On the Thursday morning before the Bank of America ROVAL 400, fans formed an extensive line outside of the Famous Toastery location in Concord, North Carolina. They had all come for a chance to meet a NASCAR driver.
Who was the driver? Michael McDowell.
The sudden star power of McDowell is a stirring change, one which occurred after years of start-and-parking and perseverance by McDowell.
“It’s been crazy. It’s not how I planned it,” McDowell joked in an exclusive interview with TobyChristie.com. “It wouldn’t have taken this long to run well and be successful. But it’s not my plan. I’m just thankful that it’s coming together now. Obviously, winning Daytona was big, but just having the speed and the consistency and the performance that we’ve had the last two years just makes it all really worthwhile because you always hold onto the hope that one day you’re going to be in something competitive and have a chance to win, and have a chance to not just win, but run up front every weekend.”
While the 38-year-old racer and his No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team are happy to be running closer to the front week in, and week out, they’re far from satisfied.
“It’s still not where we want to be, but we’re a lot closer to that goal than we were a few years ago,” McDowell stated. “It’s been a tough journey, it’s been a fun journey, but yeah, I’m super thankful to be in the spot that I’m in right now.”
McDowell has always had confidence in his ability to get it done behind the wheel, but as he toiled away in under-funded equipment in situations where the teams couldn’t afford to run the entire race, McDowell simply had to bide his time and hoped that his big break would come.
“I’m not the guy that will sit here and say, ‘Oh, I’m the best, just give me a shot,’ but deep down, I know I can do it. I’ve always known I can do it,” McDowell stated in a confident tone. “I’ve known the equipment I’ve been in, and I’ve known the circumstances that I’ve been in. I’ve tested for the big teams, and I’ve seen what they have, and I’ve seen what we haven’t had. I’ve sort of quietly known all along, that in the right circumstance at the right time, I’m going to be just fine. But the same thing is, you don’t actually know until you do it. For me, it just makes it all worthwhile. There were a lot of years there that were not fun. And you did it in the hopes that you would have a shot, and not everyone gets that shot.”
How hard was it for McDowell to hang in there through all of the lows?
“I don’t know. I just felt like, for me, not just myself but it’s a lifetime commitment made by my parents, my family, sponsors down the road, and people who have given you shots. Just to stop doing it because it’s not going as well as you hoped, I felt like is being a baby, and you need to suck it up. I’m thankful for the journey for sure, but it’s been a journey,” McDowell laughed.
The never-ending grind has yielded McDowell his shot, and now after several consistent seasons in the NASCAR Cup Series with Front Row Motorsports. McDowell is now legitimately a draw among fans, evidenced by his large turnout at his autograph session at Famous Toastery.
While he’s gained a lot of new fans along the way, McDowell says he’s always had a loyal contingent of supporters, and he’s glad he’s finally making life fun for them.
“It’s awesome. It’s been good, you know? I feel like even before the wins, I’ve always had a lot of loyal fans that have been on the journey with me, and we know it hasn’t been really fun for them,” McDowell said. “But I’ve had a lot of really loyal fans. I think a lot of that comes from two things; people respect the grind, and it’s easy to pull for the underdog, right? I feel like I’ve been that for a lot of years. And then also, too, I think being outspoken about my faith has helped me connect with a lot of fans. And so all of those things, and then finally having success and running well has made it fun for everyone.”
While the Daytona 500 win in 2021 was a massive achievement for McDowell, as he essentially won NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl, the win this year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course was the sign that he and his team were the real deal.
“I think Indy was more of a solidifying our position in the sport,” McDowell said of the win in the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard. “It just verified that it isn’t a fluke for us. We aren’t a one-and-done. I think we’ve shown that consistency the last two years, but the bottom line is until you win until you execute, and until you do it, it doesn’t matter, right? We’ve been close. We’ve had top-fives. Last year, I think we had 15 top-10s. This year, a lot of top-10s and top-fives, but until you get over that hump and win a race, people still don’t take you super seriously.”
After two wins in the past three seasons, and both wins coming at the most iconic tracks on the schedule, I think it’s safe to say that people are definitely taking McDowell seriously, now.
