Michael McDowell took the fast lane to NASCAR’s top series as the rising star of Michael Waltrip Racing in 2008. His rookie season quickly turned sour, though, leading to his release from the team after just six months. 2009 was spent bouncing around, but now McDowell has seemingly found not one, but two homes in 2010: with Prism Motorsports in the Cup Series and MacDonald Motorsports in the Nationwide Series.
Unfortunately, despite a boatload of potential – the third-year driver charged through his Duel to make the Daytona 500 with the No. 55 – he knows each week that Cup car will never go the distance. Add a search for funding in Nationwide, and survival has become a running theme to a challenging season. McDowell sat down with Amy Henderson at Charlotte to give an honest look at the reality of starting and parking, as well as his start in racing, his faith and so much more in the latest edition of Beyond the Cockpit.
Amy Henderson, Frontstretch: You’ve raced everything from BMX bikes on up. Tell us about your career, and how you got to where you are today.
Michael McDowell: I think it’s like any career in any professional sport. You start early as a kid, and I started racing BMX bikes when I was three years old. From there, I started racing quads and dirtbikes, and that turned into go-karts. Racing go-karts in Phoenix — asphalt road racing was kind of my forte. I did that for a long time.
With go-karts, I relate it to Little League Baseball. It gives you all the fundamentals, all the principles; it’s everything, just like driving a racecar other than it’s just smaller.
So I did that up until I was 16, and started racing open-wheel. I raced Formula Renault and Formula Mazda; then, I moved into sports cars and a Champ Car from there.
Henderson: Looking back, do you think you moved to Sprint Cup too fast? Would you have done anything different in hindsight?
McDowell: It’s always easy to sort of Monday morning quarterback, and going from ARCA to Cup, yeah it was too big of a jump and it was too soon – but it was the only job that I had. I came out of ARCA, and Michael Waltrip Racing wanted to hire me to be a development driver for them. They thought I would be in a Truck or a Nationwide car, but the Truck ended up going away, and in Nationwide, Aaron’s wanted to be with David Reutimann. They had a shot at winning the championship, and so the only seat that was available was the [No.] 00 in the Cup Series when Dale Jarrett retired.
It was probably too soon, too quick, but I don’t look back at it like that. I look back, and the opportunities that I had were a few testing gigs for a few Cup teams with no races planned, so I got to race 20 Cup races with Michael Waltrip Racing and got to learn at the highest level.
Henderson: Talk about your role with Prism. You do get a lot of criticism for starting and parking. What do you have to say to the critics?
McDowell: There’s two things I’d like to educate our fans on. One thing is that nobody is getting rich over here, especially not me or Phil Parsons, or anybody. What this team does by starting and parking is it allows us to run all the races, running a portion of them. But it keeps 15 families fed that wouldn’t otherwise be fed. That’s the hard part that people don’t always understand, is that nobody is leaving here driving a Mercedes or a Lexus or flying on their helicopter back to the house. We’re doing this because we have to, but we’re also doing it because if we keep the team together, we keep the people together so that if we do land a sponsor, we’re ready to go.
The goals are to land a sponsor, no different than it is for Tommy Baldwin or Joe Nemechek or everybody else. The hardest part for me is being a young guy in this sport, going and driving for Michael Waltrip Racing, and not having too much success. This is a way for me to stay in the sport.
This weekend, four good guys went home. You know, David Stremme, Max Papis, Mike Bliss and Reed Sorenson — those are all guys that are capable of running up front in Cup races and weren’t able to make it, so it’s very difficult to make these races. It’s not easy. It’s not like we show up with our car that we waxed from last week. We spend a lot of time making sure the right setup is under it and developing those setups to be able to qualify for these races. It’s not something that your average Joe can do.
Henderson: Talk a bit about the No. 81 car in the Nationwide Series. What is the future of that team, and what are your goals and expectations on that side of the garage?
McDowell: It’s been a rough start for the [No.] 81 team. Just starting at the beginning of the season, we’ve had some bad luck, and it hasn’t really been mistakes on the team’s part or even really mistakes on my behalf. It’s just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Las Vegas, we cut a tire, and at Daytona there was a big wreck three laps into it. All these things, they just hurt small teams like us. We don’t have that many cars or that many people. Our guys have been flat out trying to rebuild everything.
