GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Michael McDowell gripped the wheel of his kart and hung on the best he could as an elementary-school aged boy bumped him from behind and prepared for the pass.
There was no doubt about it — the most recent Daytona 500 winner was in big trouble.
“I’m not 80 pounds anymore,” McDowell said laughing. “These guys were all over me.”
The 36-year-old McDowell got a big thrill — and so did a few dozen boys between the ages of 7 and 16 — when he came back to the kart track in suburban Phoenix where he learned to race when he was growing up a few miles away.
It was a typical Thursday night under the lights, with the kids zipping around the asphalt track, having fun, working on their karts and learning the fundamentals of racing.
The only difference? That very large driver in the full Love’s firesuit squeezed behind the wheel of one of the karts.
“It’s still the purest form of motorsports,” McDowell said. “It’s so much fun to come out here, work on your stuff, learn about the feel and learn how to set up a pass. The community of racing. It’s something I’ve always been passionate about.”
The opportunity to come back to his hometown as the reigning Daytona 500 champion seemed like something that was unthinkable even six weeks ago. A 100-1 underdog when the race began, McDowell won for the first time in 358 Cup starts after Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski wrecked on the final lap, allowing McDowell to drive through the crash scene for a stunning upset.
McDowell’s still the same humble, self-deprecating guy that he was before the win. He even helped lug his own Daytona 500 trophy across the parking lot before jumping in front of the microphone. The veteran racer said he hasn’t changed as a person since the win, but it’s still a little surreal.
“Who you are, what you do, it doesn’t really change,” McDowell said. “But it does give me a chance to have a bigger platform, to help encourage and inspire young racers coming up.”
McDowell grew up a few miles south of the Glendale track and would often ride his mountain bike across the desert terrain to go and compete. His dad was on the board of the track.
“It wasn’t like we just showed up, we were a part of the club,” McDowell said. “I was here when we put the asphalt down.”
McDowell pointed to different sections of the track, showing where they had to level out bumps to make for a smoother ride. He hadn’t been back for nearly 15 years and said he was pleased that the next generation was taking such good care of it.
He hopes the sport continues to become more accessible and allow kids from different backgrounds to participate.
“Karting is getting to be a little less expensive at the entry level, but it’s still a little too expensive,” McDowell said. “There needs to be more development, there needs to be more manufacturing and team dollars poured into karting like it is in Europe.
“There’s a gap that needs to be filled but karting, as a whole, is doing really well.”
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