Michael McDowell interview: People still ask about Texas crash all the time

Jerry Markland

Our series of weekly NASCAR driver interviews continues with Michael McDowell, who drives for Phil Parsons Racing in the Sprint Cup Series.

SBN: What percent of your career races do you remember?

MM: I would say I probably remember 80 percent of them. If I had to really think back, I could probably remember all of them – or at least glimpses of them. When I was running Rolex (sports cars), you only did 10 races a year, so I can remember all of those – because you had two weeks to dwell on them afterward, you know what I mean? In this circle, you do it every week. The ones I've raced and run the full races, I probably remember all of them.

SBN: What was the first win you got in any form of motorsports?

MM: Well, I started BMX bike racing when I was 3 years old and I won a lot of races doing that, but that's not a motorsport. In go-karts, I won a lot of races there. But my first professional victory would have been Formula Renault in Las Vegas, probably in 2002.

SBN: What do you remember about it?

MM: You know, I remember the whole race, really. I started from the pole, led most of the race, had a little battle in the middle of it. No spectators, no fans, no TV – so it was like winning a go-kart race where it wasn't significant.

The first big race I won where it really sunk in was Sebring in 2003. And that was sort of my first big win.

SBN: Who is a clean driver you enjoy racing with in Sprint Cup?

MM: I can give you the list of guys I don't enjoy racing with more easily than that.

SBN: That's the next question.

MM: Oh yeah. Well, I'd say Jamie McMurray and Jimmie Johnson – those are the two that stick out in my head. Doesn't matter if you're two laps down or racing for position, they always race you the same as they race everybody else.

SBN: So which drivers always seem to make it especially hard on you?

MM: Well, I'm probably on this list for other people. (Laughs) You know, I always feel like Regan Smith races you extremely hard. And I like him; we have a good relationship. But you always know just because you're inside and you think the pass is done, you've still got a couple more laps before it's done. He's clean though, which is good.

And then honestly, there are guys with my current (start-and-park) situation who just get impatient and are just kind of like, "Hey man, you're not even supposed to be out here" and they throw their hands out the window or get upset. So those are the ones you remember, not the ones who race real hard.

SBN: The ones who you feel don't show you respect?

MM: Well, they just get frustrated because they're like, "What are you even doing?" Which I totally understand, but it's like, "Hey man, the track is 20 feet wide and there are only so many places you can go, you know?" (Laughs)

SBN: What is your personal code of conduct on the track?

MM: I think it's the same as everybody else's – you just race people how they race you. My personal code of conduct is I try to forget quickly. Driving with built-up anxiety and anger usually doesn't lead to a better race, so I try to just say, "Take a lap." And what I mean by that is if I feel I'm getting upset or I want to retaliate, I just take a lap – and usually I'll calm down or ease out of it.

I've made a lot of dumb mistakes in my career that were honest mistakes – not anger, not blatantly taking somebody out – just mistakes. They weren't perceived as that, though, you know what I mean? So I know that to receive grace, you've got to have a little grace yourself. That's how this sport works.

SBN: That leads into the next question, which is directly inspired by you. In November 2009, you were the first driver to ever come to a tweetup, and you told everyone there you kept an actual list of drivers who you owed for retaliation. Do you still have one?

MM: I don't anymore. Like I said, those are the things you hold onto that don't do you any good. And as you build relationships and you get to know the other side of people, you've just got to distinguish between the two. Racing on the racetrack is our job, it's what we do and we're fierce competitors. Away from the racetrack, we're just humans.

I would have AJ Allmendinger, Sam Hornish, Regan Smith, Denny Hamlin on my list of guys. But now it's just like, "Man, I don't know the circumstances, I don't know why this or that happened." I just kind of forget about it now.

It's better to work it out. Like Aric Almirola and I had a run-in in the Nationwide Series when I was driving a (Joe) Gibbs car in 2011. He was running for a championship and I wasn't, and so I raced differently than he would. After the green-white-checkered at Road America and leading and getting shuffled back, I was way back in the field and came tearing through the field and ended up crashing him out. And he was super upset.

So for the next three weeks, he tried to wreck me, you know? After Iowa, we got together and he said, "Well, you crashed me at Road America, you did this and that." I said, "OK, now we're even, now that's over, so let's just start fresh right now and we'll race each other like normal people and see where it goes next."

But if you don't hit that reset button, all it does is escalate and escalate and you end up getting like Jimmie and Kurt (Busch) or some of the other feuds you see – and it's not productive for anything. It's good for fans, it's good for viewership, but it's not good for race teams, it's not good for points and it's not good for owners.

SBN: Is that something you learn as a veteran driver just through experience?

MM: I wouldn't call myself a veteran, I'd still call myself a young kid, I would hope (McDowell is 27). This sport is every weekend, right? There are 36 races a year, and what's happened has happened – you can't change the past. But you can certainly control what happens in the future by how you respond.

SBN: If you could turn back time and pick any driver who has ever raced, who would you want as your teammate?

MM: I've never really thought about that question. Man, there's so many guys to pull from. But just on pure talent and natural ability, you think about guys like Tim Richmond. I wasn't watching the races at the time, but you watch the replays now and the cars drove different and they were sideways and you'd really wheel them.

SBN: Would you have gotten along with Tim Richmond? He was pretty wild.

MM: No, absolutely not. I mean, completely different lifestyles. But just about pure driving. The hard part about NASCAR is you don't have data – though we're getting a little more that way. So all you have to talk about is what the cars are doing, and it's hard to tell who would be a good teammate. Now, with just a little bit of data, I think it makes a tremendous difference.

