The Frontstretch: Beyond the Cockpit: Chad McCumbee On A Possible Change In Career Arc? by Phil Allaway -- Thursday October 4, 2012

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For Chad McCumbee, his career up to this point has been a little unorthodox. Around the time he made his rather spectacular debut in the ARCA Re/Max Series, he appeared in ESPN’s 3: The Dale Earnhardt Story, an unauthorized biopic of the seven-time champion as the screen version of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (the film premiered months after his ARCA debut, but was likely filmed around the time he debuted).

Since then, McCumbee has had a couple of stints in the Craftsman/Camping World Truck Series, along with ten starts in the Sprint Cup Series with a best finish of 17th, and multiple seasons in ARCA. However, for 2012, McCumbee decided to blaze a new trail and moved over to the Street Tuner class of Grand-Am’s Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge to drive what was originally a Mazdaspeed 3 for the season (early in the year, the team switched to a Mazda MX-5). Recently, McCumbee sat down with Frontstretch’s Phil Allaway at Lime Rock Park to talk about his season, his transition to sports car racing, and his continuing presence in NASCAR.

Phil Allaway, Frontstretch.com: We have dicey conditions out here. Kinda damp. Not sure about wet leaves. Obviously, you come from a stock car background where driving in these conditions doesn’t happen. What’s it like to drive in wet conditions?

Chad McCumbee, driver, No. 03 ModSpace Mazda MX-5: It’s different for sure. I got to start the race in Homestead and it was wet conditions. There, it was a little simpler just from the aspect that there was a lot of concrete in all the corners. You touch the concrete, and it was really slick. You really had to go off-line and find the proper [route].

I’ve done some dirt track racing and you find the cushion just like you do on the dirt tracks. It’s kinda the same mentality. Heck, we even ran the ARCA cars on dirt [at Springfield and DuQuoin] miles last year. I think that obviously helps, but it’s still definitely a whole new experience for me. The whole year’s been a whole new experience for me.

Allaway: Did you do the ARCA race in the rain at Palm Beach Motorsports Park a couple of years ago?

McCumbee: No, I didn’t. I did get to run the New Jersey ARCA race that was on a road course, but obviously, it was dry that weekend. Haven’t done a full stint in full wet conditions except for Homestead. I guess it’s just one more thing to learn.

Allaway: Entering Lime Rock, you were in a joint 14th in points with one top-5 and two top-10 finishes. Coming into the season with little sports car experience, what do you think about the season?

McCumbee: I think the way I look at it is “How do I rate myself on what I’ve done, learning curve-wise.” In a general sense results-wise, we’ve had a lot of bad luck. Even with that bad luck, I think it’s fairly impressive that we’re where we are in points. If you look at a couple of different races where we had a couple of mishaps, mechanical or whatever it may be, you take that out of the equation, we’re fighting for a top-5 in points easy. For a first year, I think that’s great.

To look at how I’ve looked at it myself, I went into Daytona hoping that I wasn’t going to miss a shift. You know, trying to figure out which gear was which, and how to use the clutch on every shift, blipping downshifts. Now, I’m concentrating more on learning the technique of road racing and learning the finesse of road racing.

This whole year driving this Mazda has really opened my eyes to a whole ‘nother world that is extremely intriguing to me and has led me to think differently about what I’d like to do in the future. The amount of fun that has been involved this year and just the way that everything works. The way that the manufacturers and the sponsors really reach out and work with the series to get the most out of it for their benefit, it really works. It works for the consumer, it works for the series, and it works for the people involved in it.

Allaway: How did the opportunity come together to put you in the No. 03 this season?

McCumbee: I’ve been involved with ModSpace Corporation for the last couple of years doing stock car racing (Writer’s Note: ModSpace served as the primary sponsor on the No. 1 Fords that McCumbee drove in ARCA for Andy Belmont Racing last year). They were going to scale back their stock car efforts [for this season], but they had [also] been heavily involved in Grand-Am and road racing in general over the last couple of years as well.

When all that started coming about, we were looking at potential options and potential seats, we saw that there was an availability. Just on a spur of the moment deal, I ran one Playboy MX-5 Cup race with CJ Wilson Racing last year just out of the blue. It went really well. I got a top-5 in my first weekend. That kinda led to “Are you ready to just jump straight into Grand-Am, you know?” I said, “Let’s do it.”

There was a lot of anticipation for me because it’s so different. I think I just passed the mark of getting ten road races under my belt, so I’m as rookie as they can be in this type of racing. That’s how it came about. I feel really blessed to have people like the ModSpace Corporation and Mazda behind me in my learning curve. I’m telling you, I’m really looking forward to a good future in this, I hope. I’ve enjoyed it, and would enjoy it if it continued.

After dabbling in Sprint Cup, the Truck Series and ARCA, Chad McCumbee has begun to make the transition to the Grand-Am Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge Series for the 2012 season.

Allaway: The Playboy MX-5 Cup race you did last year. What track was that at?

McCumbee: It was actually here [at Lime Rock]. This is the first track that I’ve been to that I’ve actually seen before the [race] weekend. About every other track, I’ve seen for the first time, besides doing a little simulation work. When I go out for practice, on the first lap, it’s a whole new deal to me. Not only am I trying to learn the car (I’m still trying to get familiar), but every week, it’s been a whole new track. I’m trying to figure out what corner’s coming next and what gear I need to be in for this corner and how do you attack it. A lot of variables.

