Marty Robbins Just Wanted to Go Fast: How the Country Legend Found His NASCAR Groove

by Jim Casey

Marty Robbins was a lot of things: WWII veteran, cowboy singer, race car driver. But during his all-too-short 57 years on earth, the consummate entertainer just wanted to go fast. Country music’s attraction with motorsports—perhaps—began with Marty, who raced competitively by day and then raced to the Opry stage to sing by night. With NASCAR‘s Ally 400 returning to Nashville Superspeedway this week (June 26), it’s a good time to revisit Marty’s need for speed.

From 1966 to 1982, Marty raced in 35 NASCAR Cup Series races (known at the time as the Grand National Division, then later the Winston Cup Series). Of course, 35 races over a 16-year span is an incredibly abbreviated schedule (there were 49 races in 1966). However, during his part-time run, Marty scored one Top 5 finish and six Top 10 finishes.

Without question, Marty Robbins was country music’s best NASCAR driver. Or was it, NASCAR’s best country music singer? Both descriptors are accurate. Let’s dig in.

The Cowboy Singer

Martin David Robinson was born Sept. 26, 1925, in Glendale, Ariz. One of 10 children in the struggling family, Marty got his kicks listening to his maternal grandfather, Texas Bob Heckle, spin stories about Texas Rangers and cowboys. Not surprisingly, Marty took a liking to Gene Autry movies.

At age 17, Marty left the desert behind to enlist in the U.S. Navy in 1943. During his three-year stint, Marty began learning guitar and writing songs while stationed in the Solomon Islands. He moved back to Arizona after his tour of duty in 1945, where he formed the K-Bar Cowboys and landed a deejay gig at a Phoenix radio station. By 1951, he had his own television show, Western Caravan, on KPHO in Phoenix, which led to a contract with Columbia Records at the behest of Little Jimmy Dickens.

Marty Robbins scored a No. 1 hit with his debut single, “I’ll Go Alone,” in 1953. He joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1953, becoming one of the show’s most popular performers. More hits followed, including 1956’s “Singing the Blues,” “1957’s “A White Sport Coat,” and 1958’s “Just Married.”

In 1959, Marty released his signature hit, “El Paso.” The western ballad topped the charts for seven weeks and earned Marty his first Grammy for Best Country & Western Recording in 1961.

Marty’s Drive

Marty’s musical success allowed him to pursue his expensive hobby: racing. In 1959, Marty Robbins began racing Micros before moving to the dirt track.

In 1962, Marty once again hit No. 1 with his single “Devil Woman,” which also served as the name for his purple ’33 Ford coupe. By 1966, Marty had moved up the NASCAR ladder to the Grand National Division.

But Marty had health problems, too. In 1969, he suffered a heart attack while on his tour bus. However, nothing could keep him out of the driver’s seat. He underwent open-heart surgery in January 1970 and was back on the track by October.

His dream was to be able to pull up alongside Richard Petty at Talladega, look him in the eye and pass him—a feat he accomplished in 1972 with an illegal carburetor (of course, he was disqualified). For the next 10 years, Marty raced off and on, with his final Winston Cup race at the Atlanta Journal 500 on Nov. 7, 1982. During his 16-year career, he ran in 35 Cup races. Marty’s personal best was a Top 5 finish at the Motor State 360 in Michigan in 1974. But he also had six Top 10 finishes, including finishing eighth at Daytona in 1973 and ninth at Talladega in 1974.

Lasting Legacy

Marty Robbins will be remembered for a lot of things: his friendly swagger, his $2,000 Nudie suits, his need for speed, his music.

Marty scored 16 No. 1 hits during his music career, including chart-toppers in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. In addition, he had multiple Top 10 hits in the 1980s. Marty earned his second Grammy in 1971 for “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife.”

Marty was named the ACM Artist of the Decade for the 1960s. Chew on that for just a moment, because there have only been six ACM Artists of the Decade (Marty, Loretta Lynn, Alabama, Garth Brooks, George Strait, and Jason Aldean). He was elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame in October 1982. Seven weeks later, he suffered another heart attack. Marty died on Dec. 8, 1982, at the age of 57.

Country music lost one of its most entertaining personalities when Marty Robbins died—and its best driver.