AVONDALE – There weren’t more than a dozen people in attendance when Michael McDowell took the stage for his appearance in front of fans Sunday morning at Phoenix International Raceway. The VIP tent was filling up before the Good Sam 500, but McDowell knew it wasn’t for him. NASCAR stars Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and others were scheduled to appear within the hour.
McDowell took the stage at 8:45 a.m. as advertised, answered every question asked of him and apologized when he had to be ushered off-stage by his PR representative – he had another appearance scheduled. Still, to know people want to see him is something the Glendale native only knows in one place.
“It’s kind of cool because a lot of places you go when they do driver introductions, they say ‘Michael McDowell’ and there will be like three people,” McDowell said. “Here I feel like Dale (Earnhardt) Jr.”
He beamed as the small crowd contingent cheered.
“Hometown hero,” team vice president Jeremy Lange said, also with a smile on his face.
Lange knew despite not seeing the success he’s seen at the lower levels, being in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has made it worth it for McDowell, whose best finish for a season was 36th in 2011. McDowell does have two top-10 finishes at the Daytona 500 though, including a career-best seventh in 2014.
He’s struggled since joining the Series, but Sunday was not a normal race. Sunday was at home.
McDowell was born and raised in Glendale, about 20 miles northeast of where he raced Sunday afternoon. His career started by racing BMX bikes at a track in the north Valley. He saw his brother’s friend race go-karts, gave it a try and became a star. He raced competitively at 8 years old in Arizona, then nationally, then internationally.
He was supposed to go to Deer Valley High School in Glendale, but his professional ambitions got in the way. His travel and racing schedule would have caused him to miss too many days of school, so he was home-schooled. He worked at the Bondurant Racing School in Chandler before moving to North Carolina in 2004 at age 19.
After moving away, he dominated the Automobile Racing Club of America circuit, before being told he should try NASCAR, because a friend told him, “You’re young, you’re American, why aren’t you trying to race NASCAR?”
Early in his NASCAR career, he took over the No. 00 car of retiring Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett at Michael Waltrip Racing. It was in that car in 2008 that he was involved in a high-profile crash at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas, one that causes him discomfort today. During a qualifier, he lost control of his car, causing it to slam into the wall. It flipped onto its hood, skidded then rolled eight times with fire shooting out of the engine before settling right-side up.
Just Sunday, he woke up with a headache and wondered why, before realizing it was because of that one fiery crash eight years ago, one he somehow escaped without immediate serious injury. He ended up racing the next day.
“Nothing short of miraculous to walk away from that one for sure,” McDowell said.
On Sunday, McDowell, driver of the No. 95 Thrivent Financial Chevrolet, had a busy schedule. Starting pitchers in baseball respectfully get the silent treatment before their starts, but not NASCAR drivers. At 8:45 he was at one tent, 9:00 another, 9:45 a sponsor event before his pre-race rituals began in advance of the 12:45 first green flag of the day.
McDowell’s trailer was not at the front of the garage, it wasn’t at the end and it certainly was not strategically placed for maximum exposure. Tucked somewhere in the middle, there was no gaggle of fans surrounding his trailer and when he emerged from it from the first time, if any fan noticed, they didn’t say anything.
McDowell is not a household name in NASCAR. He has never won a race, his memorabilia was not for sale at any of the track vendors and no one was wearing his No. 95 on their hats.
It’s not the first time McDowell raced in his hometown, so it’s not as if he expected a swarm. He knows they’re out there, he said with a sly smile, because who else would it have been that requested those tickets?
“I definitely have more fans out here than other places we go to,” McDowell said. “It’s a fun week to be racing in front of your hometown crowd.”
He estimated that about 30 people came to watch him race today, but among those are not who you would think. Because of his busy schedule the week of the race, between being at the track and “trying to see grandma,” and everyone else, he left his immediate family at his current home in North Carolina. While they usually come out to watch him, his wife Jami and three children did not make the trip.
McDowell, a man with a strong Christian faith, said he’s bringing the family back to Arizona in two weeks for Easter. That way he can concentrate on seeing his family without the demands of his job.
“He’s just a common guy who happens to race cars,” Lange said. “The way I look at him, he’s a family guy who races vs. a racecar driver who has a family.”
Team owner Bob Leavine said he took notice of McDowell in his second year owning a team. Leavine and his wife Sharon co-own Leavine Family Racing and they saw McDowell talking to kids and signing autographs before a race. Part of his team for two years now, McDowell continues to interact with fans in that same jovial way, whether it be at the garage or the hotel or anywhere he goes, Leavine said.
“That’s part of his personal ministry, leaving somebody better than how you found them,” Leavine said. “If that means giving them an autograph, hugging them, shaking their hand, ‘how are you doing,’ asking them a question, that’s Michael McDowell.”
After bouncing around to a few teams for a few years, McDowell has settled into the No. 95 car.
It was in that car that McDowell finished 26th at the Good Sam 500 Sunday, a far cry from what anyone would consider a strong finish. But for McDowell, it’s all about perspective.
“When we go out there and rank 25th, we kind of did something,” he said before the race. “We beat teams with 300, 400, 500 employees and $25, $30 million budgets.”
For comparison to the hundreds of staff members other teams have, McDowell has just 10.
Underbudgeted and understaffed by his own accounts, McDowell knows he’s not to the point he’s expected to win a race. But he’s optimistic about his team’s future.
“I haven’t accomplished what I’ve wanted to accomplish here, and I feel like I’m not done yet,” McDowell said. “To get to the level we want to be at, you have to start somewhere. And so we’re going in the right direction.”
And who knows, maybe that first win comes in front of Jami, his kids and 30 more friends and family when NASCAR returns to McDowell’s home for the Can-Am 500 in November.