McDowell has been strapping...
McDowell has been strapping into race vehicles since age seven. Photo by Nigel Kinrade
The path to racing stardom and your ticket to the upper levels of NASCAR is a journey with no absolute starting point. The path that most of the current Cup stars have followed is varied.
Looking at the current crop of drivers in Sprint Cup, The Nationwide Series (formerly Busch) and the Craftsman Truck Series, though, we find that some have taken very similar paths to their current positions-they started out racing Karts. The simple Go-Kart is a great place to start your racing career. But when do you start and what type of kart should you be racing-Sprint, Dirt or Road Racing?
Let's examine the role that Karting played in the development of Michael McDowell, a rising star who will be entering the Cup Series with Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) after the first five races of the upcoming season.
I first became aware of McDowell just after he started racing Karts in the Phoenix Kart Racing Association (PKRA) at a local track in Phoenix when he was just a little tyke in the early 1990s. I was racing in the Unlimited 2-Cycle class and working with my own racing team out of my Kart shop.
In McDowell's career, we see that the path from Karts to Cup was not linear. He started in Karts, raced some open wheel Formula cars, spent time in Grand Am and Daytona Prototypes and in the Rolex Cup. All before moving to ARCA to Craftsman Truck to Busch last season and, finally, Sprint Cup this year.
McDowell's path to Cup was not well defined but it seems that all the pieces fell together. Karting represented a period of 10 years. It was in this developmental period that many of his driving skills were developed and nurtured. This was an education that would serve him well in the cars and series that followed.
McDowell leads the pack at...
McDowell leads the pack at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Courtesy photo
McDowell is a young man, 22 years old, but because of Karting he has 15 years of racing experience. While his name may be new to NASCAR, he is not new to racing.
He started racing with PKRA and after two or three years started to gain additional experience by traveling to the Regional races in California. Region 7 of the International Karting Federation in Southern California, Arizona and Southern Nevada was a hotbed of competitive Karting. It was not uncommon for a Junior class to qualify in the top 15 Karts all within 2 to 3 hundredths of a second. The fields were that close and the racers were just that competitive.
From the beginning, Michael was a good racer. As he progressed through the Junior classes, it was clear that he was a very talented racer with a great deal of potential. He was winning a good percentage of the races. In fact, the majority of the Junior races were won by Michael and another young racer named Andy Brumbaugh, who ran out of my shop. These two guys were the class of the field. One or the other would qualify on the pole and the other would be in hot pursuit throughout the race. It progressed to the point that very few other kids wanted to play as these two guys were winning all the races. They seemed to exchange championships every season.
There was one other Junior racer you might have heard of. Stephen Leicht, who raced in the Busch Series for Robert Yates Racing last year, was living with his family in the Phoenix area at the time. Leicht followed in the tire tracks of McDowell and Brumbaugh but then returned to his native North Carolina. His father wanted him to get all the experience he could in cars with fenders.
Shown here with Michael Waltrip...
Shown here with Michael Waltrip Racing's Ty Norris, McDowell has reason to smile at this stage of his career. Photo by Nigel Kinrade
These were exciting times fueled by interesting drivers. McDowell was very good and very aggressive working traffic. Not to the point of being reckless but he was very direct in his driving. Brumbaugh was not as aggressive in traffic but he was a very good qualifier and very smooth on the track. The number of railbirds would double to watch the Junior class to see these two guys duke it out. They put on quite the show.
Brumbaugh went on to win the Canadian National Formula Ford Championship. His heart and desire was in the open wheel road racing formulas. He has also gone on to be very successful in the SCCA Pro series in the Sedan classes as well.
We know what happened to McDowell and Leicht.
I lost contact with McDowell in the late '90s. I did happen to see him in some races televised late at night on Speed Channel while he was racing in the Star Mazda Series and some of the Grand Am races. He always seemed to be running at the front and doing a good job bringing the cars home in good condition, ready to race another day.
I was able to spend some time talking with him at the Busch Series race in Phoenix last fall and later spent some more time with him on the phone. To be honest, I was not expecting the mature and driven young man I encountered. I was expecting the same kid that I had watched grow up racing Karts at the local track here in Phoenix. Before the Busch race he was focused when he needed to be and approachable when the occasion merited it. He was very at ease talking to the fans and to the media types who seemed to be everywhere. He was very fan friendly, and many people were taking pictures with him. He was at ease in the pits and in the line to qualify for the Busch race. It was clear he was having a great time and was fully enjoying the experience. But when the helmet was on, it was all about making the show. He qualified his Busch car in the top 20 and was assured a place in the race. It was clear that he had become a professional racecar driver in every way.