Editor’s Note: The Underground Workshop is a collaborative network of student journalists from across Vermont. Our menu of current opportunities is here; any student is welcome to join our Thursday workshops; and registration is now open for our major project this Spring: “A Climate Report Card for our Schools.” We’re also eager to publish highlights from Vermont’s student publications, when stories can appeal to VTDigger’s statewide audience. This article first appeared in Castleton University’s student newspaper, the Castleton Spartan. For more information, please contact the Workshop’s editor, Ben Heintz, at [email protected]
by Jasmin Gomez, Castleton University
Marty Kelly III was driving to Hudson Valley Community College, a 50-minute commute from his home in Bennington and ESPN radio was blaring.
He recalls that he was probably running late this day, but instead of parking the car and jumping out to make it to class in time, he sat there.
For two hours.
And for those two hours, he stayed put in his car and continued to listen to the radio.
“Oh, the time I’m supposed to be here for is up, so I’ll go home now,” Kelly said, recalling the day.
And like that, he pulled out of the parking lot of the college and went home.
He says this was when his interest in the field of communication sparked.
Kelly is now a senior at Castleton University, where he studies media and communication and minors in business. He’s outspoken, dresses neatly and knows how to make a room laugh.
Even if it’s at his own expense.
He enjoys a cold Angry Orchard, likes to write fiction and is a big New York Giants fan.
Kelly is not like most students his age, though. Most students go to class during the week and party on the weekends. But for Kelly, it’s school during the day, work at Domino’s Pizza at night and race cars on the weekend.
He drives a fast car on the weekends, and a much slower Toyota Camry that has over 200,000 miles on it on weekdays.
But, the old ‘’yota” is currently on “restricted duty” as Kelly would put it.
Kelly started college at the University of Northwestern Ohio, where he studied Automotive and High-Performance Motorsports.
“I didn’t at the time when I graduated high school really have any desire to work on regular cars, but I did want to go to UNOH and learn about all things I didn’t know about yet,” he said.
The school in Ohio had a race track and race team, which appealed to Kelly. But he admits that he was unaware of the non-traditional school year until someone on one of the first days there told him that they only get two weeks for summer.
And with a brand-new race car back home, he withdrew for the summer so he could race. Kelly did intend to return in the fall, with the plan to come home every summer, but after he realized the time it would take to receive his degree, he withdrew.
He then went to Hudson Valley for two years, where he studied Automotive Management.
“I didn’t really like it,” he said. “I probably still have notebooks from there that are just like, you can see where I would start writing notes and it would then evolve rapidly into drawing of racecars, numbers and goofy stuff.”
Behind the wheel
The garage at the Kelly household is decorated with trophies. The ones that belong to his father, Marty Kelly Jr., stand tall on the fridge.
And Kelly’s trophies overlook the garage on the shelves his father built for them.
Kelly got his first go-kart when he was 8, which he claims to be “pretty late,” as other kids started around 5 or 6.
“I think I was 6 or 7 when I started begging dad to pony up some money so we could go racing,” he said. “He made me wait for a year, but he didn’t have to do it — period.”
He stopped racing go-karts in 2009, moved on to slingshot car racing, and is now competing in the sportsman modified division. The race car he drives now is decorated like his father’s was, with “Howards Garage” and a Domino’s logo.
Kelly’s father may be helping him on and off the track, but he says his mom, Sue-Ellen, is the one who doesn’t get enough credit.
“She goes every week, and she’s really supportive,” Kelly said.
Moms, wives and girlfriends of racing often get the short end of the stick. Sometimes, the races can be more demanding on them than the actual racers.
“The only way to race is to just do it 150 percent… We go two nights a week, from April to October and last year we started what will hopefully be a continuing tradition, where we went to Florida in January and raced for a week,” he said. “So, we’ll be gone for a good clip of time and sometimes those longer excursions mom can’t go on.”
Nonetheless, Sue-Ellen stays just as supportive, despite the challenges.
“As a race mom, I have experienced polar opposite emotions at the very same moment,” she said. “When he wins, there is no feeling like it. When he loses, my heart hurts for him. And God forbid he should ever get hurt, because that is the biggest fear we racing moms carry with us to every track.”
There are times when Kelly’s mother feels misunderstood, and has even faced criticism from other parents for pushing Kelly to pursue his passion.
“I have been told ‘I don’t know how you can let your own child do something so dangerous!’ and have been made to feel as if I am not a good mom because I have allowed him to participate in the sport of racing,” Sue-Ellen said. “I have to tell myself that all this is enough, because how could I stand in the way of his love of racing? When he buckles in, I tell him three things: ‘I love you, have fun and be careful.’”
