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McSwain talks to Ricky Rudd at Richmond in 2002. Photo: Getty Images.

Where Are They Now? Catching up with ‘Fatback’ McSwain

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Michael “Fatback” McSwain has spent his life as a man of principle.

That was true during his 16-season tenure in NASCAR, most notably as a Cup crew chief for several drivers, including Hall of Famers Bill Elliott and Bobby Labonte, Hall nominee Ricky Rudd, and teams like Wood Brothers Racing, Robert Yates Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.

McSwain was a mechanical wizard who also wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, even if it sometimes meant conflicts with NASCAR and his own drivers.

Nothing showed McSwain’s principles more than when he just one day up and walked away from NASCAR. There was no victory lap, no goodbye tour, nothing. He was just there one day, gone the next.

By choice.

As important as NASCAR was in his life, his family was more important.

“One day, (former crew chief) Jimmy Fennig came up to me at New Hampshire (Motor Speedway),” McSwain told NBC Sports. “We had had our first child, a daughter, and my wife was pregnant with our second child. Jimmy told me, ‘The sport has been good to both of us, but I want to give you some advice. My kids are graduating high school and I don’t even know any of their friend’s names.’ That sunk in with me.

“Then, my daughter had got to where she had just started talking and didn’t want me to go (on the road again). The sport has been good to all of us, but I realized that there’s no way I could do both the way I thought I needed to do it. That time, if you were a crew chief, it was a 24/7 job. I chose to walk away.”

He even states it on his Twitter page: “I left racing to be with my wife and kids.”

Given that he’s worked on cars all his life, McSwain decided to open an auto repair business post-NASCAR, named appropriately enough, Fatback’s Tire and Auto Repair in August 2008 in Dallas, North Carolina.

“I thought it was going to be easy, but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” McSwain said. “I had never been in a retail business. You have to treat people with kid gloves. Back then, you had to treat a driver, an owner and sponsors that way. Now you have to treat everybody that walks into those doors with kid gloves.”

McSwain admits he misses NASCAR “big time. I miss the people and the lifestyle, I enjoyed it. I worked my whole life to get there, but I was missing my kids more, so I felt I had to choose. I’m an all-in kind of guy so I didn’t think I had a choice, I had to choose one or the other.”

McSwain’s children are now 15, 13 and 10. As they grow, he admits he may entertain coming back to the sport at some point.

“I’m still pretty young, I’m only 53 years old,” he said. “So I’ve got time for one more shot.”

But he acknowledges that if he were to return, it would be a challenge.

“It’d be like starting over because everything has changed so much,” he said. “But maybe sometime in the next couple years, it’d be a good time (to return) because they’re changing cars again.

“My kids are old enough now where there’s still some things I don’t want to miss, but I don’t know if I would say no (to returning to NASCAR). It’d have to be the right situation, but it would be a challenge. I started out when I was young, worked my guts out to get there and then I walked away from it.”

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While selling and fixing tires and auto repairs make up the majority of his business these days, McSwain has gone back to racing somewhat, just not as a crew chief.

“There are several dirt tracks around here,” he said. “We have a trailer we take to the race tracks to service the tracks and teams on Saturday nights, supply tires and fuel and parts. It started out as a little fun thing to now where it’s turned into a big part of our business.”

Never one to be afraid to voice his opinion, McSwain says he’s considered writing a book about his NASCAR career, one that included 330 races as a Cup Series crew chief, with five wins, 59 top-five and 102 top-10 finishes and nine poles.

He has plenty of highlights he’d likely include. Right at the top would be his first career win as a crew chief for Robert Yates Racing in 2001 when Rudd took the checkered flag on June 17 at Pocono Raceway in the No. 28 Texaco/Havoline Ford.

“We had won every practice, sat on the pole and won the race,” McSwain recalled. “We weren’t even supposed to be there and yet we did.

“The car was thrown out back at the 88 shop (teammate Dale Jarrett’s team) for scrap, I swear to God. But it had a certain characteristic that we liked about a chassis and the way it was built.

“It matched one of our other favorite cars, so we asked Robert (Yates) if we could have it and he said, ‘Yeah, they don’t want it anymore.’ We took it back to the shop, made a few changes to it and it won at Pocono and sat on the pole at Indy (the previous year). It was our money maker.”

Rudd would go on to win two races in 2001 and finish fourth in the standings.

“That was a storybook year for us,” McSwain said. “We ran good and kicked butt everywhere we went, but we weren’t supposed to.”

