Discipline Over Bravado: McDowell's Approach to ROVAL™ Racing
When Michael McDowell began his transition into stock car racing, his mindset was to not talk about road racing or his background. McDowell tried to fly under the radar, taking the advice of Scott Pruett and Boris Said to not be labeled a road racer but a stock car driver.
McDowell has indeed become a stock car driver, making it to the NASCAR Cup Series, currently with Front Row Motorsports. The 35-year-old racer from Glendale, Arizona, is having a career year in putting up the most top-10 finishes he’s ever had in a single season, and he could very well earn a career-best finish in the overall point standings.
“We’ve been growing; the team has been getting better every year since their inception,” said McDowell. “Bob Jenkins has done a great job growing slowly and building slowly, but at a pace that can be sustainable. A big part of it is just people, the right people in the right places. Our alliance with Roush is a big part of it. Our technical support from Ford Performance. Being able to use tools, simulation and everything we need to unload and be close at the race track.
“It’s not just one thing, but if I had to break it down into the big chunks, it’s having a little bit of time to put all the pieces together and get all the right people in the right places so we can execute at a high level. I think we’ve had the ingredients over the years, but haven’t had them all at once or had them all working at the same time, and this year we were finally able to put it all together.”
The goal since McDowell arrived at the organization in 2018 has been to put both cars inside the top 25 in the owners’ points. It would be a big deal for the small group, and Front Row is on the verge this season.
“That is our main objective, and it helps with the prize fund and all that stuff moving forward, it helps strengthen the team,” McDowell explained. “It’s an important step. Winning a race, for me, is the goal, and we continue to put ourselves in a better position every year and every race. It’s been a great year.”
With Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Bank of America ROVAL™ 400 next on the schedule, McDowell finally gets to talk about road racing and his background, as well as try to win a race.
His background before arriving in NASCAR was road racing, something he watched his heroes do as a kid and took to himself. McDowell was a fan of open-wheel racing and watched Indy car events at places like Road America in Wisconsin and California’s Long Beach Grand Prix.
Since open-wheel racing is what McDowell wanted to do, it came naturally. He started with go-karting in Europe and Formula Renault, Formula Mazda and Pro Mazda. He was also a part of the Road to Indy. However, there was no clear path for McDowell because the fledgling Indy Racing League was struggling to find its way, while Champ Car had short fields and a lot of European drivers.
At the end of 2006, McDowell sat down with Mike Hull of Chip Ganassi Racing, with whom he had developed a relationship. Through Hull and the advice of Pruett, the idea of going NASCAR racing came about.
“I’d never thought about it,” said McDowell. “I’d never raced an oval other than a few times in an open-wheel car. Never been in a stock car. Never been in a late model. I hadn’t really paid attention other than to just the big races.”
Long story and a few connections later, McDowell wound up in the ARCA Series, where he ran 28 races from 2006 to ’07 with Eddie Sharp. That led to an opportunity at Michael Waltrip Racing in 2008 for 20 NASCAR Cup Series races, and McDowell hasn’t looked back.
“I went from ARCA, just barely figuring it out, straight to the Cup Series,” he said. “And I’ve been hanging on for dear life ever since.”
Not so at Charlotte, however. McDowell likes the ROVAL™, a track he says has a bit of an indoor karting feel. Describing it as tight and twisty, with not the best places to pass without getting into someone, it’s kind of a bullring of a road course.
“But I enjoy it,” McDowell said. “I think they did a great job. It looks cool. There’s banking, elevation. … I like racing it. It is challenging. It’s tough to pass, and tough to get your car to work right, but I still think it puts on a good race, and I really enjoy it.”
But does McDowell’s road racing background give him a leg up on the competition?
“Yes and no,” he responded. “What I’ve learned with road course racing, particularly in NASCAR, is because our cars are big and heavy and they have a small tire, you’re grip limited. If you’re in an Indy car or even a sports car, you have to challenge yourself to push the car to 100 percent of its limit. Our cars, you have to be a little bit of the opposite – you have to be disciplined not to overdo it, not slide the tires, and not lock up and spin into the barriers. So, it takes more discipline in NASCAR to be good at road racing than it does that outright fire and push it to the limit. It’s a different type of skill set.
“Does (my background) help? Yeah, I feel it helps because the fundamentals like braking, downshifting, all that stuff, come naturally to guys that road race a lot. When you’re not having to think about that and process all that, and trying to consciously not wheel hop and do all those things, it gives you more of an opportunity to focus on the race track and the car and what you need to do.”
About the Writer: Kelly Crandall is the NASCAR beat writer for Racer.com and a two-time George Cunningham Writer of the Year Award winner. A North Carolina transplant by way of New Jersey, she has been covering the sport full time since 2014.