Picking up the mic
When Kelly was 11, he and his friend went to Caroga Creek Raceway for a Friday night race. He could not race that night, and when he told the announcer, Clancy Miller, that he was just there to watch, Miller invited Kelly to announce with him.
Kelly remembers Miller saying to him: “When there’s two or three karts out there, and they get strung out there a little bit, you make it sound interesting. And you can do it.”
And he did.
Kelly’s mother says Miller, who has since passed away, continues to influence Kelly to this day.
“A wonderful man by the name of Clancy Miller gave Marty his shot at announcing, and Marty proved to be a natural,” she said. “He (Miller) always told me he would have loved to have Marty as his very own son.”
Kelly says that announcing was easy for him from being a racer, spectator and from playing with Matchbox cars as a kid.
“When I was a kid and played with cars, I didn’t make the engine noises, I just announced what was happening, which as a lot easier when you know what is happening next, you know, the ‘master of puppets,’” he said.
In Kelly’s room, the Matchbox cars now have a home in a large shadow box.
Kelly said he went on to announce at different go-kart tracks after this. Sometimes he’d even get paid, $20 here and there, which was a lot to a 13-year-old.
“I don’t know how many times that I would run across the track after my qualifying race got over and announce the balance of the races and run back across for when it was time for my feature to go out. Then I would run back across… I did that at a lot of different go-kart tracks,” he said.
More recently, with a microphone in hand and a black polo with the letters ‘RPW’ printed on the front, Kelly reports for Race Pro Weekly, a racing news outlet that was started in 2000. Kelly discusses track conditions, interviews racers and chats with other reporters about the details of the race.
And despite not making any money for this type of work, he still thinks it is worth it. Kelly wrote in a recent blog post, “That frustration of finding what you like, and not making any money at it is the kind that shakes you. It serves as another reminder of the compromises of life. People say you can’t have everything, but I don’t believe that. You can have everything, but you can only have everything a certain way with clauses and caveats and tradeoffs. The best that you can hope for with some of this stuff is that it’s enough enjoyment to offset whatever you do to make your living. I guess.”
Before Kelly’s first Sportsman victory in 2020, he was worried he wasn’t going to reach a point where he could win races. Despite having a good car with great equipment, it sometimes wasn’t enough and he would find himself questioning his abilities.
“When you’re not going well, in my head it comes back on: ‘Am I going to get better as a driver, or ever be able to set these cars up good enough to win races, ’” Kelly said.
In 2018, Kelly competed in a race at Lebanon Valley Speedway, where he crashed his race car and his fears set in.
“Had a guy spin out in front of me, and just drove into the side of him and tore up the front end of my car,” he said.
Kelly was a regular announcer at the Speedway, so people knew who he was, but had never seen him race before.
“I was really upset with myself, and it wasn’t the way I wanted to get acquainted with Lebanon Valley at all,” he said.
He felt like a fool and was mad at himself.
“I didn’t think I was going to cut it as a race car driver at that point,” he said.
Kelly and his father were at the track till 3 a.m. trying to fix the car so they could get it in the trailer. The next day they went to Devil’s Bowl, where he wrecked the car again.
“I tore up a lot of shit in 2018. I used to forget about the steering wheel whenever there was a wreck,” he said.
One more semester
As Kelly approaches his final year at Castleton, he regularly chats with a variety of professors and new friends. One of those new friends is Aris Sherwood, a fellow senior. Sherwood and Kelly met over Zoom when Castleton was closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Sherwood admits they got in a fight during class one time and that people probably assume they hate each other, but he has become one of her closest friends.
“He is so funny, and so unpredictable almost. He literally surprises me every day with the stories he has to tell. He makes me laugh harder than anyone else,” she said.
Kelly has also impressed his journalism professor, Dave Blow.
“Marty is very self-deprecating about his abilities. I think he downplays his abilities a lot and I see that sometimes. But he’s a very talented writer,” Blow said.
Blow, and his Feature Writing class were able to see Kelly in action when he shared his videos on Race Pro Weekly.
“He’s a very good communicator. You see him with a microphone and some of his racing clips and stuff, he’s an absolute natural at it,” Blow said.
Blow hopes Kelly chases his passion and doesn’t settle.
“It’s fun to watch him, I enjoy his persona. It really shines when he puts a microphone in his hand and talks about racing,” Blow said.
With only one semester to go, Kelly says it feels nice to finally be done, but he still has feelings of uncertainty.
“I’m hoping to line up some jobs next semester and hang up the pizza bag,” he said.
But Kelly still has sights set on racing and hopes for some more announcing gigs.
“Hopefully a lot of trips to victory lane are next for me,” he said.