It’s been a few years since inaugural Camping World Truck Series champion Mike Skinner has been in a NASCAR race. Fortunately, when it was time to hang up his helmet, the 28-time winner in NASCAR’s third-tier division sailed off into the sunset with quite the resume.
Skinner’s last race was in 2012, and at the time, he didn’t believe that was going to be the case. Early on in his career, he was Dale Earnhardt‘s teammate and scored a pair of victories in some Cup Series exhibitions in Japan during the late 1990s. As he aged, Skinner found himself back at home in the Truck Series, competing for a title with Bill Davis Racing in 2007.
However, a career full of injuries led Skinner to put a halt on his time in a racecar, especially when he began receiving offers to race at the rear of the field for mediocre teams. Now, the former champion is enjoying retirement, setting track records at Goodwood and keeps busy owning a business with his sons. In this exclusive interview with Frontstretch, Skinner discusses the decision to hang up his helmet, what he’s up to now, his former career, how beat up he was inside of the racecar and more.
Joseph Wolkin, Frontstretch: What has life been like for you since you stopped racing?
Mike Skinner: The decision to stop racing professionally was because I just had a number of concussions. A couple of years ago, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. took himself out of the car, I went “what in the world am I doing” because the cars that I was driving at the time were not competitive cars. I was watching some other drivers ride around in the back and I knew that it’s just not me. It’s not who I am and it’s not what I like doing.
That was my decision to hang it up. When that day happened, I felt lost and I felt pretty much insignificant. I felt like I was the quarterback for 30 years and then all of a sudden, you are the water boy. It’s very challenging on you mentally. I felt like I didn’t matter anymore to our sport, and that’s one thing you struggle with in our sport of auto racing unlike stick-and-ball sports where you have something to give back to the sport after you’re done with your career. I’m in a good place in my life now, though and I got through it.
Wolkin: Where did you get those concussions? I know you had a really hard hit at Chicagoland.
Skinner: I had a few really bad ones at Texas, Chicagoland, got knocked out in a test at Kentucky and had a horrible one at Atlanta. I had a really bad one at Michigan where a shock came off and punctured the tire. I had six or seven not minor concussions, but pretty major concussions. I had a vertebrate sore in my neck a couple of times, broke my scapula a few times, had a punctured lung, elbow, arm, knees, ankles and if you name it, I’ve had it broken or torn.
I broke both my shoulders, both biceps. I just got beat up so bad before we started to use the HANS device [head and neck restraint] and having the walls a little softer. I was just very lucky. I was lucky that I got to keep going as long as I did. It was definitely one of those things where it was time for me to hang it up because, like the doctors said, they didn’t know if you can take two more or one more hit for you to might not ever be normal again.
Wolkin: Do you feel that this is something drivers forget about nowadays – the injury risk that can occur, such as the whole Kyle Busch incident?
Skinner: In disguise, this could have been the best thing that has ever happened to Kyle Busch. I think Kyle Busch has done a lot of growing up with this injury. You see him racing differently. I have always said that if Kyle Busch starts racing smart, he is going to be the guy to beat every week. I really think he has matured with all of this stuff that he has gone through with physical therapy and everything.
Getting back to my situation, I took about a year and the next thing I knew, I was doing things for this non-profit organization called Hope for the Warriors, consulting some other drivers, doing some training and road-course instruction for other drivers. The last few years, I was at Goodwood, and we broke the all-time track record that Rusty Wallace had held for six years. We put a lot of effort into that and we beat RCR, Michael Waltrip and about four or five of the larger teams. This year, we went back there and broke my own record.
It’s fun to know that I haven’t lost the ability to drive a racecar. I own a small business with both of my sons. We have a racing business that we do instruction at for the late model stock level and with vintage cars. We’re just having a blast.
Wolkin: What was it like to get back in a truck at Goodwood and find so much speed?
Skinner: It was pretty darn awesome. I was never the type of driver that has to retrain himself to be a winner. I had to knock the cobwebs off. It was awesome over there with my family and my good friend Andrew Franzone, who basically funds the thing and is my partner in it.
Wolkin: You host a radio show with your wife on Sirius XM Radio. What do you attempt to convey to fans in the show?
Skinner: Basically, my position in the Skinner Round-Up is, I’m the guy that is still current enough in the sport to know what is going on. We call crew chiefs, they talk to me, and we speak in nearly the same language to understand the engineering side of it. When NASCAR comes up with a new rules package or a different downforce package – I’ve been in the wind tunnel numerous times – so I can relate that to our race fans in a manner that a normal gear head or race fan can understand it.
Angie is a professional and a really good radio host. She basically steers the ship, and when we get questions that need a little bit more of a technical answer, I’m the guy that can do that. We stay current and keep up with what is going on with the drivers, crews and crew chiefs just enough that we feel like it is pretty good radio.
Wolkin: How often do you get to the racetrack?
Skinner: I probably go to 6-8 races a year.
Wolkin: What tracks do you prefer to go to?
Skinner: Normally, we go to Indianapolis. We didn’t go to it this year. We go to New Hampshire, Bristol, Daytona, Texas a lot, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Homestead. Every once in a while, we’ll go to a Pocono or somewhere else like that. I hate that Nashville shut down because I loved going down there. I have friends in the music business down there. We go when we have a reason to go. Angie basically manages Ryan Newman, so when she has meetings with potential sponsors or clients that they already have in place on the Ryan Newman side of it, she’ll go and sometimes I’ll go with her.
Wolkin: What is the one thing you miss the most about racing in NASCAR?
