Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: Justin Marks on Mid-Ohio Triumph, Turner Return

Justin Marks has had an up-and-down career in motorsports.  In NASCAR, Marks has two career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series starts, 30 in the XFINITY Series and 37 in the Camping World Truck Series.  Success has been fleeting.  He has two poles and four top-10 finishes in the trucks.  In the XFINITY Series, Marks has only three career top-10 finishes in the XFINITY Series.  The most recent of those top 10s was a sweet victory in the wet last year at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

However, before he came to NASCAR, Marks primarily raced in sports cars.  And for 2017, Marks has a part-time ride with Turner Motorsport in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s GT Daytona.  He is a past class winner in the Rolex 24 at Daytona (2009 with The Racers Group) and has years of experience, mostly in BMWs and Porsches.

The day before the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Marks sat down with Frontstretch talk about his return to Turner Motorsport in IMSA, his thoughts after the big win at Mid-Ohio last year, and the question mark that represents his upcoming NASCAR schedule.

Phil Allaway, Frontstretch: You’re back with Turner Motorsport for the first time in 11 or 12 years.  Was it really easy to ingratiate yourself back into the team environment?

Justin Marks: Will [Turner, team owner] and I go way back.  I raced here very early in my career, so it’s certainly a bit of a homecoming.  There are a number of new faces here.  I didn’t know any of my teammates until I got here on Wednesday. The Turner Motorsport team has a great culture.  Everybody’s very respectful, everybody really enjoys being here; they’re talented at what they do.  I’m appreciative of the opportunity.

Its been really easy to get back.  We were just talking at dinner [Thursday] night that it’s been a decade, but it feels like it hasn’t been a year just because we have so much history together [that] we can fall right back into it. I drove [the car] for the first time just a couple of hours before qualifying, ever.  No testing whatsoever. I was pleased to put it solidly in the middle of the field.  I can only get faster from there.

Note: Marks was signed to drive the No. 96 BMW M6 GT3 just nine days before this interview was conducted.  It was a bit of a rush for him to get acquainted with GT3 machinery.

Allaway: In addition to the dragginess that you mentioned, what else have you noticed about the M6 GT3 in the brief amount of time that you’ve been able to drive it?

Marks: BMW always builds great cars.  The weight distribution of the car is really good.  They’ve always been incredibly good handling cars.  There’s nothing finnicky about it. Sometimes, its difficult to drive a Porsche with the engine behind the rear wheels, then the mid-engined cars run a little different.  But the BMW has always been consistnent in the fact that it is a highly driver-friendly car.  It’s easy to get up to speed.

I think my third or fourth lap in the car was kind of right there.  Definitely something I really appreciate about BMW and the team building these race cars.  It’s a very driver-friendly car, the weight distribution is right, just a very, very good race car all-around.

Allaway: It’s been a number of years since you’ve had a regular deal in sports car racing.  How did this deal come together?

Marks: I raced a lot of NASCAR in 2016, like 17 races.  This series is growing and there are so many new manufacturers coming in.  It’s just starting to hit a real special time in the history of IMSA right now because the car count is up, so many new cars and new teams.  It was interesting to me to take a look at coming back.

We don’t have the funding to be able to do a full season, but to be able to do the endurance races is a nice little package to have some points to chase and some of the flagship events on the schedule.  I talked to a lot of different team owners, but at the end of the day, it was pretty clear that if I could get something together to race with Will [Turner], who I’ve raced with before, then that was the best way to go.  [The deal] came together late, but it’s been very smooth sailing.

Allaway: In addition to the four-race deal here, you have another part-time deal with Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.  How many races do you expect to drive in this year in the XFINITY Series?

Marks: I think it would just be the road course races.  I’m not going to go oval-track racing anymore, so it would be to defend my win at Mid-Ohio and go race at Road America. That stuff is still in discussions, too.  There’s a lot of moving parts to those deals.  Tyler Reddick has come in and taken the bulk of the races that I had last year.  [Reddick] is someone that they’re trying to develop.

My role with the team is fluid.  I could be in the car for the road courses, or I could be a road course coach and Tyler runs the road courses.  We’re sort of working out what that will look like right now.  Right now, on paper, the only deal that I have done is the deal with Turner Motorsport, so I’m just focused on that at the moment.

Allaway: Are you fine with potentially only having a coaching deal and just road races only?

Marks: Yes.  I’ve dreamt of winning a NASCAR race since I was 10 years old.  Being able to do it last year went a long ways towards being able to have some closure to my NASCAR career and not have to keep chasing and chasing.  I feel like I’ve checked that box. I certainly would love to continue driving.  I enjoy the cars, the races are a lot of fun and a great challenge, but I’m at a point now where I can stop and feel like I got out of it what I wanted to get out of it.

I’m getting older now and there’s a lot of races left on my bucket list.  I’d love to do Le Mans, I’d love to do Bathurst, I’d love to do Baja.  There’s a lot of races that I want to do, and I don’t want to do the same thing year in, year out.  It might just be a good time to look at doing some other stuff.

