Sitting down to do my first interview with Eric McClure in nearly a year, there was no avoiding an elephant in the room; namely, the harrowing wreck that McClure endured at Talladega the end of April, one that sidelined the Virginia-native until just a few weekends ago at Road America.
“I thought this was it,” said McClure when asked if he had time to even think before his Camry nearly knocked down the interior retaining wall on Talladega’s backstretch, hitting headfirst at 185 mph. Asked whether his long-time family background in racing was of any benefit in dealing with arguably the scariest crash the Nationwide Series has seen in the COT era, the answer was blunt: “You think you’re prepared for something like that and you’re not. No one is. Anyone that says they are is lying.”
“Physically I’m fine, I came back last week and didn’t have problems. Emotionally I’ve been all over the board” admitted McClure.
I told him I had honestly expected him to announce his retirement at Darlington the week after that wreck. “By the time I got to Darlington I wanted to” was his reply. “If I was in a position to, I probably would. It’s been really hard on the family.”
In the years I’ve been covering the Nationwide Series, never once have I seen McClure at a loss for words. This was different. There was hesitation, vulnerability, a raw emotion in the driver that made very clear just how significant an event this crash had been for the father of four. And it was a radical departure from the jubilation that McClure had displayed just a season ago after arriving at Tri-Star Motorsports from the Rensi Racing camp, a move that had literally talked the driver out of a potential retirement following the 2010 season.
But just as the move to the Tri-Star camp had kept McClure on the Nationwide circuit for 2011 and beyond, the Tri-Star team again had gone a long way to picking their driver up and getting him back on the wheel for the remainder of this season.
“I was worried after Jeff had his first really good run…I was really proud of Jeff and his team…but I was worried that the team would take the attitude ‘Eric’s come back, let’s change the expectations’ and it hasn’t been like that” observed McClure in talking about his substitute driver Jeff Green. “I was a big part of the team even as I was trying to get healthy, and Jeff and I have gotten really close the last year, he’s been right there with me. They want me in the car. And they wanted me to be at the track with them when I was out.”
“I want to be back here too. I feel that racing restores some normalcy to my life.”
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One would be hard-pressed to find someone that would question McClure, or any driver for that matter, for re-evaluating their goals on and off the track after experiencing the type of incident that the No. 14 driver endured earlier this year. But that crash was just the latest obstacle in what has been an absolute whirlwind since taking a seat in the Tri-Star camp for McClure. It was barely a quarter-way into the 2011 season when McClure’s family was forced to hunker down as a tornado blew away their house prior to the spring race at Richmond, forcing driver and family to relocate.
Having moved into their new home right around Thanksgiving, it wasn’t even a week before the next pitfall showed up.
“We moved into our new house, and three days later the virus hit” explained McClure, who has been suffering from Epstein-Barr since the winter. “My energy level has been really low…it was to a point I literally got out of bed and got on a plane to go to Daytona.”
“[Racing is] hard enough for me anyway. Now, I haven’t done anything for two months. And the five, six months before that, I was sick. So I’m really behind as far as conditioning and stamina are concerned” he continued. “You watch a race, you’ll see my lap times coming and going. But after a caution, they’ll come back up after I’ve had time to rest.”
A tornado, a car crash and a virus would pretty much mess up anyone’s year. But when one factors in just how much bad luck McClure and team had on the race track last year, the frustration level gets exacerbated; the team was caught up in nearly half a dozen wrecks not of their own making in 2011 while suffering through 11 mechanical failures.
“We were contending for top 20s every week, even without a bunch of guys wrecking out” recalls McClure. “So I was really pumped up for this year, but then I got sick, I got hurt.”
“The rest of this year is going to be really important for me. We’ve started the ball rolling on a couple of different scenarios for my future in the sport. I plan to be around for a while, but I don’t know how much longer I’m going to drive full-time.”
“Then again, I can’t tell you that I won’t be feeling better in a month.”
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Despite the challenges, both physical and personal, the reality is that McClure is back in the No. 14 car, and both driver and team have a job to do. And though they are part of a three-car operation (four if counting Jeff Green’s start-and-park No. 10 entry), three-car team doesn’t mean the same thing at Tri-Star as it does at Joe Gibbs Racing.
“It’s not really apples to apples” McClure explained of his organization. “Here, we have three different teams and three different kinds of race cars, they’re not all made in the same spot. We’ve got different people, parts…we’re all here doing our own thing.”
For McClure, that’s been the story of his career though. First time I ever met this guy, it wasn’t 10 minutes before he told me he wasn’t going to be the next Jeff Gordon. But racing has always been the family business for a driver who shares a name and lineage with a multi-time Daytona 500 champion race team, and the business still is a true passion. For all the seeming conflict surrounding McClure and the balance he is now trying to strike between a family and a living, driving a racecar and staying healthy, battling through the frustrations of the past 16 months to keep a future in the sport intact, there was no doubting where his head is.
“I love marketing. I love the relationship I have with Hefty and our smaller partners” said McClure midway through our interview, this time with the poise I’ve come to expect speaking to him. “Those relationships will continue for a while I think, and I look forward to that. The time out of the car, I enjoyed it until they kept me from going to the race track. I enjoyed sitting on the pit box, it allowed me to still feel competitive.”
“I can’t tell you that I’m not looking down the road to transition to another role. I can’t tell you that I love my second week back like I did a year ago.”
“[But] I think I am good enough here to survive. I did well at the lower levels. We’re in our own little world here, to keep our sponsor happy, to race as well as I can. I think people understand that I just want to get better and to meet our goals, to do what I need to do. I wanted to come back. I wish I could miss tracks that I’m really bad at. I think the biggest battle I fight in this sport is perception. I hate to wear it like a scarlet letter, but I want people to understand what I’m doing here.”
It was then that the sports fan came out. Even a head-on hit at 185 mph couldn’t take the self-deprecating humor out of Eric McClure, who remarked that the true test of the normalcy he was so desperately seeking to return to would be seen on message boards (that he refuses to allow himself to read):
“There’s a few people out there that like me. They don’t think I’m the best driver, but they like me” he explained. “Then there’s a few out there that think I suck, but they’re not saying anything right now because I wrecked.”
“That’ll be the true test of normalcy, when they start taking shots at me again.”