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Living, Dying in Fast Lane

By Toby Smith
Journal Staff Writer
    Mark Martinez was remembered this past week in the drag racing community as an extremely careful driver.
    In Martinez's 18 years of competition, he never had an accident, said his family— until Sept. 2.
    That first wreck was also Martinez's last. The likable but fiercely competitive Martinez died Sept. 12 of severe burns suffered during a Super Pro division race in Albuquerque. He had been state runner-up in that division two years ago.
    It's difficult for those who knew Martinez well to understand what happened Labor Day weekend. That's when Martinez's restored '67 Corvette slammed into a steel guardrail at the Albuquerque National Dragway.
    Martinez, 34, had already crossed the finish line in three time trials earlier that Saturday. In his first round of racing, about 6 p.m., the collision with the safety barrier caused his cherry-red Corvette to burst into flames.
    "Mark was a very good driver, track smart," said Bob Labbate, who owns the Albuquerque drag strip.
    "It's hard to speculate what happened," said Labbate. "His car just turned left. There was nobody near him."
    "We don't know what went wrong," said Martinez's father, John, also a drag racer. "Mark had driven that car hundreds of times. It could have been brakes, a tire, something mechanical."
    Martinez's mother, Linda Martinez, said, "I never expected it. I knew drag racing was a dangerous sport, but Mark had studied engineering at UNM and he knew all about cars."
    Martinez's Corvette was traveling about 120 mph down the quarter-mile straightaway when it crossed the line. Martinez was wearing a flame retardant suit, but that apparently offered little resistance. Third-degree burns covered much of his body.
    What took most people by surprise in the drag racing community was that Martinez seemed OK following the crash.
    "Afterward, Mark was walking and talking," said Labbate.
    "I thought they'd just put some salve on it (his burns) and he'd be all right," said John Martinez, who was at the track.
    Airlifted from the dragway, Martinez spent the night at University of New Mexico Hospital. The following day he was medavaced to Arizona's Maricopa Medical Center, which has a famed burn center.
    "They told us he was getting better," said Martinez's sister, Jonlyn Martinez-Loveless. "But then he developed pneumonia."
    Infection reportedly also set in.
    "Burns are weird," said John Martinez. "They're not like broken arms or gunshot wounds. You can't fix them quickly. Once you're burned, your skin keeps burning."
    A funeral was held Sept. 23 at Prince of Peace Catholic Church in the Northeast Heights.
    "There must have been 750 to 1,000 people there," said John Martinez. "It was remarkable."
    Many of those present were drag racers or fans who talked of Martinez's skills as a driver, as well as his kindness.
    "He'd go out of his way to help you, even you had to race against him," said Labbate.
    "An all-around nice guy," said racer Andra Costa. "He'd talk to anybody. He was never rude."
    Martinez, who was single, worked part-time for United Parcel Service as a driver and sorter. He also restored custom cars. He graduated from high school in Tucson and from the University of New Mexico in 1995.
    After his funeral, many drivers, their cars' windshields bearing Martinez's competition number— 4103, out of respect— left the church and caravaned west on Paseo del Norte to Gate of Heaven Cemetery on Wyoming and the burial.
    "An incredible sight," said Costa.
    That touching sendoff, however, couldn't stop people from trying to make sense of Martinez's accident.
    "It was so unusual, such a freak thing," said Costa, who was at the dragway's staging area when it happened.
    The Albuquerque National Dragway, located south of the International Sunport since 1963, has experienced two fatalities in the years before Martinez's death, according to Labbate.
    "We've had our share of accidents out there and in most cases the drivers walk away without a scratch on them," Labbate said. "Listen, drag racing is a safe sport, even with cars that go 200 mph. We do all inspections and we have all our cars certified. But new things pop up. You can be injured and severely hurt doing almost any sport."