A lot of race car drivers come from dirt. Others rise through the ranks on asphalt.
One driver in the Xfinity Series started out on a much colder surface.
Michael Annett, driver of the No. 5 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, first tried his hand at hockey.
A native of Des Moines, Iowa, Annett once competed on Team Illinois, which won the 2002 Calgary Mac’s AAA Hockey Tournament Championship when he was 16. Annett was with the Waterloo (Iowa) Black Hawks in the United States Hockey League when it won the Clark Cup Championship.
The Most Improved Player in 2004, he was only able to stretch his talent so far.
“Playing hockey I was 5-10 (186 pounds), which is not very good stats as a hockey player to be on a D-1 team,” Annett told NBC Sports. “I was kind of the ‘Rudy.’ I just worked my tail off. I was probably the least talented guy on every team I played on.
“The (racing) opportunity opened up and I got my parents talked into it,” Annett said. “We lost in the playoffs that year in 2005 and a week later we were in a Silver Crown car down at Memphis Motorsports Park. My dad wanted to see if I had any talent whatsoever.”
Within two years Annett won his first of two ARCA Racing Series races for Bill Davis, claiming victory at Talladega Superspeedway. A year later, he beat future JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier to win at Daytona International Speedway.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
NBC Sports: How did you and sponsor Pilot Flying J get hooked up? You’ve been together for several years now.
Annett: I’ve been privileged and definitely humbled with everything I’ve been able to do. But my dad (Harold Annett) does own a big trucking company (TMC Transportation) and Pilot Flying J is where they buy their fuel from. That relationship there got us in the door. It wasn’t like a given, but it kept the door open to give a proposition. That’s been huge and then the relationship has just grown. They’re friends now, they’re not necessarily just a sponsor.
NBC Sports: What was it that first drew your attention to auto racing? What’s your earliest memory of the sport?
Annett: I was at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway when I was, I think three or four days old, and they scheduled my c-section so that we could be there. My dad owned a World of Outlaws sprint car team (with driver Sammy Swindell). From that weekend on I was at the dirt track watching sprint cars every weekend of my life. In ’93, they went Busch Grand National racing and weren’t competitive and my dad just kind of said, ‘I’m done spending money. I’m going to focus on the trucking company.’ Probably a month later I was at a learn-to-skate program starting my hockey career.
NBC Sports: Do remember the first time you saw your name or face on merchandise?
Annett: I do. It was when I was running ARCA, driving that 28 car for Bill Davis. It was actually a t-shirt. I had an idea pop up in my head and sat down and started drawing it, designing it out. I always like it and you can see it on my fireproof underwear that I wear. Growing up playing hockey, I liked the big number on the back like you’re wearing a hockey jersey. That’s kind of my trademark apparel.
NBC Sports: What’s the best race you’ve ever been in?
Annett: I can’t remember the year (2008), but it was when I was driving the 22 truck (for Bill Davis), at that time. It was ORP (Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis), they change the name of that track every year. One of the best races I’ve ever ran and sure enough, passing for third place with about three laps to go, I spun out. Just where I was to where I was when I spun out. … I remember Slugger Labbe, he was spotting for me. I was down on the (inside) through the grass at ORP, while everybody is up at the wall and I was down on the bottom passing cars. He said, ‘I don’t know what the hell you’re doing, but keep doing it.’
NBC Sports: What’s your least favorite part of race day?
Annett: Waiting around. I’d like to be able to wake up, put on my firesuit and go to work. Some of those schedules where we have to wait around three hours for the driver’s meeting, then you get an hour to change and get something to eat. Then you go sit on pit road for 45 minutes taking pictures. I don’t mind the taking pictures part, but you’re still waiting around. I just want to get going.
NBC Sports: What’s the most emotional reaction to a sporting event you’ve had that wasn’t auto racing?
Annett: When the Falcons lost (the Super Bowl). I’m a big Falcons fan and I had a lot of money riding on that game. … Just kind of in disbelief. I kept telling everybody, because I started getting cocky when they scored coming into the third quarter, I’m like ‘(the Patriots) can’t come back’ and then I looked over at my girlfriend and I go, ‘If anybody can come back, Tom Brady will.’ And sure enough.
NBC Sports: How long have you been a Falcons fan?
Annett: About four years. I’m really good friends with Reed Sorenson and he’s from Peachtree City, Georgia. So his whole life he’s been a Falcons fan. He started taking me down to games and it just became my team. Being from Des Moines, Iowa, you kind of just (pick a team), you’re not really born into a team.