On a rainy and humid Friday afternoon at Watkins Glen, I made my way from the Media Center and into the Nationwide garage to meet with NASCAR veteran Eric McClure. I’ve been told many positive stories about Eric from people who have met him and he immediately gave credence to the stories I had heard. He greeted me at the No. 14 hauler with big smile, offered me something to eat and invited me to come sit down with him.
Eric has a great personality and his love for God as well as his family quickly became apparent which are a couple attributes a lot of people sadly lack this day in age. He is extremely self-aware about the way he acts and tries to be very professional about the way he goes about things on and off the track which I thought was very commendable and something I’m sure sponsors love. We talked about the struggles of being an independent team in modern day NASCAR, the greatest moments of his career, that scary crash at Talladega, and why he folds his socks! He also reminisced about me some funny stories from the past and even talked about what he wants to be remembered for in the future. Enjoy!
Try to describe what it’s like to drive for one of the underdog teams and the challenges you guys face when competing against Roush, Penske and Gibbs on a weekly basis?
Well, it’s a challenge from a mental standpoint because as a driver, all of us are used to winning or being a top dog at a lower level. When you get to this level, you realize pretty quickly that you’re not going to beat them on an everyday basis no matter how good of a driver you are. I think that’s something as a professional, you have to understand and also, it can be a challenge because the average fan doesn’t understand that and some of the media doesn’t understand that. There are so many factors that go into winning and being a strong team and they’re quick to point the finger at a driver or whatever when in reality, (except for restrictor plate races) we’re competing for 20th so we measure our goals a little bit differently.
What would you consider to be TriStar’s strongest and weakest points?
Well, our strongest point is experience. I mean, I have teammates, Jeff Green (who) is a former champion and Mike Bliss. So from a driving standpoint, they’ve been able to help me and take me to a different level over the last couple of years to where I feel like I am a driver that can fit into our organization; that can maximize our equipment. I think we’ve proven that by Jeff being in my car a few times as well so I think the experience is something that works for us.
Our weakest point is a lack of resources. If you look at our team, we have four cars and one full time sponsor and they piece together some sponsors on one of the other cars. We show up to the race track and each car has the max it can afford to have but we miss the wind tunnel, we don’t have 7-post, (and) we have less personnel. We are down at a resource standpoint. If you look at our teams, we have two big name sponsors on our cars this week but that doesn’t mean that the resource level is the same. So that’s our weakest point…just a number of people and resources but our strongest point is that we do have good experience on the crew chief side and on the driver side.
You mentioned Mike Bliss there…how big of a benefit is it to have teammates while with most small teams; it’s just a one car operation? It must be a huge advantage to have somebody that you can bounce ideas and setups off of.
It is, but only recently have we taken full advantage of that. We have our team meetings after practice. We have a four car team but it’s a challenge to get all four of us to work together sometimes. Having Bliss here is really good; he’s helped me a lot but I think Jeff Green, where he does the start and park, he’s also are R&D department. He tries some things.
He and I have a really close relationship off the track and that’s why I’ve leaned on him to drive my car when I’ve been out. Just leaning on those guys from a driving standpoint and from a setup standpoint has been huge. In the past, where maybe we’ve been lost one weekend, we put his setup under the car and started over and he did that a couple times for us at the end of last year where he used my setup. It’s really neat when you can have assets like that.
Do you believe that TriStar has the potential to one day be a top team, sort of like what we saw Michael Waltrip Racing do?
There’s always potential because NASCAR’s the most democratic sport in the world. Anybody that can meet that criteria has the opportunity to grow. You saw with Michael Waltrip, it wasn’t an overnight thing and TriStar has to operate in the mentality we do now for survival. It’s amazing we’re even able to run the three full time cars and the start and park. I certainly think we are overdoing it, we are overachieving right now.
