Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: Michael Annett on Fire Recovery, Racing Roots & Hockey

Michael Annett was born into the racing community but didn’t even set foot in a racecar until his teenage years were almost through. After starting in the ARCA Racing Series, he moved quickly through a handful of runs in the Truck Series before settling in the Xfinity Series with Germain Racing, Rusty Wallace Incorporated and finally Richard Petty Motorsports.

Fast forward to the 2014 season, and Annett joined Tommy Baldwin Racing for his first full-time Sprint Cup Series season. He spent a year with the organization before moving to the No. 46 Chevrolet he currently races when HScott Motorsports expanded to two teams. Annett raced his way into the season opener at Daytona International Speedway before following up with a career-best 13th-place finish, a much-needed boost for the brand new addition to the organization.

The following week, when teams were first subject to the 2015 rules package, Annett’s No. 46 Chevrolet didn’t make it through pre-qualifying inspection in time to post a lap during the session, though he did run that race behind the wheel of the No. 33 that was initially fielded by Richard Childress Racing for Brian Scott. Since then, Annett’s team has been plagued with everything from a struggle to find speed, handling on the track, crashes and even a hauler fire en route to Texas Motor Speedway last week. But despite it all, he’s kept his head held high and a smile on his face.

Already set to return to the organization next season, Annett took some time to chat with Frontstretch Sunday morning before the AAA Texas 500 about the challenges that faced his team after the hauler fire, how he even got started racing and his relatively quick rise from ARCA to Cup.

Beth Lunkenheimer, Frontstretch: Let’s start with the hauler fire on the way to Texas. What were your thoughts when you heard about it?

Michael Annett: The first thing was that I thought the crew chief was joking. I was in the gym on Thrusday back in North Carolina. I was there and I thought ‘this has been a really good day so far’ and you’re just waiting for something bad to happen. I never thought it would be to the extent that it was. Obviously, I’ve never dealt with anything like this before; I don’t think anyone on the team has.

There were a lot of unknowns and everybody really came together and did their part. It was my job thinking of inside the cockpit of what I needed, and it took a lot of help and a lot of fast action from a lot of people to get to where we are now.

Lunkenheimer: How involved were you in the process of getting everything switched over?

Annett: The biggest things is that I’ve got good people that take care of me and great partners with Simpson and Max Papis with his MPI Innovations (steering wheels), just the little things you take for granted when you get to the racetrack and you realize none of that is there. I was getting some gloves from Simpson and some seat belts, the steering wheel and BSTI, the company that makes the foam inserts for our seats. That was probably the most important because we fitted myself in Justin Allgaier‘s seat. We flew a guy out from there and we poured the seat Friday morning. It’s just stuff like that – we could get by with a lot of things, but the seat comfort and safety is paramount to anything.

Lunkenheimer: Despite growing up in a racing family that was involved with World of Outlaws and Sammy Swindell, your first loved seemed to be hockey. What was it that made you switch over to racing?

Annett: When I was born, I was at the racetrack when I was four days old, so racing was there first, and, I think I was seven when my family decided to end the sprint car racing. My dad wanted to focus on his trucking company, and leading up to that point, my mom wasn’t going to let me race anyway. It was too dangerous.

I had a couple buddies that were going to hockey practice – I think I was in second grade – went with them and the next day I was signed up for a learn to skate program. That really took off – I think I was 19 and stalled out at about 5’10” and 185 lbs, so it was pretty much go play at a division III college and then go get a job probably working for the trucking company. Obviously, racing was still in my blood. I was watching it pretty much every week. If I wasn’t playing hockey, I was watching racing on tv, so the love was still there.

I finally talked mom and dad into it and got into late models. Kids are in go-karts these days at five and six years old, but I didn’t get in a racecar until I was 19. We were playing catch up and had to move fast, but I think we put ourselves with the rigth people and got in the right equipment to get to where we are in such a quick time.

Lunkenheimer: In 10 starts in ARCA, you had two wins and eight top 10s. What was the key to finding that success so quickly?

Annett: The biggest thing there was aligning myself with Bill Davis Racing. They had some really good equipment, some really good Cup cars. It was at the time they were switching over to the Car of Tomorrow, so they had all of their old Cup cars that you can run in the ARCA series that had kinds of engineering in them. Terry Elledge was over in the engine department making some great power, and crew chief Joe Lax at the time. He was an experienced Cup crew chief. Everything fell into place perfectly for me when I did come down there to get some really good stuff. I had a blast in those ARCA races.

It just worked out the way it did to move on to the Truck Series. I can’t remember who was in the truck at the time, but their sponsorship fell through, and there were about five truck races left. We were either going to do five truck races or five more ARCA races, and we moved to the trucks. Obviously, they were a championship proven team, so it was fun to be able to jump in that truck and have success right away there.

Lunkenheimer: You didn’t spend all that much time before moving from NXS to Cup. Talk about the change between the two. I’ve heard it’s substantially more than moving between Truck and NXS.

Annett: It definitely is. You have to fight so hard to move from 38th to 37th. I think in the Xfinity Series, it was easier to get to the top 15, top 12, but you have driven with everything you’ve got to get there in the Cup Series. It’s a longer weekend, in general, and you really have to separate each day. In the Xfinity Series, you knew you had about two hours of practice. You focused on what you would have for a shorter race.

