When the CARS Tour invades Dillon, SC for the series 2021 season opener, there will be a new but familiar face joining the series with the intentions of competing for the championship.
Mike Looney is easily one of the top three names in NASCAR Late Model Stock Car racing over the last half-decade. He’s won at Martinsville in the biggest Late Model Stock Car race in the country in 2016, a race that he dominated. That was the first real taste of Mike Looney for regional fans and in 2019 he rose to national prominence as he chased the NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series National Championship.
Looney fell just eight points short of winning the national title that season but in the eyes of the region’s fan base, he was “The People’s Champion”. This year, he’s taking on a new challenge as he’ll be chasing the CARS Tour championship.
The veteran driver says it will be one of his biggest challenges yet.
“They’re the cream of the crop,” Looney said of the CARS Tour. “You want to race against the best competition and the best funded drivers race in Late Model Stock Car racing right now. The CARS Tour has the most media and the hype is there right now. NASCAR will probably buy them up in a couple of years to get rid of them it’s going so good.”
The decision to go CARS Tour racing was an easy one for Looney but the challenge for his Billy Martin Racing team was the cost involved in traveling throughout the region. Enter, Danny Harrison, owner of Harrison’s Outfitters and Workwear of South Carolina. He’s been a longtime sponsor of Super Late Model standout Bubba Pollard and continues to be but will team up with Mike Looney and Billy Martin Racing to have a Late Model Stock Car competing more in his market.
Looney says the deal will allow the team to travel to all the CARS Tour races and credits Forrest Reynolds for helping connect them.
“Forrest (Reynolds) knew Danny (Harrison) from working with the Grissom’s and working together with Bubba (Pollard) on a chassis and those two really haven’t got to run like they wanted to,” Looney explained. “Bubba just isn’t available to run in their market as much as Mr. Harrison would like around them in North and South Carolina. If it wasn’t for Forrest it wouldn’t have happened and he could have picked anyone to work with.”
Looney says Harrison’s is a perfect fit for him and his team.
“Mr. Harrison is all about working people like me and Bubba,” Looney said of his new sponsor. “That’s where he came from and that’s the people he works with every day. His customer is just like us. We won’t really be a teammate to Bubba but we kinda will and having a guy like that who’s raced pretty much everywhere we’re going that we can call on will certainly help.”
In addition to Harrison’s Outfitters and Workwear, Hopkins Lumber will return to the team for their second season with the Billy Martin Racing team. Looney says between those two it’ll allow them to race a lot more and really put them in a position to compete with teams with far more resources.
“We’re still a small team,” Looney commented. “Many of these teams spend a lot more money than we do. We always do a lot more with a lot less. Having Harrison’s and Hopkins on board this season will do a lot to help us. We’re building a long term deal with Hopkins and hope to do the same with Harrison’s. It’s people like this that really help Billy Martin keep the wheels turning.”
Looney says he couldn’t be more grateful for Billy Martin.
“Billy has great equipment and he gives us everything we need,” Looney stated. “Billy has spent more on me in six years than he spent on himself his whole career. Without Billy Martin, I’m hunting bears and tracking dogs not driving race cars. I’m grateful for what he’s done for me and the team he’s assembled.”
Looking ahead to the first CARS Tour race, Looney knows he’s in for a challenge as tracks like Dillon Motor Speedway, as he calls it in the deep south, haven’t been his best.
“We don’t have any info on that place,” Looney said with a chuckle. “I’ve tried to talk to Forrest and my engine guys about it and kinda get some knowledge but we just don’t have much yet. We’re trying to get there a week or two out from the race and get a baseline and go from there. I’ve always struggled at those deep south tracks like Myrtle Beach.
Any track with low grip and wore out pavement, I seem to struggle on. We’re really good at the grippy tracks but we had a good car at Greenville a couple of months ago. We had a second-place car I thought and that’s the best we’ve been in the deep south.”
Looney says it’s hard to get better when the track is seven hours away and you work for a living. He says he’s hoping to just survive some of the tracks in the early part of the schedule before getting to some tracks he thinks he’ll fare better at.