Another of McSwain’s favorite memories was when Morgan Shepherd finished third at Atlanta in 1997 with minimal sponsorship.

“I was the only guy who knew how to set up a car and who knew how to build shocks,” McSwain said with a chuckle.

Then there’s Martinsville Speedway, which was the biggest thorn in McSwain’s side during his career. He visited the .526-mile paperclip oval 19 times as a crew chief, with the best showings being two runner-up finishes with Labonte and another with Rudd.

“Martinsville was my curse, the race I never won,” he said. “I worked on or was crew chief on cars good enough to win there I can’t tell you how many times with Ricky and Bobby. We finished in the top five. I absolutely loved it but never won there.”

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McSwain’s first job in the sport was as a mechanic for Lake Speed in 1992. He left NASCAR after the 2007 season.

He’s attended four races since, the Daytona 500 from 2008-10 and one race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

But McSwain hasn’t lost his opinion about the sport.

“NASCAR is a great sport but I hate to see it where it is,” he said. “I don’t know if it’ll ever be where it was in the 1990s and early 2000s.”

Michael ‘Fatback’ McSwain in 2002 at Michigan International Speedway. (Photo By Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images)

Although he doesn’t go to races any longer, McSwain still keeps up with the sport, usually through watching on TV.

He also remains in regular contact with several NASCAR notables including Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Mike Helton and the Wood Brothers:  “I love the Wood Brothers like family,” he said.

Even though he’s been gone from the sport for more than a decade, NASCAR fans have not forgotten McSwain. He still gets letters and emails, along with fans who regularly stop by his garage to take a photo with and get an autograph from him.

“It’s cool, man,” he said with emphasis. “A couple weeks ago I got a message from a guy in Wisconsin that included a trading card he wanted me to sign. I always try to send them back a note and tell them I appreciate it and hope God blesses them. It’s just humbling, man.

“One of the best parts of my job in NASCAR was signing autographs, hanging out and talking with the fans. I’d think about it and why would they want my autograph? I’m just a redneck from Latimore, North Carolina. I grew up in just a little farm town on 15 acres. I lived to race. I did it because I loved it. I’m just lucky, man.”

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Where Are They Now: Lake Speed still racing and ‘still bad to the bone’

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He may not have been born a Petty or Earnhardt, but there is one former NASCAR driver whose surname practically predestined his career path.

That person with the colorful moniker is Lake Speed.

“God’s got a sense of humor, that’s the first thing,” Speed laughed when asked about his unique surname in a recent call with NBC Sports. “Every time I make a new acquaintance, I have to explain that the name is real and that God gave it to me.

Lake Speed at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1997. Credit: Darrell Ingham /Allsport

“My dad was one of seven Speed boys. There’s a lot of Speeds back from where we’re from. Sometimes it’s a blessing, sometimes it’s a curse. Sometimes you get ridiculed if you’re not running good because you’ve got the last name of Speed, but on the other side it’s looked at as unique, and I think it’s kind of helped make me stand out a little bit in a crowd.”

While the last of his 402 career NASCAR Cup starts came in 1998 at the age of 50, the 72-year-old Speed is still chasing checkered flags and living up to his last name.

When asked if he’ll ever retire, Speed chuckled, “I haven’t been able to find that in the Bible anywhere. I enjoy what I do, I like people and helping people, the interaction and all that is perfect for me. I just don’t see stopping.”

Speed began racing go-karts in his native Mississippi at the age of 12 before eventually finding his way into NASCAR Cup.

“Some people know I was a big-time go-karter for years, had a career, business and raced all over the world with karts before I ever came to NASCAR,” Speed told NBC Sports.

Since leaving NASCAR, Speed has come full circle, returning to his karting roots in 2001 and has become one of the more successful and prolific karting racers in the country.

Future NASCAR Cup driver Lake Speed poses with one of his racing karts when he was 15 years old. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

“After I left NASCAR, a former NASCAR safety official, Steve Peterson, was a go-karter for years and years,” Speed said. “He kept calling me and kept saying, ‘Lake, you’ve got to come out here to the kart track. I have a few cars and you can come out and play with us some.’

“I finally went out one day and I forgot how much fun this was. I told myself I’ve got to get me one of these. So I got a kart and started fooling around with one and eventually started racing again. I went big-time, messed around and won the national championship in karting road-racing in 2007. Between the karting, the real estate business and trying to raise a bunch of kids and grandkids, that’s pretty much what I’m doing.”

