Thomas Bowles · Wednesday March 13, 2013
It’s hard to believe it’s been five years now since a smiling, happy-go-lucky kid from Arizona came out of virtually nowhere to earn a spot with Michael Waltrip Racing. That rookie season was full of hard knocks for Michael McDowell, known more for a savage crash at Texas, To one of the most devastating wrecks I have personally witnessed, than on-track performance. Let go from MWR following the season, it’s been a battle for the now 28-year-old to drive competitive equipment on the Cup Series level ever since.
But one of the sport’s well-regarded “nice guys” has never stopped fighting. After years of start and parking, hoping to keep his name out there. this year’s Daytona 500 provided an opportunity he made the most of. Earning a career-best ninth place, his first top 10 in 116 starts on the Cup level McDowell hopes that performance will propel sponsorship to look towards the No. 98, underfunded Ford he drives for Phil Parsons Racing. How much money have they raised for 2013? Will NASCAR’s Gen-6 chassis provide future opportunities for the “little guy” to stay competitive? And whose friendship does this driver value, inside the garage area that will always transcend the racetrack? The outspoken driver discussed those topics, and then some with Tom Bowles in this week’s _Beyond The Cockpit.
Tom Bowles, Frontstretch.com: I know it’s been a couple of weeks now. But how does it feel to have gotten your first top-10 finish in the Cup Series, not just in Daytona but the sport’s biggest race?
Michael McDowell: Oh, it was awesome. It was a total team effort. Obviously, Daytona has a lot of variables that are different than the other racetracks. But we definitely had a great race, and a great result. It was a good opportunity. That’s what the Daytona 500 is… it’s an opportunity race. You just know that when you go to Daytona, you can have a shot at winning or you can have a shot at being in a big pileup on Lap 10. You just never know what you’re going to get when you get there. So to come away with a good finish is awesome.
Bowles: Chad Knaus, after winning the Daytona 500 with Jimmie Johnson was bragging about how many hours straight he worked on the car. Explain for fans how much you guys put into preparing for the 500, along with the size of your team in preparing the car by comparison.
McDowell: I can promise you our guys put in more hours than Chad Knaus. There were six guys building the car, it was so difficult. The new car, and the jigs, and the fixtures and everything it takes actually to build one of those cars in house is just an incredible task. So our guys, Gene Nead [crew chief], Jimmy Evans, and all those guys worked I can’t even tell you how long. I think the Labor Board would come find us if I told you how many hours they worked.
Bowles: When did you feel like you had a shot at really running well?
McDowell: Well, at Daytona you always do, really. With Ford and the Roush Yates engines, you just know you have a good shot when you get down there. Just getting in the pack, and having a good motor and a good body… all the other moving elements are not as important as, say Texas or Bristol or Las Vegas. So we definitely knew we’d have a shot, or an opportunity. But to go against the powerhouse teams, and do it all day long…
It wasn’t just a fluke. It wasn’t like there was a 15-car pileup. We were in the top 15 all day long, and at the end made up four or five spots to get a top 10. It’s definitely a huge deal for our team.
Bowles: Now, you guys made $100,000 more than if you blew an engine on the first lap and finished last. How much does that help you guys in terms of running entire races? Can that make a difference in starting a full race itself and running the distance?
McDowell: It does and it doesn’t. For one race, yes but beyond that it’s not like a huge pick-me-up. Obviously, it helps, but for every race we run unsponsored, it costs us $150,000. You have to have sponsorship to be able to run, even with that additional $100,000 you made at Daytona. That’s really just to help make sure when you get down, in the middle of the summer, and you miss one of those races, you stay in business.
So this game is very difficult, and it’s so expensive to run these races so that the purse and whatnot doesn’t swing the pendulum enough.
Bowles: Do you feel it’s gotten worse in the last couple of years, in terms of the cost making it more difficult to run on the purse?
McDowell: Well, I think the biggest difference now – you’ve always needed sponsorship to go racing. Especially to compete at a high level. But I think it’s harder for the small teams now. Just because of the fact that to make these races, you have to be very competitive, you have to have the latest and greatest equipment. These cars, to build them now, with how tight the templates are from the Car of Tomorrow to the Gen-6 it’s just getting harder and harder. It just makes it more expensive for the teams.
The reason they’re doing it is great. I don’t disagree with it. We’re just having to adapt to that, and it’s a process.
Bowles: You have firsthand knowledge of the Gen-6 equipment shortage, missing Phoenix. When did you know that was going to happen and how tough was that?
McDowell: Very tough. It’s my hometown race, I’ve got a lot of friends and family there, do a lot of prerace media for the track. I actually flew out from Daytona to Phoenix, was already there… so it was definitely tough. But we didn’t really have a choice. There was no option. We got back to the shop, and we weren’t even close. The hauler needed to leave in 12 hours, and it wasn’t even a possibility. It took everything they had just to get to Vegas, and that’s not anyone’s fault but our own. We just were too late on starting to get our cars ready, and NASCAR was very late on finalizing the rules, and templates, and fixtures and things like that. It was hard for everybody, but let’s get through the next couple of races here, get back on our feet and hopefully get some sponsorship so we can race.
