The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Leavine Family Racing’s Michael McDowell. I spoke with McDowell at Dover International Speedway. This interview is available both in podcast and written form.
1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?
That’s hard question. For me I would say 60/40 — 60 (percent) being working at it, 40 (percent) being natural ability. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been competitive and been able to run at a high level, but I feel like the biggest separation in my later years in my career is just working hard at it.
2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?
It’s funny, because I think that your fans are your fans because they like you and because they can relate to you. You hear people say, “Well I was a Tony fan and now I’m trying to figure out who to be a fan of.” Normally they’ll migrate to someone similar personality-wise, driving style-wise, something like that.
So I don’t really have a pitch. I like to think that my fans are my fans because they relate to me and because they want to be fans of Michael McDowell.
3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?
This job’s not very hard. We get paid to drive around in circles. But there’s a lot to it. I think the hardest part is just balancing your work life and your family life. That’s probably the hardest thing just because racing requires everything you have. Even when you’re not doing it, you’re still thinking about it.
When you’re home, you’re still thinking about the next week, I’m watching video and I’m looking at data. Even when I’m not doing those things, I’m still thinking about it. The hard part is just being able to switch it off and switch it on. It’s ingrained in you, racing, so you just live and breathe it.
You sort of never get away from it in some ways.
Exactly. It feels like you never get away from it.
4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?
Yeah, for sure. I don’t have any issues with that. It doesn’t happen all the time, so for me it probably wouldn’t be that big of a deal. I feel like there’s always a time and place to do it, so timing is very critical. But for fans, they don’t know what that looks like. It’s what we signed up for, so I always just have a little extra grace knowing that they’re just excited and it’s not that big of a deal, whatever it is you’re doing.
5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?
There’s lots of stories. From 15th back doesn’t get enough coverage for anybody. We’re a sport of 40 drivers compared to other sports that have hundreds and thousands of athletes, and yet we still only focus on 10 guys. So I think just telling the other stories and telling who those people are and their teams, there’s just more to it than the 10 guys that are all retiring.
6. Who is the last driver you texted?
Hold on. Let me get my phone.
Pulling it up on your nice red-orange phone case. I don’t know if that’s red or orange. Some combo of the two.
Yeah it’s bright, because I leave it everywhere, so this helps me.
The last driver — Cole Whitt. David Ragan. Those were my last two.
You have them in a group chat or something?
No. I asked David Ragan about Pocono, taking the kids to the waterpark. That’s the intense conversations you have with drivers.
7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?
Some of them are. There’s a lot of personalities in the sport. I don’t consider this to be an entertainment sport from the standpoint of us as characters. On the racetrack, I think it’s an entertainment sport. But there’s a lot of characters in our sport. There’s a lot of people who are quite entertaining that don’t always show it.
8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?
I’m not a big fan of it. Over the years, I’ve kind of changed a little bit. It used to be if somebody gave me the finger, I would do everything I could to get to their bumper and hit them. Most of the time if they gave you the finger it was because you’re holding them up and they’re faster than you so usually you can’t catch them to hit them.
I know that everybody has their own thing about it, but what I’ve learned is that most of the time when I do something of retaliation, I get myself in trouble, too. So it’s usually not worth it.
Did you ever successfully catch somebody and hit them after they gave you the finger?
Yeah lots of people, and that makes them really mad. But that’s the whole idea, you know what I mean?
9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. I remember you kept a payback list on the inside of your uniform at one point. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?
The races, they go in these momentums and they go in the ebbs and flows. Yes, you do remember when someone cuts you a break. And cutting somebody a break could be when you’re catching them really quickly and they just don’t hold you up. Or it could be just merging off of pit road and letting you not get pinned down on the bottom, whatever it is. So you do remember that.
As far as retaliation lists, same thing. I used to really enforce it and now it’s not that I’ve gotten soft, but it just doesn’t help anybody. If anything, it just hurts you.
AJ (Allmendinger) and I were at it at the beginning of the year, and we were just hurting ourselves, just costing ourselves spots because we were both in that red mist mindset and we weren’t going anywhere. So I was able to sit down with him after a couple of races like that and say, “Alright man, we gotta figure this out, even if it means we gotta cut each other a little bit of breaks for the next couple weeks just to get over the hump.” Because when you start losing points and you start tearing up bodies, it makes a lot of work for the guys for no reason. So heat of the moment, things happen and that’s part of it, but separating the track and off-track is important too.
10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?
I don’t know. Famous is relative to who you think would be famous and who I think would be famous. It’d be different right?
That’s true. It could be to you, so somebody you were fascinated by.
So probably Mario Andretti. When Marco (Andretti) was really young, I did some driver coaching with him at Sebring. Just being around the Andrettis, the family, was pretty cool because I grew up an Andretti fan and a Mario fan in particular. So that was probably pretty cool.
11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?
A lot. On the racetrack?
You can answer it however you want.
I don’t know how you are, but I’m constantly trying to improve, whether that’s parenting my kids or trying to be a good husband or trying to make the most of my opportunity here. So I’m constantly taking inventory of, “Alright, these are the areas that are good,” and you highlight those and, “These are the areas you still gotta work on.” I feel like probably more than anything, it’s just patience and just being slow to speak. Sometimes I get myself in trouble.
12. Typically at this point I ask a question that the last driver has given me, but I screwed up the last interview which was supposed to be with Paul Menard, so there is no question from Paul Menard. So would you like to ask yourself a question here and answer it, or would you just like to skip this part?
No, I want to ask you a question.
Oh, you want to ask me a question?
So with your job description change, how is it being an independent versus working for the big brother?
Well, it’s a lot more fun, first of all. I feel like I can do a lot more of what I want. But what I was worried about was not people like you — because you’ve always been nice to me — but some people that have more difficult PR people might not give me as many interviews and access. But for the most part people have said, “Yes,” all year, so that’s really nice. Does that surprise you?
No, it doesn’t surprise me, because this sport is still relational and you’ve spent years building those relationships. So I don’t think it matters who your work for or who you drive for, who your sponsors are. When you build good relationships, I think people care more about you than who you work for.
That’s nice of you to say. Thank you. So there will be a next interview, hopefully, but I don’t know who it’s going to be with. Do you have a question I could ask the next driver?
What are the reasons for retirement? What are the things that would cause to you say, “You know what, that’s it. I’m good.”
So when they know it’s time, what’s gonna be driving that decision?
Yeah, for sure.
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