Speed’s day job is as a commercial real estate broker, a career path he began back in his college days.

But racing has always been his first true love, particularly karting. Speed won the International Karting Federation national championship six times before he came to NASCAR in 1980, and was the first American to win the World Karting Championship at LeMans, France in 1978, defeating a number of other aspiring racers including future three-time Formula One champion Ayrton Senna.

He remained the only American to win the world karting title in any class until 14-year-old Florida native Logan Sargeant did so in 2015.

Speed could have gone in any number of directions as a racer, but former Charlotte Motor Speedway President Humpy Wheeler convinced him to try NASCAR, finishing as runner-up to Jody Ridley as Rookie of the Year runner-up in 1980.

Speed would go on to record 16 top-five and 75 top-10 finishes in his Cup career, with a career-best points finish of 10th in 1985.

Lake Speed, winner of the 1988 TranSouth 500. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

March 27 marked the 32nd anniversary of Speed’s only win of his Cup career, the TranSouth 500 at Darlington Raceway. He took the checkered flag by nearly 19 seconds over Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin and Mark Martin.

“It was more of a relief than anything,” said of winning. “I had really been close to winning a lot of races in my career up to that point and particularly that season, we had led (nearly) every race that season before that race.

“We had the whole field a lap down at one time (in another race) and still didn’t win the darn thing. So when I finally won at Darlington, it was like, ‘Gosh darn, finally, now we can finally get on with it.’

“That was great, but there were other highlight moments. I had cars that were more than capable of winning a race and had a mechanical failure, an accident or whatever that knocked you out.

“There were also the times we passed the heroes and we were always an underfunded and under-budgeted team. When you outran the big dogs, it didn’t matter whether we won the race or not, we took home a moral victory. We had a lot of moral victories. Only one was in the record books, but there was a whole lot more of them where we went home to the shop with our heads held high, knowing we had put the hurtin’ on ‘em.”

Speed still keeps up with NASCAR – and the fans still keep up with him.

“I can’t tell you how shocked I am, this far out, that I still get multiple cards, letters, model cars every week,” he said. “I’m autographing stuff and sending it out every week. It makes me feel good and gives me the opportunity to share my faith with people. I got saved in 1983 and it made a giant change in my life. I feel God gave me this platform to use, so I try to use it to honor him.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Do you miss it?’ Yeah, I miss it. I miss probably the most working in the shop with the guys, trying to build a better race car to outrun everyone else. I really love that challenge.

“I never went to work. It was always a pleasure and joy to work with guys and build strong relationships. People that have never been on a team that was working seven days a week for a goal, it’s just a different scenario than a ho-hum job that you’re going to just to make a check.

“I lived that life most of my life and when I got retired from NASCAR, all of a sudden I was in an office by myself. It was a shock. It took me several years to get over it. It was a tough, tough change. Karting really was a salvation for me, to get me going again to have something to do and the interaction with people.”

Lake Speed darts around a kart track April 5, 2006. Photo by Getty Images for NASCAR.

Speed didn’t mind being an underdog during much of his Cup career. But the real heroes to him were those who helped him throughout that nearly two full decades of NASCAR racing.

“I can’t really emphasize enough how important the crew guys are and were,” he said. “The relationships we built, we worked hours and hours together doing things and trying to accomplish stuff.

“In our case, being underfunded, when we got out ahead a lick, it was amazing to see these guys light up and the pride. When you see guys work real hard and they accomplish something together, it’s amazing. I still bump into one of those guys at least once a month and it’s like seeing a brother or sister that you haven’t seen in a while.”

Speed faced a number of tough competitors in his career but also became close friends with several, including Bobby Hillin Jr. and Darrell Waltrip.

Speed still lives and works out of the same compound he bought in 1985 in Kannapolis, North Carolina. His real estate office occupies part of his original race shop, while his karts have replaced the Cup cars that used to be worked on there as well.

Karting has helped keep Speed young. He enjoys mixing it up with drivers half or even two-thirds his age.

“Look at it this way: I started all this when I was about 12 years old and raced until I retired from NASCAR,” Speed said. “I sat around for two or three years until I got into karting and went right back to racing regularly again.

“It’s just something that’s been in my blood all along. I love working on ‘em, love the people, the camaraderie and the challenge. I always said that if I knew last year what I knew this year, I would have won all the races last year.”