But the crazy thing is that had McDowell, and his family, not opted to keep chugging on when his racing career looked the most bleak, we wouldn’t have this incredible storybook climb to the top.
McDowell admits there were times when he, and his wife Jami, questioned if chasing the racing dream was the right move.
“There’s been a lot of those points,” McDowell stated. “We’ve always looked at it as trying to remove emotion from it. Is this working for my family? Is it working financially? All of those things. When we were just staying on the road, and driving to the races and all of that, as crazy as it sounds, it was actually working for our family. We did not have a lot of freedom, but we had enough freedom to be able to go race-to-race. We weren’t flying and doing all of those things, so we we could make it work.
“Then, as our family started expanding, the requirements got bigger and bigger to be able to do that. And it just worked out to where my deals got a little bit better, and a little bit better, and a little bit better throughout that process that we were able to keep it rolling and keep it together. But there were a lot of times that [we were] trying to figure out if this is what I should do or not? But like I said, when you’ve given it everything you have for so long, I just always felt like I needed to see it through to the finish line. You know? I never felt done. I never felt like I not just achieved — forget the performance, but I just never felt like I reached what we sought out to reach.”
From being a fledgling underdog just hoping to run a race to its completion to being a multi-time NASCAR Cup Series race winner, it’s quite the journey. And aside from his rookie season, McDowell and his fans have made the climb without a dedicated spot at the track for merchandise.
“My rookie year, when I drove for Michael Waltrip, they gave me a little sliver of Michael’s [souvenir] truck. At the time, and he still is, Michael Waltrip was one of the leading merchandise guys there was and one of the most popular drivers. I got to piggyback off of him for that first rookie year, which was great. But after that, I didn’t have any real merchandise at track,” McDowell said. “And just you know, whatever online, and different race teams and things like that. It’s nice to one, have a need for it. The fans are asking for it.”
They have been asking for years, and finally, the wish has been granted. Following his win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, the NASCAR Classics souvenir trailer at the track began carrying McDowell merchandise and will continue to do so over the final stretch of the 2024 season.
“To have some at-track merchandise has been good. Because fans are always [asking], ‘Hey, where can I get a hat, where can I get a shirt,’ and you don’t have anywhere to tell them to go. So, it’s been nice to have an avenue for all of that,” McDowell explained.
When you’re an underdog, you need to scrape together sponsorship to survive. As McDowell and Front Row Motorsports have found better performance, sponsorship has begun to trickle in at a faster pace.
And now, McDowell is actually forming quite a few endorsement deals of his own, including his latest deal with Famous Toastery, which the McDowell family has been avid customers of for a decade.
“I like it when things happen like that, where it’s organic,” McDowell said of his endorsement deal with the restaurant. “My kids, when they were going to preschool, there was a toastery across the street. When we’d drop them off, we’d go, my wife and I, and hang out. Or when we’d go early, and pick them up, go have breakfast before our day started.
“We’ve been going for over 10 years. I told my wife when this was coming together, ‘I don’t know if we’ll break even. I think Famous Toastery still is ahead on this deal,’ because I have been here so many times. We probably come three or four times a week. It’s our favorite place. It’s good to have partners, and it’s fun to do it with people you want to do it with. It’s been fun to put it together.”
What is McDowell’s go-to order at Famous Toastery?
“I build my own omelet. I’m an omelet guy,” McDowell said with a wide smile. “The kids get pancakes and waffles. They pretty much have everything you want, here. Like I said, this is not me promoting, I’ve been coming here for 10 years. I’m sure a lot of the fans out there have seen me here at one point with my family. It’s great food, and it has that family environment. And that’s why I bring my family here, right? It’s great food and great people.”
In addition to the Famous Toastery endorsement deal, McDowell has also found partnerships with Energize Ministries, a partnership which began after the Bristol Night Race.
McDowell has also landed endorsement deals recently with Hill Country Kids Clothing, and Kubota of Knoxville, Tennessee, Roto-Rooter, Picote Solutions, and MaxLiner.
The racer also has deals, which were in place prior to this season, with Celsius Fitness Drinks, Wiley X Sunglasses, and Sparco.
It’s a far cry from his days of starting and parking for sure. But McDowell insists that he and his Front Row Motorsports team still haven’t reached their ultimate goals.