If you were ever able to attract that full time sponsorship or drivers that have backing like I do, you can set your goals a little bit different. It’s not something that will happen overnight but I think TriStar needs to be commended for what they’ve done. You don’t see independent guys like Mark Smith survive in this sport anymore. I feel really blessed to be a part of this organization because of the commitment him and Kathy have and I think because of their dedication, they are a team that certainly can expand.
You had that vicious crash at Talladega last year but you persevered, you came back and that’s not something every driver can say. How did that scary crash affect you personally and professionally once you got back behind the wheel?
Well personally, it was a challenge. It really had an effect on my wife and my little girls; the ones that were old enough to know what was happening. There was a soul searching period there when I had to decide….talking to her, talking to the team, talking to the sponsors and decide if I wanted to come back and do that. That was some adversity we never faced before. That was a tough time personally to get over what could have happened or to realize that people I cared about and cared about me were hurting. It wasn’t a big deal for me but to see the effect it had on them was a big challenge for me.
Professionally, once I came back to the car, you’re not afraid of anything. Other than having a limited number of cars, you know that’s about as hard as you can hit and you’re fine. It was several months before I woke up and knew I was fully healthy. Even coming back with a clean bill of health, I wasn’t 100% and that’s something I didn’t know until I woke up and was 100% one day. There was certainly some challenges but if you look at from the end of summer all the way through the end of that year, we were really fast. We were as fast as Bliss every week and had the opportunity to be top 10 or top 15 in speed and we had a couple of finishes there. The rest of the time, we were competing for top 20’s against really strong fields. That was an encouragement and that brought the fun back into the series and if you look at this year, we’ve been faster more times than not but we’ve had a lot more things go wrong. But certainly, from a professional standpoint and from a personal standpoint, I’ve been able to appreciate it a lot more and that’s made the experience a lot more enjoyable.
You’re 34 years old and have spent about a decade in NASCAR. Are you content with where you are right now or do you have aspirations to maybe one day, race in Cup full time?
Other than having to pay for five weddings…(laughs) You know, I love the Nationwide series. When I first came up, I got thrown to the wolves and I ran three Cup races, (and) a few Nationwide. When we were able to obtain our sponsorship with Hefty Brands and Reynolds Wrap; their competitors and their retail support was in the Nationwide series and that seemed like the logical step for them and for me. Over that time, you can see how much I struggled in a full time role. Where I’m at now, we’re very respectable on most weeks. I’ve sort of found a home here in the way Nationwide markets the series. It’s not much of a development series anymore as it is an independent series.
I’m able to make a living doing what I love and I’m home an extra day during the week. I’m able to be at church with my family on Sunday so to me, it’s the perfect scenario. As I’ve gotten older and had children and seen my priorities in life change a little bit; it’s not as prevalent in my life to go to the Cup series while some people might consider their career a failure if they don’t. I’ve achieved everything I’ve ever dreamed in life by doing this. I still have fun and I still compete and I’d love to win a race but it hasn’t happened yet. I don’t have a problem being here and I certainly anticipate retiring out of the Nationwide series.
What would you consider the highlight of your professional motorsports career so far…what has been your biggest moment?
I’ve had two biggest moments. Before, it would always be my first cup race for Morgan McClure being at Talladega and with the success they had. Going down there, making the race and being in the lead pack all day was really special. Now that I’ve been in the series longer and I know how much effort, frustration, blood, sweat and tears have gone into my career and all the nights I sat up wondering if I made the right decisions. When we went to Daytona this year and we led the race, it was inside of 20 laps and we were fighting for a win. It didn’t work out, but for us to be in that position that I had never been in before and have some of the veterans of the sport; some Cup guys come up and shake my hand and tell me I did a really good job and want to work with me in that race…that was probably my proudest moment.
To me, you seem like a pretty calm guy, but when was the angriest you’ve ever gotten inside the race car?
I’ve had a couple episodes this year…I was really mad at Darlington when a rookie caused me to wreck because I was being too patient and trying to treat others the way people had treated me when I first started. I’ve probably been a little more vocal this year and bumped more people because I was mad but for me, I can’t help but think about who’s listening. My sponsor’s watching, God’s watching, my wife’s watching and I don’t want to disappoint anyone with my words or my actions. Sometimes, I’ve had to get over the perception that people can take advantage of me on the race track and off the race track because I’ve always tried to do the right thing.