Speed is also a big part of what has become somewhat of a seniors tour: vintage karting, which is composed mainly of drivers in their 50s and on up into their 80s.

“It’s like going to a high school reunion, but where everybody shows up with a go-kart, races, has a good time, tells a lot of stories and relives their childhood,” he said with a laugh. “It really is cool, it’s the greatest thing in the world. You go to a high school reunion and it’s kind of boring. This is not.”

When asked how successful he is in karts today, Speed laughed: “With the modern stuff, not so much. You’re racing against a bunch of guys whose average age is 22, there I’m kinda mid-pack.

“But with the vintage stuff, I’m still bad to the bone.”

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March 27 in NASCAR history: Cale Yarborough’s show car wins at Atlanta

Cale Yarborough
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Four races into the 1983 NASCAR Cup Series season and Cale Yarborough was batting .500.

In those four races – the Daytona 500, Richmond, Rockingham and Atlanta – the three-time champion had won twice.

And he’d earned both those wins in backup cars.

He’d won the Daytona 500 on a last-laps pass in a quickly prepared LeMans after he’d flipped his primary car the week before in qualifying.

Two races later, at Rockingham, Yarborough was involved in a wreck with Neil Bonnett after leading 161 laps. That car was the same one his team had intended to take to the March 27 race at Atlanta.

Instead, the car Yarborough showed up with in Atlanta and beat Bonnett for the victory was another backup car. And not just any backup car.

“We had to pull a show car out of a mall to race,” Yarborough said after the race according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Modern Era.”

Yarborough won four times in 1983. The Atlanta win and his ensuing win at Michigan came after he started 41st and 37th.

Also on this date:

1960: Lee Petty bumped his way by Junior Johnson with 14 laps to go and won a race at North Wilkesboro to claim his 49th career Cup win, passing Herb Thomas for the most all-time. Fans were not pleased with how Johnson, a native of North Wilkesboro, lost. According to “NASCAR: The Complete History,” they showered Petty with rocks and debris as he celebrated in victory lane.

1977: Cale Yarborough celebrated his 38th birthday with a dominating win at North Wilkesboro. He led 320 of 400 laps and beat Richard Petty and Benny Parsons.

1988: Darlington Raceway hasn’t been the site of too many upset Cup Series wins, but it was 1988. Lake Speed, then 40, dominated to win the TranSouth 500 by 18.8 seconds over Alan Kulwicki. Speed, who made 402 Cup starts between 1980-98, led 178 of 367 laps. Speed, Kulwicki and third-place finisher Davey Allison were the only drivers on the lead lap.

2004: Martin Truex Jr. led 134 of 250 laps at Bristol and won his first career Xfinity Series race and his first national NASCAR series race. Truex, the 2004 and 2005 Xfinity champion, would have to wait 15 more years to capture his first short-track win in the Cup Series, in 2019 at Richmond.

2011: Kevin Harvick passed Jimmie Johnson on the last lap to win the Cup race at Auto Club Speedway.

JR Motorsports loses appeal of Texas penalty

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The National Motorsports Appeals Panel upheld the penalty to the No. 88 JR Motorsports team for failing inspection after Saturday’s Xfnity Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. NASCAR found the car to be too low.

Crew chief Dave Elenz was fined $10,000 and the team docked 10 owner points.

The penalty drops the No. 88 car to 10 points out of the cutoff spot for the championship round in the owners Chase.

The has decided not to appeal the decision to the National Motorsports Final Appeals Officer.

Here is the report from the National Motorsports Appeals Panel:

The National Motorsports Appeals Panel today heard and considered an expedited appeal of a P2 level penalty issued on Nov. 8 to David Elenz (crew chief) and Rick Hendrick (owner), relative to the No. 88 NASCAR Xfinity Series team at Texas Motor Speedway. 

 The penalty concerns the following sections in the 2016 NASCAR Rule Book: Sections 12.1; 20.17.3.2.2.

The original penalty assessed: Elenz was fined $10,000; Hendrick was assessed with the loss of 10 NASCAR XFINITY Series championship car owner points.

Upon hearing the testimony, the decisions of the National Motorsports Appeals Panel are:

  • The Appellants violated the Rules set forth in the Penalty Notices.
  • The Panel affirms and upholds the original Penalties assessed by NASCAR.

The panel consisted of the following three individuals:

-Mr. Dale Pinilis

-Mr. Lake Speed

-Mr. Kevin Whitaker