The Toyota Camry will be the...
The Toyota Camry will be the car of choice for the next step in McDowell's career. Photo by Nigel Kinrade
Here's an excerpt of our conversation.
SCR: Who are the people responsible for helping you get started?
McDowell: My mom, dad and my brother Billy were the first and most prolific supporters. We started racing Karts together as a family, and then we started to sell Karts to pay for the racing. I remember my first day at the Kart track at 7 years old in the back of Tal Crosser's pickup truck sitting in the seat of the Kart. From that time to now, it has been a period of learning to race and developing relationships.
The real turning point was driving for Greg Bell in California as a working racer. That led to a relationship with Bill Mayer through his son John. I was a driving coach for John. After a year, Bill wanted to start a Kart shop and we, my brother Billy and I, worked with him. Bill Mayer put me in my first big racecar, a Formula Renault. Then later I was given the opportunity for a one-race deal in a Formula Star Mazda race at Sears Point. It was my first professional race. Scott Speed had just left the Mazda Team and Mazda was looking for someone to fill the hole left by Scott. That was another opportunity for me and that led into a two-year relationship with Mazda.
During this time I was also working at the Bob Bondurant School as a driving instructor. It was through being an instructor at the Bondurant School that I met Rob Finaly, who had very little racecar experience. He had come to the Bondurant School to get a taste of driving a racecar. We clicked as a team. We put together a Grand Am Cup Series car. That Grand Am deal developed into a Daytona Prototype Series. That developed into an ARCA car opportunity. During that same period I was also given an opportunity to drive two Champ Car races.
Based on my performance in the ARCA cars, I became involved with Michael Waltrip Racing. This came about because the owner of the ARCA team, Eddie Sharp, had a relationship with Michael Waltrip. That was the path, or the relationship trail, that got me introduced to Michael Waltrip and Michael Waltrip Racing. It was a long road and there were many people who helped me along the way. I am very grateful to everyone who helped me.
SCR: You raced Karts for almost ten years?
SCR: Who were the people who helped you the most?
McDowell: My family was the founding force in my racing. My brother Billy believed in me and my ability. He sacrificed a good bit to help me a great deal. He could have done other things than help me but he believed in my ability and he was there for me.
SCR: From a process perspective, in your opinion, based on your experience, what would the best path be for an aspiring racer to follow to get to the show?
McDowell: First, start young, start early. Karts are a great way to start.Start local, go Regional level and then National level. Then follow your desire for the type of car you want to drive. Push yourself past the local scene.The more opportunities you get to race around the country at different tracks the better. Race as much as possible.
SCR: Let's say you are a young racer, what should you be doing to get noticed and move into a more professional series?
McDowell: Winning is a big part of racing. You need to be winning races. But it is clear that you need a support group that believes in you. Build a team around you that believes in you. The team needs to believe in you and work toward the same goals. Spend time with the crew. Develop relationships with the crew. Make the crew a part of the winning. You do not win alone. Winning is a team accomplishment, especially at the higher levels.
SCR: Michael, let's spend a bit of time talking about driving the car versus self promotion. Just how much time do new or aspiring drivers need or have to spend promoting themselves? Is winning more important than self promotion or is the promotional aspect just as important as the winning?
McDowell: Tough question. Winning is what gets you noticed. It is even more important if you do not have a bankable name or something else that is unique about you. Winning is key. Once you are winning or running at the front all the time, you need to do things that will get you noticed by the car owners. Sometimes you just have to go out and meet people and introduce yourself. Sometimes you just have to be a bit aggressive off the track as well as on the track.
If as a driver you have the talent, Karting is a great place to learn and develop driving skills. But it also teaches some other valuable life skills such as teamwork, communication, relationship development and the ability to work well with others.
If we look at Michael McDowell's path from Karts to Cup we can see that, through Karting, he learned a great deal about driving, racing and developing relationships. Could these skills be learned in other motorsports? Yes, but the advantage with Karting is that he had a 10-year head start on the competition. Karting was able to accelerate the learning and then to reinforce the lesson with real life applications.
Start young, start early and race as much as possible. Seems like a fairly simple formula. This gives you a longer period of time to polish your driving skills and learn about racecraft. So the $20 question is what do you do if you are not 8 years old and you want to race? The beauty of Karts is that there is a class for every skill level and ability and there is a type of karting that will help you achieve your goals. You can take the same path that McDowell started with but you may not have the time to have 10 years of racing under your belt prior to your first opportunity to race a big car. It does not mean that you should not try.
While it may start out as a path to the higher formulas in racing, we need to remember that Karting is still supposed to be fun. Not everybody will be good enough or get the right breaks and make the necessary relationships to move to the next level. In McDowell's case, Karting played a significant role in his climb to Cup competition.