“If we survive down there at those low grip tracks, maybe we can win when we get up here in Virginia at some tracks with some good pavement,” Looney said. “I’ve raced Lee Pulliam, Philip Morris and Peyton Sellers my whole life, so I’m not one to back down from a challenge.”
Looney says that Hickory, the second race of the season, is a concern for him but he’s hoping he’ll be better than he was last time down there.
“There are tracks we have circled that we can win on, there are tracks we have circled we can be competitive on and there are tracks we have circled that we just hope to survive,” Looney explained. “Having Forrest and Travis Byrd helping us down south will be a big help. Travis is good at Hickory but Hickory has us worried. I’m not taking the competition lightly and they live around there and have many laps there and my inexperience is going to be a challenge. I’m going to lean on the car at Hickory the first time and maybe by the Throwback race we can go there and compete.”
Looney is looking forward to the challenge that the CARS Tour provides with the best competition overall anywhere.
“Running a weekly track you might have two guys that can win but with the CARS Tour you have what 10 or 15 guys that could win, that’s why you can’t discount the advantage these guys have,” Looney commented. “Touring is so different, we learned that when we got wrapped up in the national title deal in 2019 but the more we raced the better we got. Right now these guys have a notebook advantage on us but we’ll get to that point the more we run.”
Looney thinks his advantage is his crew.
“Billy Martin has a great team,” Looney stated. “We have the same crew together and we just keep getting better working together. You don’t see many teams stay together like this. Anytime you’re together that long, you get better and that’s really our advantage. As I said, there are many times when we’re underfunded and outgunned but these guys’ experience together is what really makes the difference. We might not be able to have as many sticker runs but we get by with less because I can lean on my team.”
The 2019 NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series Virginia State Champion knows exactly who he’s got to beat this season to be the top driver in the CARS Tour.
“Bobby McCarty and Nelson Motorsports, Deac (McCaskill) no matter what he’s driving, Jared Fryar and all those veteran drivers are always hard to beat anywhere,” Looney declared. “(Layne) Riggs is going to win a CARS Tour championship, that’s just going to happen. You can’t work as hard as they do and not win one eventually. I’m going to give it 110% of what I can do and if we get beat it won’t be the first time I’ve got my butt kicked.”
For Looney, the best part of running a touring series isn’t what you might think.
“Everywhere we go there are good ole boys we meet that you never think would know who Mike Looney is,” Looney remarked. “We meet so many new people and make so many new friends and find people who started watching us at Martinsville or read about our national title run. It’s so much fun to meet these people.”
In addition to his full slate of CARS Tour races, Looney is looking forward to racing a few times at his home NASCAR track, Motor Mile Speedway. He’s also got a personal agenda to get a win at South Boston Speedway, one of the few tracks he’s ever raced at and hasn’t won.
“I’m looking to race back at home at Motor Mile,” Looney said. “Me and Billy both have a personal goal of winning a race at South Boston. I haven’t won there and as far as weekly competition it’s unrivaled. The drivers who race there so good. We’ll also run the Triple Crown and Martinsville of course but getting a win in the CARS Tour and at South Boston, this season is what I’d consider a successful season.”
Looney says racing these last six years has been a dream come true.
“This is just a dream come true,” Looney explained. “I wish I didn’t have to work, so we could work on race cars all day and race all the time. I’m just a poor crane mechanic but I’m having a lot of fun doing this the way we are.”
Adding Mike Looney to the list of drivers competing in the CARS Tour Late Model Stock Car division full time during the 2021 season is definitely going to shake up a series that has nearly every year been full of top-level drivers and teams. This year the CARS Tour has one of their strongest Touring 12 programs and above that has many drivers planning to challenge for the championship that aren’t part of the program.
2021 could easily be the best season in the CARS Tour’s six-year history and it all starts in less than a month at Dillon Motor Speedway on Saturday, March 6th.
Cover photo by Dinah Mullins.