During a four-year period in the early 1990s, hardcore NASCAR fan Mike Mitchell virtually stopped following his favorite sport.
He had a good excuse, though: As a navigation electronics technician on U.S. Navy submarines, Mitchell would spend an average of 50 days at a time submerged in the middle of the ocean.
That kind of life didn't exactly lend itself to watching races every Sunday.
"The whole point was to go out into the ocean and hide," Mitchell said. "I kind of lost track of NASCAR while I was at sea."
Mitchell, who earned the nickname "Submarine Mike" thanks to his frequent calls to Dave Moody's radio show on Sirius/XM, is the second in our series of NASCAR fan profiles. The 42-year-old retired from the Navy last year after nearly 23 years of service.
Born in the small town of New Martinsville, W.Va., Mitchell was 9 years old when he watched the famous 1979 Daytona 500 with his family – the first time he'd seen a NASCAR race. He spotted the blue and yellow No. 2 car of Dale Earnhardt and decided to root for it since it reminded him of West Virginia's state colors.
He's been an Earnhardt fan ever since.
Mitchell chose to join the Navy in 1988 in part to avoid the life of working in an aluminum plant or coal mine, which was typical of many people in his area of West Virginia.
"I like to joke the recruiter promised me store-bought shoes, so I joined the Navy," he said.
After two years of submarine school in Connecticut, Mitchell was deployed on the kind of submarines that could start a world war with their firepower. He'd spent months underwater without ever surfacing – the longest period was 79 days.
"We are a different breed," Mitchell said of those who serve on submarines. "I am a little different. I've heard people say it's similar to being trapped in a foxhole.
"Believe it or not, other than when we'd change depth, you don't really notice. I got to the point where I prefer artificial light over sunlight. Even now, my wife makes fun of me because we have a sliding glass door and I like to keep the shades shut."
Throughout his entire Navy career, Mitchell only got two port calls – one in the Virgin Islands and one in France. The rest of the time, he was either underwater or at the base.
He finished his career as a Chief Petty Officer, working as an instructor. But at one point, working as a recruiter, he had a chance to meet Earnhardt Sr. – until duty got in the way.
On the day Earnhardt was scheduled to appear at a local car dealership, Mitchell got a last-minute call from a recruit saying his family was willing to meet and hear the Navy's pitch. Mitchell couldn't blow off the meeting for a NASCAR driver's autograph – even Earnhardt – so he missed the appearance.
Fortunately, the recruit signed with the Navy and is still a Chief Petty Officer today.
Mitchell has met Dale Earnhardt Jr., though. At the 2011 Daytona Preseason Thunder fan fest, Mitchell stood in line and finally got the autograph of his favorite driver. As a fan of the family, Mitchell had followed the younger Earnhardt's career since 1998 – when he won a championship in his first full Busch Series season.
"I liked the way the kid races," Mitchell said. "Still do."
But Mitchell has many more opinions about NASCAR aside from which driver is his favorite. Being in the Navy forced him to get over being shy, and now he's of the mindset of "What good is an opinion if you don't express it?" Frequent listeners of Sirius/XM NASCAR radio have probably heard his call-ins.
Mitchell's biggest concern is what he describes as NASCAR's lack of transparency. He is adamant the NASCAR rulebook needs to be available online for all fans to see, because people are now used to having information at their fingertips when they want to learn more about a topic – and don't like to be told something is restricted.
"What's so bad about letting us see it on the website?" he said. "They still think this is 1975 and they can get one by us – at least that's how it comes across.
"Tradition is one thing, but sometimes you have to evolve as the world evolves. Trust me, there were plenty of traditions in the Navy – but many of them had to change as the world did."
In addition, Mitchell thinks the TV networks should show NASCAR races in a side-by-side format the entire race instead of just on occasion.
"They can and should do it the whole race, and there's nothing anyone can say to make me believe otherwise," he said. "If IndyCar can do it, NASCAR can do it."
For the most part, though, he supports NASCAR's initiatives and feels positive about the direction of the sport. Mitchell is optimistic about NASCAR's 2013 car because it relates more to what people drive on the street; younger people, he said, have lost the connection with cars and don't care what brand of car they drive. Manufacturer identity could help restore that, he believes.
Mitchell also sides with NASCAR in how officials call the race by using debris cautions to reset the action.
"If they throw a caution to make the race better, what's wrong with that?" he said. "Who cares? Restarts are awesome!"
Though he's met his favorite driver just once, Mitchell's greatest honor as a NASCAR fan came when the Navy presented him with a flag that flew over the Daytona Cup race in 2007. He sent the flag to JR Motorsports and asked the company to fly it there for a day, but then-JRM driver Brad Keselowski (sponsored by the Navy) did him one better.
In late 2007, Keselowski put Mitchell's flag inside his car for a qualifying lap, then sent it back.
It's no wonder, then, that the longtime Earnhardt fan has a soft spot for Keselowski, too.
Since retiring from the Navy, Mitchell now manages a Radio Shack in Jacksonville, Fla. He's been married to wife Cheryl for 13 years, and the couple has two dogs and a cat. You can find him on Twitter at @submarinemike88.