Allaway: Which Bathurst race would you prefer?  The 12-hour race or the Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000?

Marks: Any of them.  I just think that there’s so many races all over the world, and I’ve been committed to doing this racing thing for 20 years and I don’t know how much more I’ve got to be able to do.  So I want to experience all there is to experience.

Allaway: The race you won at Mid-Ohio, that was quite the adventure.  Can you describe what it was like from your point of view?

Marks: I’ve raced at Mid-Ohio a number of times in the rain in sports cars before, so I knew the wet line around there.  I knew when to move the line around, when to push and all that.  That gave me an advantage over a lot of those guys that spent the race just trying to learn how to drive in the rain.  I could go out there and push the button a little bit harder.

[They] were definitely difficult conditions.  The cars are 3,300 pounds, have a ton a horsepower, and there’s 40 of them out there.  Nobody gives an inch, so [it’s] certainly a challenge.  Once we got the lead in that race, it was a bit of a different ballgame because visibility was good, I could run the line and control the race.

For Marks, winning last year at Mid-Ohio was more than just a sweet victory. (Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

Allaway: Is Mid-Ohio one of the harder tracks to run in the rain?

Marks: Yeah, Mid-Ohio’s kind of a technical place in general, but it does have a very distinctive rain line.  There’s a lot of places where you can find grip. There are some race tracks where it is very hard to drive off-line.  At Mid-Ohio, I found a good amount of grip.  I’d raced there a lot in the rain and knew how to get around.

Allaway: Describe what it was like once you got that victory.

Marks: It was obviously a very emotional time; I was overcome with emotion.  It’s vindication for a long, hard-fought career.  A lot of money was spent, a lot of sleepless nights, and a lot of alone times.  It’s a dream come true at the end of the day.  There’s some really, really talented drivers that are still trying to win their XFINITY Series race, guys that I consider to be better drivers than I am.

At that moment, to be able to deliver on everything that everyone’s done for me over the years was just an overwhelming feeling.  But it was good personally to know that I was capable of winning at that level.

Allaway: When you did Dinner With Racers last year, you mentioned that you were thinking of building a Trans-AM car to have at it there.  Was that a thinking out loud sort of thing, or is there more to it?

Marks: I would love to do it.  I really, truly believe that [the Trans-AM Series] has the structure, the classes and the types of cars [necessary for success].  It should be one of the biggest series in America, I believe. They have a very unique product. The cars are unlike anything out there, especially the TA1 class.  If there are real teams in the series doing development and they’re really building those cars, I think it could be one of the most popular series in America.  That’s because they’re cars that people love.  It’s loud, it’s really, really fast.  The cars are really cool and it’s got a great history.

Yes, I would love to do that.  When I make the decision to do that, it will be when I quit racing on the pro level and want to go have some fun driving cool race cars at cool racetracks. I think that if someone invests in the [Trans-Am Series] and takes it to the next level, it has the potential to be really big.

Note: The Trans-Am Series recently announced a sanctioning deal with SCCA Pro Racing.  The agreement is of a very unusual length, 25 years.


Allaway: Thoughts on the GT Daytona class?

Marks: The thing is that every team here is good.  When I first came to this race in 2001, you had a lot of cars that were gentlemen drivers.  This was the only race they did all year.  Teams would bring four or five cars and it would be a mix of pros and non-pro drivers.  Now, every single team is a legitimate endurance sports car racing team with professional drivers in it.  The win can come from anywhere in the field.  While there might be less cars, it is definitely a more competitive field all the way through to the back than we’ve ever seen.

Allaway: Unlike the prototype class, the majority of the GT3 cars here are experienced.  They have some development work.  They’ve actually raced before.

Marks: The GT3 spec is a really good thing that [IMSA] went to.  These cars have been tested all over the world in endurance races.  I think attrition will be low from a mechanical perspective because the cars have been tested so much that they can be run hard the whole time.

After qualifying in 17th, Marks was able to move towards the front quickly, the extra seat time in the car being key.  Marks and teammates Jens Klingmann, Jesse Krohn and Maxime Martin were right in the hunt once the rains came after sunset.

However, during Marks’ second stint in the car, he was hit by the No. 4 Corvette C7.R.  That contact broke a tie-rod and forced the team to the garage for repairs.  They returned to the race seven laps down to the GTD leaders. 

From then on, the Turner Motorsport squad buckled down and ran as hard as it could, given the conditions.  However, with long periods of time under yellow and the leaders running near-flawlessly, it was impossible to make up for lost time.

As others ran into problems, Turner Motorsport was able to move back up into the top 10 in class.  When the checkers fell, the No. 96 BMW M6 GT3 was eighth in class, six laps down.

Afterward, Marks was very happy with the pace of the M6 GT3.

“The car had good pace and the team executed well both on track and in the pit lane,” Marks said.  “This is a very difficult race to experience problem-free and we certainly had ours but everyone kept digging hard and never wavered so I think we can be proud of a top-10 result.”

Marks will be back in the No. 96 BMW next month at Sebring for the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring. 

About the author

Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.

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