Mike Looney watches intently as other drivers take time during the ValleyStar 300 test session at Martinsville Speedway. (Dinah Mullins photo)

With the blessing of car owner Billy Martin, driver Mike Looney is headed to Southern National Motorsports Park for the Thanksgiving Classic in search of a $50,000 payday driving a car from the Nelson Motorsports stables.

Looney and Barry Nelson have teamed up in an unlikely pairing to take on the Thanksgiving Classic at Southern National Motorsports Park for Nelson Motorsports. The significance of driving the same car and team that has carried recently departed driver, Bobby McCarty to multiple CARS Tour championships and wins all over the region is not lost on Looney.

“Bobby (McCarty) was pursuing other rides and Barry and I started talking,” Looney explained. “Bobby set the bar high for this team. I’m just hoping we can go to Southern National to test early next week and be close to where we need to be.”

Looney says that despite having everything they need to run well, it’s not going to be easy.

“It’s a tall order to take a new team, new driver and just show up and be the car to beat,” Looney continued. “I think we can do that because it’s all there to do that but it’s not going to be easy. There’s a lot of good competition coming for $50,000 and we just have to find a way to marry what I’m used to with what their equipment will give you.”

Barry Nelson said he’s excited to work with Looney and thankful for Billy Martin allowing his driver to run this race.

“Billy and I have been talking,” Nelson explained. “You know we’re the two oldest farts around. I told Mike that I’ve known Billy since before he was born. Racing is racing and Mike’s a racer. Communication will be the key to making this work.”

Looney said the openness from Barry and his calling Billy to talk to him first made this opportunity more likely to happen.

“Barry called Billy first and I appreciate that,” Looney said. “All the cards were on the table. Open and honest from the beginning and that’s how I try to do everything. He (Billy) is obviously proud of me and what we’ve been able to accomplish together. He wants to keep racing but the price of diesel and prices of everything are making that more difficult for him. He supports me in this and I appreciate that. His support and blessing to do this made this opportunity available.”

For Looney, it’s his first time in an R&S chassis and that means he’ll have to get comfortable in something other than the Reynolds Racing Chassis’ he’s used to running.

“I’ve never driven an R&S car before, they’ve got a lower ride height than what I’m used to,” Looney said. “I’m hoping we can marry how my Reynolds cars turn with how good these R&S cars are at the end of the races and we’ll have something to work with. I’m sure there’s something different there. They have something, we don’t but I’m going to try and make R&S look good next weekend. They’ve got great equipment and have been really running great.”

Looney says making the tires last and knowing when to go will be important in a 250-lap race.

“I’m used to these grippy Virginia race tracks,” Looney stated. “I’ll admit that my Achilles heel is knowing how to stay on plan and save the tires. I’ve done it but I’m not as good at it as I need to be. That’ll be where I lean on the team and try to stay on plan and not get lured into going too early and using up my tires.”

Nelson says the 250-lap aspect is what really will make a difference in the Thanksgiving Classic.

“Going 250-laps is a long distance for a Late Model Stock Car,” Nelson said. “I told the guys while they were working on setting the car up that when they thought they had it right, to go back and check every nut and bolt. I don’t want a failure. We rarely have a failure but 250-laps is a real challenge and we’ve got to be ready for it.”

While Nelson is excited about having a talent the level of Mike Looney driving his car next weekend, he knows that this is a big challenge given all the changes with the team.

“This is going to be a big challenge for us,” Nelson explained. “Aside from building the team from scratch, we’re starting over with Bobby (McCarty) and (David) Triplett and it’s a big challenge. This year was the most mentally frustrating season ever. It can show you what kind of man you are. It’s easy to give up but I’m not going to give up.”

Looney and Nelson both said that this is sort of a test to see what the future for the two might hold. Nelson is hoping to put Looney behind the wheel of his cars for the CARS Tour season next year but there are a lot of obstacles to doing that.

“He’s got an offer for the CARS Tour and he’s gotta decide that,” Nelson said. “I can get sponsors to run Mike in the full CARS Tour season but he’s got a job and he’d like to run the full season. He’s got a job and a life and he’s gotta figure out if that works for him. We’re still dating, I guess we’ll go on our honeymoon next week and figure out what happens next. I’m excited about it.”

“We’ve been flirting with each other you could say,” Looney said with a laugh. “I’ve wanted to be with a team like this my whole racing career, the resources they have and the way they’ve run, speaks for itself. His (Nelson) resources, my experience. We have everything you need to go and run up front and have a chance to win. It’s exciting.

Baby steps right now. The business model for Nelson is so much different than what I have now with Billy Martin Racing. Who knows what may come of it, but we’ll get our feet wet next week. We’ll all keep talking and see what next year brings.”

It remains to be seen what will happen in 2023 but both Looney and Nelson seem poised to find out what could come out of this next. However, the plot for the Thanksgiving Classic at Southern National Motorsports Park has thickened with one of Late Model Stock Car racing’s best teams paired with one of Late Model Stock Car racing’s best drivers.