Michael McDowell has been on a race track most of his life.
While most kids were learning to ride a tricycle, McDowell began competing in BMX events at age 3. Five years later, the Glendale native moved up to four wheels and started kart racing, traveling the country for the next 10 years – along the way winning 18 consecutive feature races, a World Karting Association championship and back-to-back International Kart Federation championships.
Now he’s on a track of a different kind: NASCAR.
“It’s all I’ve ever done,” says McDowell, who has lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, since 2004. “I’ve never done anything else but racing. It’s my dream and I’m passionate about it.”
He competes full time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, driving the No. 34 Ford Mustang for Front Row Motorsports.
Last month, McDowell finished fifth at the Daytona 500. He returns home Friday, March 8, to Sunday, March 10, for the TicketGuardian 500 NASCAR Weekend at ISM Raceway in Avondale.
“ISM is amazing,” he says. “It’s a top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art facility. It’s cool that it’s my hometown. The fan interaction and engagement are incredible.”
Growing up in Glendale, McDowell would have attended Deer Valley High School, but he was already racing full time by then.
“I think a lot of it is timing and preparation,” he says. “A lot of it, too, is it’s God’s plan for my life.”
McDowell was inspired by his older brother, Billy, who was “one step ahead of me on everything.” He raced BMX, quads and dirt bikes.
I have an older brother, he was one step ahead of me on everything.
“With kart, it changed. It was real,” he says.
Still in his teens, McDowell graduated to larger open-wheel race cars, earning a championship in Formula Renault USA in 2002. Moving to the Star Mazda Series, he took Rookie of the Year honors in 2003 and yet another championship title in 2004, a season in which he had seven wins and six poles.
Continuing to climb the racing ladder, McDowell turned to sports car racing. He competed in 29 races in the Grand-Am Rolex Series over four seasons (2004 to 2007), earning a win and a pole, and finishing as high as fourth in points.
In 2007, the young driver took his talents to the world of stock car racing.
Competing in his first full season in the ARCA Series, McDowell scored four wins and nine poles, claiming Rookie of the Year honors and finishing second in the championship. Later that year, he was tapped to run a handful of races in two of NASCAR’s national series, the Camping World Truck Series and the XFINITY Series.
Despite only running a few races, McDowell’s talent was noticed. And the following year, the 23-year-old was hand-picked by Michael Waltrip Racing to run full-time on NASCAR’s biggest stage, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, where he has competed for 11 seasons. He also continued to race in the XFINITY Series, amassing one win, six top-five and 20 top-10 finishes, and two poles over nine seasons. He earned his best cup series career finish in 2017, finishing fourth at Daytona International Speedway.
McDowell brought his racing repertoire to Front Row Motorsports in 2018 to race the team’s flagship No. 34 Ford. That season, he earned a top-10, two top-15 and 10 top-20 finishes, and averaged a starting position of 23rd, Front Row’s best qualifying average.
Looking for a win
McDowell is looking for success at ISM Raceway this month. Hometown races are meaningful to him.
“We go to ISM Raceway in Phoenix twice a year,” he says. “That’s obviously really cool. The renovations are great. To have that hometown support is fun.
“But, my hope and goal are always the same: To get a victory and to win a race.”
ISM Raceway weekends attract 42,000 people daily. Still, there’s a misconception about racing that it’s simple. McDowell says otherwise.
“Our sport is different,” he says. “It’s not a stick-and-ball sport. It’s not about how fast you run the 40 or 100. We’re sitting in race cars that are 150 degrees for four hours at a time. The training we do is definitely different than other sports. People who are not familiar with our sport should come out to a race track and check it out.
“TV is great, but you have to experience it and see it to truly appreciate it.”
The car’s temperature is the killer, McDowell adds.
“The heat is the No. 1 factor,” he says. “That’s one fact people don’t think about. You’re strapped in there and it’s unbearably hot. It takes a lot of training to get acclimated to that. There’s nothing to compare to it. Running outside, it isn’t hot enough. There are steam rooms and saunas. That’s the type of heat we’re talking about.”
Even though the Valley heat may contribute to it, he’s looking forward to returning home.
“It’s incredible,” he recalls. “It has its moments like every job where it feels like a job. The reality is I’m one of 40 guys who gets to do this every Sunday. A lot of people have tried, and a lot of people would love to be in my position. I don’t take it for granted.”
TicketGuardian 500 NASCAR Weekend, ISM Raceway, 7602 S. Avondale Boulevard, Avondale, 866.408.7223, ismraceway.com, various times Friday, March 8, to Sunday, March 10, tickets start at $40.