By Bobby Markos
At the end of the 2007 NASCAR Cup season, crew chief Michael “Fatback” McSwain had five victories to his name and was working for one of the most prestigious teams in stock car racing history, the Wood Brothers. But an abrupt departure to spend more time with his growing family sent shockwaves through the NASCAR garage. Suddenly, one of the most colorful personalities from the past decade and a half of the sport was gone. On this week’s episode of The Dale Jr. Download, McSwain joins Dale Jr. and co-host Mike Davis in the Bojangles Studio to talk about that decision, and the winding path through auto racing that got him there.
Although hailing from the fertile motorsports state of North Carolina, McSwain did not come from racing roots. In fact, his father worked for a phone company. But, upon attending a mechanical school in Nashville, McSwain got exposed to racing and decided to take a try at it himself. This initial attempt came in the fabrication of a demolition derby car to be run at the famed Cleveland County Fair in Shelby. The father/son duo had so much fun, they decided to build a proper dirt car to run competitively at Cherokee Speedway in Gaffney, South Carolina. The further they entered the sport however, the more expensive it became and soon McSwain was left to find a new way to fund his budding race career.
Armed with a fresh education in mechanical engineering, McSwain began working on other racer’s cars to subsidize his own racing endeavors. The result was him gaining a wide variety of experience in a short amount of time, from fabricating to chassis setup on both asphalt and dirt. At one point, he attended a chassis seminar at Sweet Manufacturing in Kalamazoo, Michigan, taught by racing legend Randy Sweet himself. The experience was revolutionary for McSwain, and he brought the learnings back with him to the Tar Heel State, where he soon found himself working on a NASCAR Sportsman ride out of Robert Gee’s garage. Between Sweet and Gee, McSwain had his fresh mind molded by two long standing experts in the art of preparing race cars, and it wasn’t long before McSwain was ready to assume a professional position in the racing world.
That opportunity appeared in the form of a fabricating job at Lake Speed’s team in 1992. While it was a great experience and gave McSwain the chance to work on Cup cars, it was a part time job and he knew he’d need more work to make a living in the sport. When Harry Melling uprooted his Melling Racing operation from Dawsonville, Georgia and moved to North Carolina to work with Harry Hyde, McSwain once again found himself with the opportunity to work with a legend of the garage. The skillset he was developing would soon come in handy as he took a huge step in his career, from worker to shot caller.
His crew chiefing career started at his next job site, Richard Jackson’s Precision Products Racing. He was originally brought in to run the team’s fab shop, but when key figures departed at the end of the 1996 season, McSwain was promoted to crew chief as he had the most experience with setting up cars. His first race as chief was the 1997 Daytona 500 with Morgan Shepherd behind the wheel. In the fourth race of the season, Shepherd would come home third at Atlanta in a very underfunded car, an achievement McSwain still ranks high on his career resume.
From there, McSwain served a brief stint at Jasper Motorsports before linking up with Ricky Rudd for the conclusion of the 1999 season. Rudd signed on with Robert Yates Racing for the 2000 year and brought McSwain with him, giving him his first shot at a top-tier race team. After putting together a lot of solid runs, the duo scored their first victory in June of 2001 at Pocono. They followed up in September of that year with a win at Richmond after a spirited battle with then-rookie Kevin Harvick. Tensions grew between Rudd and Yates over equipment supply, and it became clear that following 2002 there would be a new driver in the No. 28 Ford.
Around this time, McSwain began taking calls from Joe Gibbs Racing and made the decision to jump ship, taking the helm at the No. 18 team with Bobby Labonte. The new team had success in 2003, bringing home two wins and an 8th-place points effort. In 2004, tensions rose between Labonte and McSwain, and following a confrontation at the Gibbs shop, the decision was made to split the team up. This resulted in McSwain heading home for a couple weeks, before being approached by the famed Wood Brothers and their new driver Ricky Rudd.
The band reformed for 2005, but was short-lived as Rudd retired at the end of the season. McSwain dreaded the thought of rebuilding again and was prepared to leave, but instead opted into taking a general manager position for the Wood Brother’s new partnership with Tad Gershickter and JTG Racing. But the full-time grind of running a Cup team was wearing on McSwain, who had children growing up, and after 2007 he departed the NASCAR world abruptly to spend more time with them. Today, McSwain operates his own auto repair shop, Fatback’s Tire in Dallas, North Carolina.