This year, there’s been a little more attitude on my end and I’ve expressed frustration at a few more people this year than I would have in the past. Not necessarily going and looking for a fight but I’m not going to let people run over me. I’m going to stand my ground with other people and with my own race team if it comes time. With Stevie Reeves who is my spotter most of the time, he spots for Paul (Menard) in the Cup series and he beats into my head every week that I got to stand up for myself and take no crap from anybody. After three years, I’m finally learning how to do that.
What has been the strangest fan encounter you’ve ever had?
There’s this awesome bathroom in Texas. I always got to go out to the infield and use the bathroom there. In 2010, I go strolling through there and I got my Hefty polo shirt on and I see some people with some Hefty shirts that look like they were homemade. I know Hefty always sends guests to Texas because there’s a manufacturing plant nearby. I look at those people and I’m like, I like your shirt and they’re like hey, I like your shirt. I asked, you guys with the sponsor, you from the local plant? They said no, we’re just really big Eric McClure fans and I’m like, awesome! I didn’t know I had fans! That guy looks at me and he goes, are you Eric? I’m like, really! You’ve never seen me without my helmet on?!
So those are probably my biggest fans. I play games with people at my appearances. I might stand beside my cardboard cut-out and see if people notice me. I like to have fun with people and I’ve been asked to sign some weird things but that was just a bizarre moment because those people were my biggest fans and they had no idea what I looked like. We have them out to the race every year; we have a ball with them. They’re just good people. I always like to meet people that turn out to be fans because you know, you got to be a die-hard to be my fan because we only have three chances a year to win a race and it’s cool when we get people that are loyal like that.
What is something interesting about you that most fans don’t know?
I fold my socks. I have five children. I talk a lot. I’m like Kenny Wallace without the popularity or the grossness. (laughs) When people get to know me, I don’t shut up and I fold my socks over my feet.
Why do you do that? (laughs)
Well, it’s mental now. I’ve done it since I was nine. When I was little, the only way I could fit into a dress shoe was to make my socks bigger because my foot was narrow. Now I can’t function if it’s not folded properly; especially before a race so I’m a weird guy like that. God made me good looking, I can’t ask for anything else! (laughs) We love Disney. I got five little girls who are Disney fanatics but definitely, I talk a lot.
I can tell.
This is a pretty deep question actually. If you could choose what people would remember you for, whether it be what you did or words you spoke; what would it be?
I would want people to remember me as being someone their kids can look at and not be ashamed of. As a father of five kids, we’re really protective of what we have them around. There’s a lot of things that can affect someone’s life negatively. I just want people to know that they don’t have to think I was a great driver; they can think I was a good guy or whatever but I want them to be able to think that I did things the right way and that I always represented our people professionally. I could retire and hold my head up knowing that people weren’t ashamed to watch me and let their kids be influenced by what I did.
After doing this interview, I gained some new-found respect for Eric McClure and I already respected him a great deal beforehand so that’s saying a lot. He answered all my questions thoughtfully and gave great insight. If you are new to NASCAR and looking for someone to call your favorite driver, it would be wise of you to consider this great guy. Eric’s persevered through some tough times but from every bad day he’s been forced to endure to every good one he’s been able to enjoy, one thing remains constant and that’s his desire to be the best man he can be on and off the race track.
He’s a family man with a passion for driving race cars and his only care is that people aren’t disappointed in the way he carries himself and that he can be somebody that kids can look up to. Eric McClure exemplifies the kind of person we should all aspire to be. I want to thank Emily Brandt for scheduling this interview and also thank Eric for taking time out of your day to talk with me. Keep doing what you’re doing and although I am a member of the media and I’m supposed to be unbiased, I can honestly say that you’ve gained a fan in me.