Now in Cup, on Friday, all you really focus on is your qualifying setup, Saturday you’re moving over to race mode and trying to think about how the track is going to change. It’s just a longer weekend, longer races and changes your mentality going into each weekend.

Lunkenheimer: You spent a year with Tommy Baldwin Racing before moving to HScott Motorsports. How did the deal with HScott come about?

Annett: The biggest thing was that Harry (Scott Jr., team owner) wanted to expand his team. We were parked next to Justin [Allgaier] at the beginning of last year, and it seemed like the first half we were always right around each other since we park by points in the garage area. The second half of the year, he kept getting farther away, and I just saw the success they were having and wanted to be a part of it.

Harry wanted to start that second team, and they have some great relationships with Hendrick engines and expanded the alliance this year with Stewart-Haas Racing and Hendrick, so there were a lot of resources there that I felt like I wanted to be a part of. I know Harry wants to be around for a logn time. He’s in this to become another Hendrick, another Gibbs, so I wanted to be there for the start of it.

Lunkenheimer: Can you talk a little bit about this year’s challenges? I know it hasn’t always gone exactly ideally. How do you keep yourself from getting too frustrated at performance when it’s just a struggle?

Annett: The biggest thing you can do is look around at guys that you raced with growing up and moving through these ranks and they’re running right there with you. They’re running the same, so you know it’s not just you. You have to keep telling yourself that you’re doing the best you can with what you have. Obviously we’re competitors and we want to run better. We want to beat who we think we should be beating week in and week out. If you don’t do that, that’s when you get frustrated.

There’s a lot of talented racecar drivers that are running 25th to 35th in this series, and those are the guys that we know we can beat. That’s our goal each week to be in that top 25, and if we don’t do that, we definitely do leave a little bit frustrated. But we also know it’s a team that was put together about two weeks before Daytona, so we’re just trying to finish out this year with some momentum and come out strong in 2016 with a year under our belts and a full offseason to get prepared.

Lunkenheimer: You had a couple DNQs this year at Atlanta and Talladega. How do you and your team step back and evaluate after you don’t make the field.

Annett: Well in Atlanta, we never even got a chance to qualify; we never even got through tech. We never really felt like there was anything we could have done different. I think the most frustrating part was we came off of a 13th at Daytona, went to Atlanta and never even got the chance to make a lap in qualifying. That was tough and definitely took some wind out of our sails.

The deal at Talladega was really frustrating because we couldn’t figure out what was wrong. We had a car from a team that qualified all in the top 10 there, so there was just something wrong with that car. We’re still not done trying to figure out what happened. The car is over at Hendrick now getting taken apart piece by piece because what happened there just should not have happened. To be as far off as we were, there was something and the problem was we just couldn’t find it at the racetrack.

Lunkenheimer: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career so far?

Annett: The biggest thing is just to stay humble because this sport can knock you down so quick. People say you’re only as good as your last race, but really you’re only as good as your last lap. That’s the biggest thing – staying grounded. Take the highs and try to stay grounded and when the lows are low, try to bring yourself back up, knowing that you do get to go make more laps the next week.

Lunkenheimer: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Annett: It probably comes from my dad who just said stay smooth and the speed will come. A lot of people start trying too hard and get themselves out of shape or start abusing their equipment trying to run faster. That might work for a lap or two, but you’re either going to make a mistake and destroy the car or you’re going to wear the tires out.

Lunkenheimer: Who did you look up to in the Cup Series growing up?

Annett: I was a Dale Earnhardt guy and Davey Allison. Unfortunately two guys that I looked up to we lost way too soon. My favorite guy growing up in sprint cars was Dave Blaney. I always pulled for him when he was at Bill Davis Racing, and to move down to North Carolina and be his teammate on the ARCA and Truck side was very cool to be a part of being teammates with my hero my first year racing. Those were the guys where I thought if you could mix all their styles together, you’d probably put together a great racecar driver.

Lunkenheimer: A couple of fun ones before we finish up. Do you have any race day rituals?

Annett: Not really. The biggest thing is trying to get a good meal that you won’t regret later on. I try to stay away from spicy foods, and I had a bad experience with macaroni and cheese, so I’ll never have that. There’s more rituals, not necessarily what you do, but what you don’t do.

Lunkenheimer: What’s your music of choice when you’re trying to get pumped up for a race?

Annett: When I’m trying to get ready for a race, people think I’m falling asleep because I yawn. I’m inside right now watching Roseanne. I just try to relax as much as possible and do everything but think about racing.

Lunkenheimer: What would you be doing if you weren’t racing?

Annett: I would probably be back in Des Moines, Iowa running – not running – be a part of the family trucking company. I’m not smart enough to be running it, but I would probably be a part of the family trucking company.

After the interview, Annett went back into his motorcoach to continue his pre-race relaxation before joining his team on the grid for pre-race ceremonies. Throughout the AAA Texas 500, he struggled with the handling on his car and the transmission jumping out of gear. And despite the best efforts of his crew, which threw a plethora of adjustments at the car throughout the race, he ended up finishing 31st, five laps down.

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