Skinner: I think one of the main things I miss is I was a guy that didn’t mind traveling. I loved going to the racetrack and I loved doing my job. I loved meeting fans and seeing small kids having their eyes light up to get your autograph and sit in your racecar. That part of it I miss. Probably the biggest thing I miss about it is being competitive. That’s why Goodwood is so special to me when we get to do that. I run a late model race every now and then.
I’m going to do some vintage races next year. We might even get some vintage races in by the end of this year. The competitor still comes out of me. I love to play golf and I’m very competitive at it, but I’m not nearly as good of a golfer as I was a racecar driver. One of the hardest things about it is I’m probably a better racecar driver today than I ever have been. The problem is, I’m too old to do anything about it. It takes the physical and mental side to be successful in it.
Wolkin: Your last race was Michigan in 2012 in a start-and-park ride for Phil Parsons Racing. At the time, did you believe that was going to be the final time you strapped behind the wheel for a race?
Skinner: I really didn’t because I had made the Brickyard for a team that had no chance in hell of making the Brickyard. I committed suicide in that car and put up a lap good enough to get them in the show. That gentleman promised me that we were going to do some other races, and then he just basically crapped on me. Whenever there were about 44 cars at the track, he would stick somebody else in there that was a lot cheaper than me. It just put such a sour taste in my mouth that it was like man, this is just not me. I want to be known for being Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s teammate, being Rookie of the Year, all of the Japan wins, the non-points wins, the Truck Series championship, and beating and banging with Ron Hornaday. That’s what I want to be remembered for. I don’t want to be remembered as the guy that start-and-parked cars because I was a good qualifier.
Wolkin: Did you have offers to race after that event?
Skinner: I have actually had several. It didn’t happen this year, but normally every year, I get a phone call before Eldora because I won three dirt track championships before I came back east and started racing on asphalt. Everybody always wants me because I am a past champion to race at Eldora just in case they need that champion’s provisional. I turned it down every time. The last guy I said, “Listen buddy, if you want me to drive your stuff and put me in good enough stuff that I can go win the race, I’ll be there with bells on. If you’re worried about not making the show, you don’t need me. I’m not your guy.”
Wolkin: What was the most difficult part about not being able to find sponsorship in the latter stages of your career?
Skinner: We were actually able to find sponsorship, and our last ownership deal with the whole David Dollar and Randy Moss thing was just a horrible experience. Those guys ran off one of the best sponsors and longest running sponsors that anybody has ever had in the Camping World Truck Series. They basically botched it up. We had a horrible team that couldn’t make races. I won three races for them and finished third in points. I kind of got the team back on the map because that was a great team at one time. In between seasons, when Eric Phillips walked out the door and went to work with Kyle Busch Motorsports, I knew it was going to be the end of that team. I hung it out for a little while and it was just a disaster. Start-and-parking in the Cup Series and making 10 grand for going to work for a couple of days was OK because it was good money. But to go and race 25th in the Truck Series – no interest. If I’m not going to be running in the top five in the Truck Series, I don’t need to be out there.
Wolkin: What exactly happened with the whole Randy Moss thing? How did the team collapse when Eric Phillips left for Kyle Busch’s team?
Skinner: Basically, David Dollar went back to running the team and it was a disaster. Eric Phillips ran the team and did a really good job. Eric Phillips is a quiet guy that is very intelligent. We were building great racecars and Randy was a sports figure that just wanted to own a race team. I don’t think he ever understood it. I think he thought the Brinks truck was going to come to the door and start dumping money at the door because of Randy’s name. I don’t blame Randy Moss for any of the demise of the team. It was just really bad management.
When Eric Phillips walked out the door, that was pretty much it. They ran Todd Bodine and Travis Kvapil again. Travis ran that thing – and I love Travis to death and he’s a good driver, a champion – but when he got back in that truck, it started running where it should have been running. I was running in the top five and top 10 with it and he was running 25th. As great of a driver as he is, he should’ve been running in the top 10 with that ride. I guess the point is that it just continued to go downhill after I left. That was an easy decision for me to walk away from that deal.
Wolkin: Was there something in the sport that changed that you feel did not work in your favor?
Skinner: Not really. I think the biggest mistakes that I made – in matter of fact, the way they are now better suit me than they did when it was the COT car – in ’99 and 2000, we were sitting on poles and leading the most laps and having batteries fall out, have an alternator quit and we had some races dominated. We had a sway bar arm fall off while leading the race at Martinsville. We had so many stupid mechanical things go wrong. We had their asses severely whipped at Atlanta and had a stupid rod bolt break. They don’t break rod bolts in these engines anymore. We had really weird menagerie of stuff that happened to us that kept us from Victory Lane. But there wasn’t really anything in the sport I don’t think that tarnished my career.
The biggest thing that tarnished my career was me. When I got hurt, I tried to drive that racecar at a Sprint Cup level while I was hurt. I wasn’t only physically hurt, I was mentally hurt. That’s impossible. Nobody has ever been able to do it. I was probably the 80th guy to try to do it and probably the 80th guy that failed at it.
You can’t do it at the top level. You can’t ask a quarterback to go out there and throw the football with a broken arm. When you are physically beat up, you have no chance to be competitive. I tried to do that, and if I had to do it all over again, I would’ve stepped out of the car like Kyle Busch instead of coming back earlier. He made sure he was 100% before he came back in there. He made a statement by saying that his first race back – other than a heat race – was going to be a 600-mile race. That is something that I have to admire him for. He was smart enough to stay out of the car long enough to heal, so when he came back, he had a chance to win. That’s what I did wrong.