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.
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.
Ricky Rudd, Robert Yates & Michael "Fatback" McSwain after winning the 2001 Pocono 500, Rudd's 1st NASCAR Cup Points win driving for Yates. pic.twitter.com/UQxPl1JiWb
— Andrew (@Basso488) October 3, 2017
“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.”
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.”