What if I told you that the NASCAR Xfinity Series field now had one of biggest Star Wars nerds in racing?
Matt Mills is in the midst of his third full year in the series driving the No. 5 (or Red Five) — and sometimes the No. 99 — for BJ McLeod Motorsports. He’s having his best season to date from a speed perspective and has posted more lead-lap finishes (nine) than his first two years combined (eight).
Inside the racecar, Mills is realistic and takes what his underfunded team can get. But outside the car, he looks to the stars — not to daydream — but to think about a galaxy far, far away.
Mills lives and breathes Star Wars. Frontstretch caught up with Mills to discuss his love for the space western saga, delving into the Star Wars gear he owns both at home and the racetrack. Is he a bigger fan of the movies than Ryan Blaney? Plus, he touched on his year at BJMM, a viral water bottle incident and his future NASCAR Cup Series plans.
Michael Massie, Frontstretch: I saw the Reddit post going around about a month or so ago that showed all the Star Wars stuff you’ve got on your car. You’ve also got the Ahsoka Clone Trooper helmet, so I’m gonna venture to say that you’re a pretty big Star Wars fan. Is that fair?
Matt Mills: Yeah, it looks like more of an obsession hobby, I guess. I never thought about being able to express it in racing until I came down to where I was paying for my own helmet paint and stuff and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna be creative with this. I’m gonna make it almost like a tattoo.’
I just want to be creative with it and paint my helmets a certain way. It started out just doing Star Wars stuff on it, and then we got to BJ’s [McLeod], where I’m running full-time. I had picked the the five number just because of my dad, he had the five number in motocross. So it started out with that, and then the number became red to match my sponsor color. And then somebody tweeted ‘Hey, Matt Mills, Red Five,’ and now it’s like, OK, there’s another Star Wars reference.
We just kept going with it because, obviously, I love Star Wars. Then fans started to find out about it and giving us ideas for what we should do, so I took off with it. I’ve gotten quite a [bit of] Star Wars followers out of the whole thing. I think it’s cool that I can take what I do for a living, something that I love a lot, and combine it with another passion that I have.
— Matt Mills (@mattmillsracing) May 4, 2019
Massie: What all do you have that’s Star Wars related besides the helmet and Red Five?
Mills: My TV pod, the little bubble that’s on top of the roof. Someone that worked on my car, she had thought about, ‘Like, hey, that’d be really funny or cool if it was like R2D2‘s top half, like his face,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, that would be funny,’ and I walked in like two days later and they had that TV little pod wrapped in R2D2. So that was funny. I think that was a cool idea.
I think that’s about all I’ve incorporated. We’re trying to think of some other things we can do, because it really seems like the fans really love it, and obviously, I do too.
Massie: The pit sign, don’t you …
Mills: The pit sign, that’s it. Yeah, that’s right. I’d seen a design online of the rebel logo and then it had like a little skull effect to it. And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s perfect for BJ McLeod.’ It kind of combined my world with his skulls and stuff.
.@mattmillsracing's numerous Star Wars references: Ahsoka clone trooper helmet (with Aurebesh name on jawline), R2-D2 radio antenna, and a cross between the Alliance Starbird and a BJMM skull for his… (via u/1-800-DADJOKE) https://t.co/bu7t5rzb87 #NASCAR
— r/NASCAR on Reddit (@NASCARonReddit) August 22, 2021
Massie: How about around your house? Is that decked out in all Star Wars stuff?
Mills: Yeah, it almost looks like Legoland and Disney threw up in my room with Star Wars stuff. I kind of started as a kid where I love Star Wars. I didn’t really have any other passions as far as movies and stuff like that. I mainly just liked Star Wars. So I started collecting stuff young and then got to where I had, I have adult money, so now I can buy kid things. So it started going that route. And no, I enjoy collecting certain things of Star Wars. Nothing a lot, but just certain things that I think are cool.
I do have a couple lightsabers. …
Massie: The thing I noticed is it’s not just like your standard Star Wars references. You’ve got some deep cuts, some deep references in your gear. So let’s start a little bit of drama. Would you consider yourself a bigger Star Wars fan than Ryan Blaney?
