Story By Jason Frye
Photography By Keith Ketchum
On the YouTube video, a pack of cars scream around the track directly toward the camera when one car at the front of the pack gets a little loose, fishtailing as it speeds off camera. Behind it, drivers react: braking and swerving, one too much. He goes sideways, shoots across the track and into the wall. It looks like the worst of it is over. Then, the number 10 car driven by Chad McCumbee enters the shot.
The out-of-control driver clips McCumbee’s car on the right front side, and it’s enough to send him airborne. McCumbee’s car tumbles out of control, flipping once, twice, three times, and the camera pans. On the sixth revolution, the car comes to a stop. It has disintegrated. Fluid, tires and pieces of the car’s body litter the track. McCumbee sits on the track for a moment, then climbs out of his car, unscathed.
“The first thing that went through my head was, ‘Well, I got that out of the way,’” says McCumbee, the Varnumtown native and West Brunswick High graduate who is now
a professional racecar driver. “My first ARCA series race and I wreck. Big time. That’s one way to get rid of stage fright.”
This time he was lucky.
“Honestly, [wrecks] happen so fast, you don’t have time to be scared or do much else than try to get yourself out of a bad situation,” he says. “When you’re flipping like I did, there’s nothing, nothing you can do but hold on and wait to stop.”
Racing is in McCumbee’s blood. His father, Tim McCumbee, was a successful Motocross racer, a state-champion go-kart driver (and these aren’t the go-karts you drive at the carnival, some of them go as fast as 160 mph) and a dirt-track stock car driver for years.
At age 10 McCumbee followed in his dad’s footsteps, slipped behind the wheel of his first go-kart and took to the track. He fell in love with all of it — the smells, the rumble of exhaust pipes, the vibration of the wheel in his hand, the thrill of speed and victory and near misses — and, like any first love, its spell was powerful. So powerful he’s still in love with it, and when he talks about it, his eyes come alive with passion.
Through his years at West Brunswick High School, he raced. After he graduated in 2002, he moved to attend UNC Charlotte, not far from Lowe’s Motor Speedway and countless race-team garages and headquarters.
“I knew that was where I needed to be,” he says. “Charlotte’s the racing hub in North Carolina and because of the number of major and up-and-coming drivers and garages in the area, UNCC offers a degree in Motorsports Engineering. I took courses in Motorsports, but I was also taking business classes. I knew enough about the industry to know I needed to have some business acumen if I wanted to make a career in racing.”
McCumbee’s entry into racing is much like the story of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Both men grew up in the garage, watched their fathers race and win and wreck and lose, and followed in their footsteps. Maybe that’s why he was selected to play Junior in ESPN’s 2004 TV movie, 3: The Dale Earnhardt Story.
“As scary as my wreck is on video and as dizzying as it was to go through, I have to say I was more scared when I was acting than wrecking,” says McCumbee.
But the experience on the set gave him a new appreciation of the teamwork involved in racing.
“People don’t realize, at least I didn’t, how much work it takes and how many people it takes to make a movie,” McCumbee says. “They really have to be a solid team, even more so than a racing team, I think.”
When he got back to Charlotte, his renewed appreciation for teamwork showed. He found work in a garage, sweeping and helping the engineers, and then one day he got his shot to race.
By 2005, McCumbee had pulled out of UNCC and was racing in the ARCA Racing Series full time. He finished the season fourth in points, an impressive rookie showing. He was living his dream.
More success followed in 2006. McCumbee moved up to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, finishing 17th in points over all. In 2007 it was more of the same — racing in the Truck Series, winning a pair of ARCA races and catching the attention of Petty Enterprises. That year, he made his NASCAR Nextel Cup debut. And he married his high school sweetheart, Stephie, an elementary school teacher.
In 2008 he finished 11th in points in the Truck Series, with one second place finish at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. That season he logged eight top 10 finishes including two top five finishes. He also made six starts for Petty Enterprise in the Sprint Cup Series.
“I did well in 2009, but in the 2010 season I had some bad luck and went back to ARCA,” McCumbee says.
The next year, 2011, was another successful year, but in 2012 there was a change of pace. LA Angels pitcher C. J. Wilson hired McCumbee to drive a Mazda MX for his Grand-Am Road Racing Series.
“The Grand-Am Series was completely foreign to me,” he says. “It’s a
road race, so you’re twisting and turning and it’s an entirely different challenge.”
The challenge wasn’t too much for McCumbee, though. At the end
of the season, he’d finished in the top 10 in four of the 10 events.
“[The Grand-Am Series] is a pretty steep learning curve,” he says.
“Some of the other cars have 100 horsepower more than ours. In the straightaways, that translates to 10 to 12 miles per hour faster, which is significant. But my lighter, more maneuverable car makes up for it in the turns. As I get more road track experience, I believe we’ll figure out the ways and places to get more aggressive and even out the playing field.”
McCumbee says the preparation for a road track or a traditional round, oval or tri-oval track is similar. Leading up to the racing season, teams practice their pit services — everything from standard tire changes and fuel refills to repairing and adjusting the car — and drivers get in as much time as they can on tracks similar to those where they’ll soon race.
When the season starts, Monday through Wednesday is devoted to the gym, team meetings and meetings with sponsors and potential sponsors. Thursday is usually a travel day, with races on Friday, Saturday or Sunday (depending on the series). On Saturday, Sunday and in some cases Monday, drivers return home to start the week again. In a typical week, they’ll see more of the track during the race than preparing for it.
“People are always surprised to learn how little time we actually get to practice on the track, but any driver will tell you that’s not the most difficult part of the job,” McCumbee says.
The most difficult part of the job is sponsors. As a driver and an owner — McCumbee owns a pair of Late Model Stock Car racecars that he races in Myrtle Beach — the chief battle is financial. Securing the kind of money it takes to fund cars, pay teams and drivers and give the team a chance at success isn’t as easy as it once was when corporations were jumping to put their names on the hood, trunk or quarter panels of cars. Now, even in the big leagues, funding comes in piecemeal.
“For my team in Myrtle Beach, we’re looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000 a year in expenses,” he says. “The Truck Series was $1 to $3 million; Nationwide, $8 to $10 million, and the Cup Series is crazy money, $15 million plus per year.”
The financial battle has forced McCumbee to get creative both as a driver and as an owner trying to secure sponsors.
“We have to think more about what we’re offering,” he says. “We want lasting relationships with sponsors so we can forecast our funding and so they can see the benefit as it relates to their business in the long-term. My hope is to develop a partnership with our sponsors and offer them something by way of exposure, sure, but more strategic things like appearances, events, endorsements and things like that.”
So far, McCumbee is making it work.
“I feel thankful and blessed to be involved with the ModSpace Corporation, a company that has been a partner of mine for the last three years,” says McCumbee. “They have been a great partner in my professional racing through ARCA, NASCAR, Sprint Cup and now in the Grand-Am Series.”
He’s also taken several meetings with interested sponsors, begun to forge new relationships and has strengthened existing sponsor relationships.
“I love what I do, the business part of it and the driving part of it,” he says. “Racing’s my life, always has been. If I wasn’t doing this, I don’t know what I’d be doing.”
The Grand-Am Series runs January through September, with racing already underway.
Check ChadMcCumbee.com for his race schedule and results.