Just to get a couple runs like we have — top-20 runs, finishing on the lead lap, not hitting anything, not damaging any cars — we’re starting to build some momentum. The goals are to run in the top 15 every weekend and to be capable of doing that. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re close. What the future looks like is we’re good through Daytona, but we need sponsorship beyond that and we’re living by faith on that deal that we’ll be able to keep it going.
Henderson: Earlier this year, you got a lot of media attention when you tangled with Danica Patrick. What was it like taking the brunt of that?
McDowell: It was OK. By taking the brunt of it, I sort of avoided the media, which was nice. The whole day was just problematic for us. Third or fourth lap in, we cut our left-rear tire and hit the wall. We spent like 60-70 laps working on it, came back out and wrecked with Danica. So, it was one of those things where I was trying to give her room, she was trying to go the other direction, and we were just pulling back out on the track, so we were going really slow.
To me, I took blame because we were 70 laps down and in the way. I can live with it. I’ve got enough starts under my belt now, and I have enough top 10s under my belt in the Nationwide Series that I don’t feel like it’s my first day.
Henderson: You mentioned earlier that you were getting by on faith. Your faith is an aspect of your life that’s very important to you; you do a lot with Motor Racing Outreach, and you have a Bible study with some drivers from the Nationwide Series. Talk a little about that, and what it’s done for you and your career.
McDowell: It’s great. Putting things in perspective is tough. This sport is very selfish, it’s very self-indulgent. It’s hard to be successful, and to be successful in this sport, you have to be a little bit selfish. It’s just nice to have a group of people that have the same beliefs as you do, encourage and build each other up when times aren’t going well and when times are going well.
It’s bigger than just racing; it’s bigger than NASCAR. There’s a lot more going on in the world, and we try to put our faith at the forefront of what we do. We’re not always the best representatives of that, but we try to be.
Henderson: You’ve used social media successfully. You have a following on Twitter (@Mc_Driver). How do you use social media to interact?
McDowell: To be honest, at first, I didn’t really get it. @spinnawitz — that’s my PR guy, Joey — he sort of explained to me the importance of it and we just needed to do it. But once I started getting on Twitter and I started interacting with the fans, it was a cool perspective for us as well, just to hear what people think. There are people that support you, people that don’t support you which is fine, too.
I think it’s awesome just to have that personal connection with fans. And then when you do happen to see one of your followers out here, they know about your family, they know about racquetball, they know what you’re about. That’s pretty cool.
Henderson: I saw that Phil Parsons beat you at racquetball again.
McDowell: Yeah, he’s good! He’s a wily old creature.
Henderson: And what happened to the “McCoach,” as you refer to your motorhome? I read that you had some trouble with it.
McDowell: A small problem turned into a bigger problem. Sometimes, they get little glitches. My glitch was that it overheated. Usually, you just reset everything and keep on trucking, but that was not the case for me. I ended up stopping about five or six times, filling it up with water, and trying to reset the ECU panel. Luckily, I had the Tom Johnson guys come by this morning and they fixed me up.
Henderson: You have a piece of memorabilia in the new Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, it’s a chunk of the wall you hit at Texas. What are your thoughts on the Hall? Have you seen it yet?
McDowell: I have not. It’s very busy around here the last couple of weeks. You’d think being at home you’d have lots of time to go check everything out, but we’re really busy with obligations.
I can’t wait to go check the Hall of Fame out. One of the tours that will be going through the Hall of Fame is coming through some of the shops, so we’re actually going to get to tour the Hall of Fame with MacDonald Motorsports and just give a different perspective to it, how a smaller team operates and being a low-budget team. It’s going to be cool to go and just show the fans on the Hall of Fame tour what it’s all about.
Henderson: Last question. When you go to the grocery store, what’s the one item that’s always on the list?
McDowell: My wife usually goes to the grocery store! I try to avoid it at all costs, but I love cereal, so milk is always essential in the McDowell household. I could have breakfast at any time of the day. It’s one of those quick, easy meals, but it’s fulfilling. I’m a big granola and cereal guy. I go with Grape Nuts with a mix of granola, and then I put dried fruit in it. I make my own contraptions.