Mills: I’ve never talked to him personally. … I don’t know what kind of collection he has. I do know that I feel like I reference it more on social media. I talk about it a little bit more, but I have seen some pictures. He has some collectibles and stuff. I will not dress up like Princess Leia on Halloween, I can promise you that. But I don’t know. It would be cool to actually meet him and talk about Star Wars and stuff. Even if it’s on social media or something, I think the fans would really enjoy it.
— Black Mamba (@MambaSmith34) October 31, 2019
Massie: What would you consider to be the best movie of the Star Wars franchise?
Mills: Probably Empire Strikes Back for me. I enjoy that one. And I mean, people give the prequels a lot of crap, but Revenge of the Sith I think did a really good job. And when you hear George Lucas talk about it, it makes it even better because he was like super passionate about that one. And I watch that one — I watch Star Wars going to sleep every night probably.
Massie: Here’s the polarizing question. Do you or do you not like the sequel trilogy?
Mills: So when The Force Awakens came out, you know, when Disney took over the franchise and they were rebooting it, I was like, OK, seeing that one. I thought it was really good. I’m like, ‘Alright, this is actually gonna be pretty cool and they’re gonna do good with this.’
And then the second one [Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi] came out, and I’m like, ‘Oh, no, that was awful.’ The Last Jedi, I didn’t care for it. Then Solo came out, and I didn’t care for that. Rogue One came out and I’m like, ‘Alright, we’re good again.’
And then when they came out with the third one [Star Wars Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker] with the new trilogy, the very last one that they did, I was like, ‘Yep, I’m uncertain about it now. I still don’t know what to think.’ It’s like they all kind of evened out.
But I think they’ve got some good things working, like the Mandalorian and stuff like that. They did a really good job with it, and some of the series coming out next year, I’m really excited for. A lot of people are giving them crap, but I think [Disney] can save themselves. They just tried to take George Lucas, who created the the trilogy, and make it better, and you’re just not going to top George Lucas.
Massie: You got a favorite character?
Mills: Obi-Wan Kenobi, he’s always been my favorite. Because I feel like that’s who I would relate to most or try to want to be — just rely more on wisdom and being patient and everything like that. I mean that’s really how I try to race is being patient, learning and taking the right steps.
Massie: Moving on the racing questions, you’ve had to sit out a few races this year, and McLeod has had different Stewart-Haas Racing guys fill in here and there. How much has that helped the program to have those SHR guys come in?
Mills: It was huge, just for the points side of it. When BJ [McLeod] came to me, and — he looked at the field entry list for the road courses that we went to, and they were stacked. And you take a guy like me, who has no road course experience, even growing up — my first road course wasn’t until last year at the Indy [Indianapolis Motor Speedway] road course. Like it was my first [time] doing a road course ever, so I’m still learning a lot on them.
And when he [McLeod] came to me, he’s like, ‘Hey, we’ve got this deal for Kevin Harvick to drive the [No.] 5 car, like it’s really gonna help our points,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it. I’ll sit out for Kevin Harvick. I don’t mind. Maybe I can learn some things and stuff.’
So that was huge just for the points and honestly the confidence of the guys and for BJ. When you have Stewart-Haas and Kevin Harvick wanting to come race under your name, that’s pretty cool. You’ve built a good program.
Massie: How do you feel your season’s going so far? Are you happy, disappointed or somewhere in the middle?
Mills: It’s definitely better than last year. There’s still been some things that I want to clean up. I am proud of, every week, no matter where we go, it seems like we at least have top-20 speed, sometimes top 15. We’ve even shown top-10 speed at short tracks. Now, it’s getting to the point where we need to have more of the results to show that we had that speed. We’ve had just weird things happen this year, I’ve messed up. So something that we just want to finish out strong is whatever speed we show, we need to finish to have the result to show that we ran like that.
It’s been a good season I guess — seven out of 10 maybe. I think next year — I don’t know what’s going to bring — my deals don’t usually happen for another month or so, so I don’t know what’s going to happen. But if we do make it back next year, there’s definitely some things that we need to clean up as a whole, including me.
