdon, Virginia—only a few miles up the road from the Bristol Motor Speedway—decided to take a shot at racing. Larry McClure and his brothers Ed, Jerry and Teddy joined forces with Tim Morgan to form Morgan-McClure and on June 19, the group fielded an Oldsmobile at Michigan with a struggling kid named Mark Martin behind the wheel.

For four years they ran Cup races when they could, cobbling together cash from their own pockets or from one-off sponsors straight out of Talladega Nights such as The Diet Connection, Morrell Datsun, and Powhatan Maintenance.

"We blew more engines than we finished races," McClure said with a laugh a few years ago. "We didn't know what the hell we were doing and we were spending way too much money. But man, it sure was fun."

Then, in 1987, they convinced Kodak to come ride on the hood of their Olds, driven by Rick Wilson. The company's largest plants were located in East Tennessee and they loved the idea of helping out the local race team.

As racing marriages go, it was Brangelina.

Wilson won the team's first pole in '88, which came, fittingly, at Bristol. Two years later, at the suggestion of Dale Earnhardt, they took a chance on a brash young racer from California named Ernie Irvan, who promptly stuck the Kodak Chevy in Victory Lane, again on their home track. In four seasons, Irvan won nine poles and seven races, including the 1991 Daytona 500.

Then came the golden era for the Kodak Gold car, when lovable loser Sterling Marlin took the wheel and won his first race in the new car, the 1994 Daytona 500. One year later he won it again, becoming just the third driver to go back-to-back in the Great American Race. They nearly won the Winston Cup in '95, coming in third behind the legendary duel between Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt. The car was so fast on the superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega, it made a different noise than the others, a header-infused whine that sounded a lot more like a Formula One car running at Monte Carlo than a Chevy Monte Carlo. So naturally the garage hung an F1 nickname on the driver, named for reigning F1 champ Nigel Mansel.

Nigel Marlin.

"Good times, man," Marlin said recently. "We won a bunch of races and we never lost a party. We'd go win a pole at Talladega and then go drinking with our fans. We probably should have enjoyed it a bit more than we did, you know? I remember when I left I had all these reasons as to why and they seemed really important at the time, but I can't even remember what they were anymore. It was never that much fun again."

Marlin left after '97, replaced by another Tennessean good guy, Bobby Hamilton, who won once in 101 starts before leaving in 2001 to race for current ESPN analyst Andy Petree, by his own admission because he thought the team was growing fast enough resource-wise. That was also the time that the multicar explosion hit the sport. Roush Racing expanded to five teams, Hendrick to four, and even old school operations such as Petty Enterprises and Richard Childress Racing started adding cars and hiring aerospace engineers. It's also when the asking price for sponsorship pushed past five million…then ten million…then fifteen million.

Morgan-McClure stayed pat. They stayed in Virginia and clung to the processes that had brought them success in the mid-90's. It didn't work. Between '01 and '07 a mind-bending sixteen different drivers rotated through the cockpit of the number 4 Chevy, including a disastrous five-race experiment with Robby Gordon that damn near tore the team apart with all the fighting, complaining and threatened lawsuits.

By 2004 Kodak was gone, leaving to join the more modernized racing and marketing operation of Penske Racing. Morgan-McClure once again had to settle for Ricky Bobby sponsors such as Supreme Clean, Wide Open Energy Drink, Love's Travel Stops, YokeTV.com, and ITT Night Vision.

In 2007 the 4 car failed to qualify 19 times with Ward Burton behind the wheel and State Water Heaters on the hood. In the 16 races they did make, they failed to finish eight times. In January '08 they laid off most of the workforce and now, after 702 races over 25 years, Morgan-McClure Motorsports has all but shut its doors. Now McClure is working on his defense against the IRS and Kodak is gone, announcing that it will leave the garage after 22 seasons of racing, saying they plan to reinvest their sports sponsorship cash into (gulp) golf.

Together, Kodak and the 4 car won 14 races and 13 poles. Apart they won zero (no, being an associate sponsor on Ryan Newman's car at Daytona doesn't count).

In the years since their heyday together, the sport they helped build kicked them out of the car and left them on the side of the road. I'm not saying that's good or bad. It's just different.

But I do miss Nigel Marlin.