Allaway: There was also a car switch. You started out the season in a Mazdaspeed 3, then switched to the MX-5. Do the two cars handle differently?

McCumbee: Yes, quite substantially. Going into Daytona, I had never driven on any kind of track in a front-wheel drive car, and the Mazdaspeed 3 was the first front-wheel drive car I’d ever driven. We had some problems in practice, so I think my first laps were in qualifying. It was a great car and we had a really good weekend. We started in the back and moved forward the entire race.

I really like driving these MX-5’s. They’re a lot of fun. You really get to toss these things around. You gotta drive them really hard. It’s a momentum car, so I gotta go back to when I was coming up through the stock car ranks. I drove in the Allison Legacy Series and actually ran a Mazda B2200 motor in those things. They’re all about momentum and keeping the things rolling. I’ve enjoyed both.

Allaway: What kind of power do these MX-5’s have? I’m sure it’s more than the 105-ish horsepower that the B2200 engines in Allison Legacy cars have.

McCumbee: Yeah. I’m thinking we’re somewhere in the neighborhood of maybe around 200 to the rear wheels. The thing about the MX-5 is that we have a little less power than most of the cars that we compete against, but we’re far superior in handling and braking capability. The overall performance of the car is so efficient from that standpoint. We can really take advantage of our competitors at some of these tracks.

Allaway: Back in January, you stated during a press conference in Daytona that your main focus was here [in the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge] and that you’d have to wait and see about anything having to do with NASCAR. Eventually, the deal with RBR Motorsports came together to drive the No. 92 truck. How did that deal come about?

McCumbee: I’ve known the guys at the Black’s Tire operation for quite a while. They’re from near my hometown on the coast of North Carolina. They’d made some changes and wanted to know if I could drive a truck for a couple of races this year. I told them, “Ok, here’s my road racing schedule. If we can work around that and I’ve got an open weekend, then I can do it.”

We’ve run a few races, and it’s been a little bit of an uphill battle with such a small team trying to get things going. Hopefully, we can turn the corner with that [program] towards the end of this year when we go and run a few races after the Grand-Am season ends.

Allaway: How many more races is the team scheduled to do?

McCumbee: I really don’t know. Originally, we had planned about three more on the trucks side. But, I don’t really know 100 percent how many we’re going to do. We’re trying to take a step back, look where we’re at, and try to evaluate whether it’s better to start working on [the trucks] and get them prepared for next year. So, I really don’t have a definite answer as to which races we’re running.

Allaway: You mentioned earlier that you would be very happy to continue here in the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge. Do you have anything concrete yet for next year?

McCumbee: We haven’t really talked about it. I just know from a personal standpoint that as the year’s progressed, I feel like I’ve improved, I feel like I’ve learned the cars more, gotten more comfortable in the garage and more comfortable in the environment. Every weekend, you watch those Rolex cars run and your goals change throughout your career and your aspirations change. You watch those cars run every week and you start getting the itch that that is the direction that you want to go.

That’s where I stand right now. I would love to have another year in something similar to this. I still feel like I have more to learn in a general sense about road racing. I also feel like the GT-type cars would fit me better with the higher horsepower. I’m used to 800 horsepower and trying to lay down 800 horsepower to the rear wheels.

From that aspect, I feel like had I gone right into a GT car, I think that I may have been able to go quicker sooner because the car may have been more familiar. But, there’s stuff that I’m learning here that’s just invaluable moving forward in a road racing career. I’m very happy with any opportunity that comes along. I guess we’ll discuss that at some point. It’s definitely made me look at what I’d like to do differently. I’ve just thoroughly enjoyed the year, the association with ModSpace Corporation and Mazda, and hopefully, we can continue that and have some good stuff coming up.

Allaway: When you’re away from the track, what do you like to do to unwind?

McCumbee: I’m from the coast, so I live on the water and anything that involves that, that’s what I do. I’ve also got a lot of involvement in local short track racing back home. I own a couple of cars that run at Myrtle Beach Speedway on a weekly basis in their premiere division there.

Allaway: We’re talking late models here?

McCumbee: Yes, late models. We’ve won a few races this year with that car, so anything racing I’m involved in. When you look at spare time, you’re thinking, “How can I fill my spare time with motorsports?” So, there you go.

Allaway: There have been rumors that Myrtle Beach Speedway could potential be in line to host a Camping World Truck Series race at some point in the next couple of years. Do you have any thoughts about that?

McCumbee: I hope I can find a seat for that race. That’s my hometown [track]. I’ve got a ton of laps around that place. I was the youngest guy ever to win a race there in late model stocks, so it would be really special to get an opportunity to race a truck race there, if it does happen. They’re working really hard. Bob and everybody over there this year has really turned that speedway around. I’ve been very impressed. They’ve done a great job improving the facility and improving the race track, and I’m sure that they have a lot more plans in the future.

Persistent rains resulted in Grand-Am cancelling qualifying for the Street Tuner race on Friday. Starting on points from 14th, McCumbee drove up to ninth before settling back around 12th in the very wet conditions before handing over to teammate Jason Saini. Saini drove a competitive race to put the No. 03 in the top-10, but had to pit late for a splash-and-go. This dropped McCumbee and Saini to a 13th-place finish, one lap down. McCumbee and Saini finished the season in 16th in the Street Tuner point standings.

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