Bowles: One of the things we’ve seen early in the season is smaller teams tear up cars. With that equipment shortage, do you think preserving it (I.E. – racing conservatively) will remain an issue?
McDowell: For sure. Our Vegas car is our Bristol car, and our Bristol car will be our California car until we can get on our feet. So you have one bad episode, one bad wreck and you’re going to miss the next race. For us, right now we’ve just got to get through these races and get going.
Bowles: NASCAR has done a lot with the Gen-6 in terms of what they hope will level the playing field. Have they done enough? What can they do to make it easier for you guys to compete?
McDowell: No. Anytime the rules change, it makes it harder. The reason is the bigger teams with bigger budgets are able to adapt quicker. They’re able to have the resources to build infrastructure and make changes quickly. Normally, what helps us is at the end of the CoT car, we were pretty good performance wise because there were enough parts and pieces trickling around, plus you have a few years under your belt with the same stuff that you can get things sorted out. When everybody has to go back to the drawing board, the guys that have the bigger Sharpies and the bigger whiteboards win. It will take a little bit longer until it balances out again.
Bowles: You guys announced a sponsor for Vegas, but it appeared you pulled it in early. Where are you at in terms of races you’ll run the distance?
McDowell: It is week by week. We have one more race for Curb, we have one more race for K-LOVE. We’re working on lots of deals, but really right now we have two more races and that’s it. Sponsorship is key to whether or not we’re able to run, and run competitively.
Like I said, we’re constantly working on it. It’s not something where we’re sitting back and waiting for a deal to show up. We’re having meetings every week with potential sponsors and it’s just a hard sell right now. It’s hard to get things rolling. So, we’ll see what happens, but the goal for us, like in years past, is stay around, stay relevant and when things start to move and shake, we’ll be in a good position.
Bowles: With start-and-parking, we’ve all heard the criticism. Give your argument for how the start-and-park system has been valuable to your career.
McDowell: The biggest thing for us right now is I wouldn’t get those Nationwide opportunities, in those cars with Joe Gibbs if I didn’t get the opportunity to fill in for Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin testing. I wouldn’t be around to be able to do those types of things. So staying around, staying current, staying fresh from a driver’s standpoint – you only have to be away from the racetrack for a few weeks before you’re forgotten. So it’s very important to be there. Then, from a team standpoint we have to have a team up, running, equipment and infrastructure so that when you do sell sponsorship, you’re ready to go. Nobody’s going to come to a program – it’s like selling a product without having a product. They have to be at the racetrack, and you’ve got to be there every weekend.
Bowles: OK, a couple of fun questions to finish up. What’s your best friend in the garage right now that’s racing?
McDowell: Trevor Bayne.
Bowles: Do you remember that friendship on the racetrack or is it never something that you think about?
McDowell: I don’t really think about it. To be honest with you, we’ll race each other harder than most because we don’t take it as seriously as the other guys do when they’re battling hard. It’s kind of like when you’re outside playing basketball with your buddy, you still want to beat him but it’s still good and fun.
Bowles: So you’ve never been angry with him after a race?
McDowell: Oh, I didn’t say that! I’ve been angry at him lots of times. I just get over it. It’s not… what we do on the racetrack is just what we do. It’s not who we are. It’s not life or death. As much as a lot of guys want to make it that way, when you get home, there’s a reality that you’re just a human. You’re not superman. But I definitely have been very upset with him after races – it’s just part of it.
Bowles: Name one racer you never got to compete against you wish you had the chance to.
McDowell: Probably Senna or Schumacher.
Bowles: Schumacher, huh? Interesting choice.
McDowell: Yeah, I’m a road racer. I didn’t really start racing on ovals until I got to NASCAR. Growing up, that’s all I really watched and where my career was heading. So I kind of took a 180 degree change when I came here.
Bowles: Finally, to wrap up. Right now, recent surveys have shown there’s the highest percentage of unaffiliated Americans, or atheists in terms of religious beliefs the country’s ever had. Now, I’ve always considered you – as have others – one of the most religious people in the garage area. Why do you think that’s happening, and where do you think you fit in, as an athlete in trying to showcase to others religion could be a good thing?
McDowell: Well, that’s two different questions. One, it’s funny when you say that you consider me one of the more religious guys in the garage because I wouldn’t call myself that. I don’t believe so much in religion as much as a relationship – and that’s a relationship with Jesus. I think the reason that our society is so far away from moral foundations and beliefs is that we’ve become a society that’s tolerant. We want tolerance. And so, we just want to be OK with whatever we do, however we do it and however anybody else wants to do it versus a society of people that have a moral foundation and understand that there’s laws. And laws are good for us. It’s not about following rules and regulations but having a relationship that allows us to love God first and other people more than ourselves. And we’ve just become tolerant of … you can do whatever you want to do. If you want to love a leaf and say that’s a God, then you can. But there’s no power in that… and that’s where I stand with everything.
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