SBN: In terms of how teammates can help each other?

MM: Right now, in the current sport, you can see what a good teammate does like Mark Martin at (Michael Waltrip Racing). Not that MWR wouldn't have gotten there otherwise, but he's definitely a big part of that equation. Just having somebody who has been through the highs and lows and somebody who knows what winning race cars should feel like makes a big difference.

When you get to the circle I'm in and you started out in back-half-of-the-grid equipment and you've never driven race-winning cars, how in the world do you know what that should feel like? So you've got to have somebody who can say, "Yeah, we're OK, but this is what we really need to be great."

SBN: When is the last time you got nervous about anything?

MM: I get nervous all the time, but the last time I got really nervous is when we were having our child (Emma James) a month and a half ago. My wife (Jami) had some complications and the baby was having complications and they rushed them into the OR. That was probably the first time in a long time I've been truly fearful.

Everybody's good now, but it was one of those moments where you felt your life could radically change in a split second. Your family is good, everybody is healthy, everything is fine – and in one moment, you feel like, "Man, I could lose a child. I could lose my wife." And just the reality sets in that every day is a gift, you know?

On the racetrack, like in qualifying, you just go do it. It's not that I'm numb to it, and it's not that there's not anxiety, but I just know there are going to be highs and lows. You're going to make races, you're going to miss races – hopefully you make more than you miss. And you just can't overanalyze it, because you can psych yourself out. You never can psych yourself up, but you can always psych yourself out.

SBN: You guys meet a lot of fans, and sometimes they can ask awkward or uncomfortable questions. Do you have any recent stories along those lines?

MM: It's hard to put me in an awkward spot, because I like to have fun with the fans and I enjoy that aspect of it. The thing I get most often – and I just have to let it roll a little bit because it's just part of my story in NASCAR – is I'll always get that fan who is like, "Heyyy, ain't you that dude who flipped like 15 times?"

And I'm like, "Yeah, yeah, that's me."

"Well, what were ya thinkin'?"

"Well, obviously, I wasn't thinking much!" (Laughs)

Those are hard questions, because people are excited about it. For me, it's not a bad memory, but it's like, "I crashed – by myself – in qualifying. Not a lot to talk about!" It's not an embarrassing moment, but what are you going to do?

SBN: That's a good transition into the next question, which is "What do you get asked a lot that you're tired of answering?" Seems like it's about the Texas crash. How many times do you think you've been asked that?

MM: Oh, thousands. That's the thing people remember, and that's because I haven't won a race or a championship, and until I do, it's going to be like that a little bit. It's just one of those memories people don't forget because if you were watching or you were there, it was one of those gut-wrenching, "Is he dead or is he alive?" moments. Everybody remembers those.

I remember when (Alex) Zanardi crashed and his legs were hanging out of the race car. I remember when Stan Fox crashed at Indy. And in those moments, I remember just looking at the TV and not hearing the announcers and thinking, "Oh man, I don't think he made it." So I think for fans, when they see you, they're like, "What was it like?" They want to live it with you, you know?

SBN: If you had to pick one of these jobs after you quit racing, would you rather be a NASCAR broadcaster or a high-ranking NASCAR official like a Robin Pemberton or John Darby?

MM: Ooh, I would not want to be Pemberton or Darby. Like those guys, don't like their job. They do a great job of running the series. People will say, "Ah, they're stubborn, they don't change, they do it their own way." But that's how it has to be. You have to have officiating body that says, "Right or wrong, this is what we're doing and everybody is doing it. We take your opinions, we like it, but it doesn't matter – this is how we're going to do it." That's why this series is so strong and successful, because it's always been like that.

Broadcasting and those things interest me, and I like it, but it's something I've tried not to explore. I've been asked a few times to do some different stuff and I've been waiting, because I don't want to even open the door for a Plan B. I'm so close to being in or out (of racing) every year that I don't want to give myself that extra motivation to be out. I would rather just stay in, you know?

SBN: I've been asking each person to give me a question for the next interview. Last week, Jamie McMurray wanted to know: In light of the hot topic in the sport lately, do you think you've ever driven with a concussion?

MM: I didn't really start thinking about it until Dale Jr., you know? I don't know. I couldn't answer that. I do know after my Texas crash, I raced that same Sunday. But I was fine. I felt like mentally in the race car, I did fine. But your mind plays tricks on you. Really, training has helped me realize that: Just because you have 100 percent output doesn't mean your performance is 100 percent. Just because you feel like you're giving it all you have doesn't mean you're clear-minded and giving a great performance. So I think there have probably been times where the performance hasn't been what it should be. But I never really thought about it until recently.

In particular, I remember it was my second (Cup) race when I crashed at Texas. And the only thing I could think about was, "Get back on the horse, because if you don't, they'll replace you. You're replaceable." I was replaceable, especially at that time – no sponsor, new team. You always hear stories about, "That guy was really good until that big accident" or "He had a lot of potential but then this happened."

And so my whole thing was like, it didn't matter how bad it hurt or how bad it sucked, I had to get back out there because it only takes missing one race for you to be out of the sport and to build somebody else's career. I didn't want to give someone else that opportunity.

SBN: And can you give me a question for the next person?

MM: When I see this question, I always think about non-racing stuff, because we're just in our own little bubble, our own little world. So what I think about is: Define yourself without NASCAR. That would be my question. "Who are you without NASCAR?" Because I think a lot of these guys would be a blank. It comes and goes, man. You know? It comes and goes.

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