Massie: A clip of you went viral about a month or so ago after the Bristol crash: the water bottle throw that happened afterward. First off, what happened to get you that mad at Spencer Boyd?
Mills: So the problem with me is I’m really known as the quiet, reserved, nerdy kid who talks about Star Wars and not much of anything else. It takes a lot for me to show any emotion over anything, happy, bad or whatever.
So I lost my brakes going into turn 3, and I hit the [No.] 52, hit the [No.] 48. […] And there was no warning. What happened, a brake line ended up coming out of the fitting. The pedal just randomly went to the floor. So I go into turn 3 and knocked over about three or four cars. And so I’m thinking, ‘Alright, people behind me are going to slow up. They’ve seen me just do that, and obviously, I have a problem.’
I put my left sides on the apron, creeping along because I got a problem. And I had Spencer behind me who just like starts hitting me and shoving me, and he’s five laps down. I’m like, ‘Why?’ Where was the situational awareness? We just avoided a huge disaster. That could have been really bad. We saved the car, we’re gonna bring it in, right? We’re gonna park it, we’re gonna fix it. And I just get turned, because I felt like there was just no situational awareness. … There was room up top to go and you’re five laps down. Why are you even pushing the issue right now?
I would have rather had him just wreck me intentionally instead of not knowing what he did or why he did it. That’s what made me so mad. And the water bottle deal was just, that’s the problem whenever I do get that mad is, because it doesn’t happen very often, I just look like a complete ass and embarrass myself. My dad was even like, ‘10 years of baseball and football I put you through, that’s the best you could throw?’ So I’m like, ‘Yeah, I was just so mad. I wasn’t thinking.’
They should have just picked me up and threw me in the ambulance. But yeah, no, not my best moment, I don’t think I’ve ever been that mad before. That really just came out of nowhere.
Massie: If you could have that moment back, is there anything you could have done differently for that throw? Or something else you could’ve thrown?
Mills: No, looking back at it, I didn’t even realize that I hit the wrecker at the time, because I was so mad. So maybe I should have just acted like I was going to the ambulance, because I ended up staying out there anyway after I threw the water bottle. I should have just went at least in front of the wrecker where I had a clear shot. But my plan was, I had loosened the cap and it was a full water bottle. I was planning to just blast him, but that didn’t work out. So everybody’s like, you should have thrown a helmet or something.
Like, no, I pay for my own helmets. I can’t do that. So [the] water bottle is the next best option.
Massie: So after that, you went out on the track and you told him that he was number one [middle finger]. And then, you won the crowd back over in that moment there. There were loud cheers. Was it at least satisfying to get those kind of cheers at Bristol once you gave him the bird?
Mills: Yeah, it was even one of those things, like, because I was so mad, I didn’t even hear that part, either. I was focused on one thing, and nothing else mattered. So we went back, and me and BJ were actually sitting at dinner, and we were talking about it. And he’s like, ‘Did you watch the video? The fans erupted when you did that.’ And I’m like, ‘Really?’
He showed me the video, and he just started laughing. He’s like, ‘Dude, fans have never done that for me before. Take that away from it, I guess.’ So, that was pretty cool. Gotta keep the fans entertained, I guess, even if you come out embarrassing yourself.
Massie: You made your Cup debut earlier this year. Are you going to be working to try to make any more Cup starts next year?
Mills: It just comes down to funding. And next year, I don’t even know how many teams are really gonna have opportunities where you can run a part-time schedule. A lot of teams next year are going to have full-time drivers. And the funding next year, the model of it is changing drastically. Like you’re going to be paying four or five times more a race just [to do] one.
So I don’t know what’s in store. Like I said, my sponsorship meetings don’t really happen for another month. We’re definitely going to mention it in there. We’ve got some prices to go to ask them. It just comes down to funding. I mean, I would love to. I’m excited to see what the new cars do. I think eventually it’s going to be great for our sport. The first couple years are going to make it tougher on guys like me, though, to make your early Cup starts.
About the author
Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.