Cup rookie leaves open-wheel dreams behind

Michael McDowell was 11 years old when he began plotting his course to racing stardom.

The Phoenix youngster had been racing go-karts -- and winning -- since he was 8. He liked the wind in his face and seeing his front tires turn.

"My long-term goal is to make a career out of racing Indy cars," he said in 1995.

At the time, I was putting together a marketing kit for his McDowell Family Racing team to help solicit sponsor support for his go-kart career.

There was no reason to doubt his sincerity; but, hey, the kid wasn't even a teenager yet. Still, youngsters should be allowed to dream, and, besides, his parents were paying me a couple hundred bucks to help him advance.

However, a year later, McDowell's dream of sipping milk in Victory Lane after winning an Indianapolis 500 was watered down like nonfat milk when the open-wheel world was divided, and its popularity sunk faster than a dunked Oreo.

The demise of open-wheel racing began when Championship Auto Racing Teams -- a series controlled by car owners -- was challenged for open-wheel supremacy by the formation of the Indy Racing League in 1996 by Tony George. His family owns the Indianapolis 500 and the track upon which the race is held each May.

Both series struggled until Champ Car (formerly CART) surrendered to George earlier this year.

But McDowell had given up his hope to be enlisted into either series three years ago.

Good move.

McDowell has accepted that he likely never will race in the Indy 500. But he will be racing on the fabled track this year in NASCAR's Brickyard 400.

Sunday marks McDowell's debut in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in Martinsville, Va. Ironically, the first unified open-wheel race since 1995 will be held the day before near Miami.

The closest McDowell will get to the Indy 500 is rubbing fenders at Martinsville with former 500 winners Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti, each of whom jumped the open-wheel ship for NASCAR.

McDowell, 23, has taken over as the full-time driver for Michael Waltrip Racing's No. 00 Toyota, which had been driven this early season by David Reutimann. Reutimann now will drive Waltrip's No. 44 entry which was vacated when Dale Jarrett retired two weeks ago.

It's understandable why McDowell focused on Indy cars 13 years ago. Go-kart tracks led to Indy cars; Southern drawls led to NASCAR.

McDowell won national karting titles and raced in Europe as a teen. He became an instructor for the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving near Phoenix. He won races in an Indy-car developmental series, which led to rides in major sports car races, where he excelled.

McDowell recalls watching CART races as a kid when the Indy 500 was king. The series had a long history in Phoenix.

The second IRL race was at Phoenix International Raceway, about 10 miles from McDowell's home in Glendale. I was at that race in 1996, and no one imagined a racing war would rage for 12 years.

A hot-shoe in the race was a guy from Indiana named Tony Stewart. That was when talent overrode an ability to help finance an open-wheel team.

McDowell received two chances in 2004 to compete in Champ Car and finished 11th and 12th.

"No one wanted to put me in a Champ Car or Indy car full time unless I brought a couple million dollars with me," he said Wednesday.

McDowell moved to stock cars last year by racing in ARCA, a series considered one step from a NASCAR national circuit. He won nine poles and four races and finished second in points as the top rookie.

That's why McDowell is the newest member of Waltrip's Cup organization.

He's the most recent young American driver to be picked by a NASCAR team where drivers have to bring talent, not money.

McDowell has no regrets about where he has landed, but open-wheel racing should.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or