Interview: Michel Disdier – The only European NASCAR driver

The following is an interview between myself and Michel Disdier. We discuss what it takes to become a qualified NASCAR race driver, the hurdles he faced to get there. He is currently the only European race driver in the whole of NASCAR which has a known history of struggling with diversity. We also discussed how NASCAR can begin to appeal  to the European audience.

Jamil Jafri: What challenges do you expect to face in the upcoming NASCAR season?

Michel Disdier: Starting this weekend (17/02/2019) we have a race. Yeah, and it’s always starting in February during speedweek. So there’s the 24 hours of Daytona now and then there’s the stock car series until the Daytona 500 – It’s like the Super Bowl for us.  I don’t know if you know anything about NASCAR?

JJ: I know a little bit about NASCAR, most of the basics but not too much about the commercial, sponsorship side and how that works.

MD: Sponsorship it’s very important because all the prices are so high. It’s the second most famous sport in the United States with like 80 million fans!

JJ: Okay, that’s a huge audience!

MD: And we have something different because I’m the only European racer to be approved by NASCAR which puts us in a unique position for sponsors. That’s why we have some difficulties understanding why we still have to fight to bring bigger sponsors.

JJ: People should be clamouring to sponsor you especially European companies looking to break into the US market.

MD: Yeah, but most of them already involved in European soccer, Formula One and rally. they don’t maybe realize how important NASCAR is.

JJ: What would you feel are the main cultural similarities or differences between the US and European motorsport audiences?

MD: Today, we can surf on the movie Cars (Disney – 2006). It’s known all around the world and the hero of Cars is a NASCAR, Lightning McQueen. So, all the kids all around the world know of cars, especially in Europe. We are trying to use this to say that the sport can easily be much more popular in Europe and the fact that I’m the only European (driver in NASCAR).

What I really love, is really what I was searching for in local sports, is that it (NASCAR) has very good contact with the fans. From inside the paddock they can see the cars and can meet you and it’s the same (experience) whether you are a billionaire or not. Every weekend they open the garage and let the fans come and see and can even walk on the track. They (fans) can write a message on the track to support their driver. This is a part that I really missed in Europe. In Europe, they separate the drivers from the public more and more and I hate that because if you don’t treat the public well – we will not be there anymore. In the United States, they understand that and I like that the people are treated well.

They treat me like family, American fans are really fantastic! Which is funny because when I decided to go to NASCAR, most people in Europe were saying “they won’t like you”, “You’re French, European driver, it’s only an American sport.” I never felt that. I was the opposite, I felt a very big welcome.

Before in Europe, I heard that NASCAR drivers are just silly, go very fast, they turn left and they crash. But since Montoya has been there and he never won any NASCAR races in 10 years, they understand that it’s much more difficult and very hard to drive the cars.

It’s very easy to break loose or lose control the firm grip will be a great catalyst for the drivers on the tribe. I’ve been in so many different things. I did single seater, I did GT cars, I did sprint Car Series and I can tell you that NASCAR is the most difficult sport I ever did in my life.

JJ: I’ve seen stuff in NASCAR that I’ve never seen in any of the racing series like that drafting technique that you guys use. It looks very difficult to keep a draft chain going especially being so close to each other. I find that scary. It must be very tense.

MD: What people don’t realize is that you even if you are world Formula One champion, you’re not allowed to do Daytona or to race on the Super Speedway because you need a capacity to understand how to draft close to the other calls and with so much speed.

But yeah, that’s why you know it took a lot of time for me to get the approval of NASCAR to be able to do all the races and tracks in the national series. Daytona, It’s a very special track and like Indianapolis where you can’t even make little mistakes. And you need to be confident in the other drivers. We all involved, we need to trust the guys around our other because they know a mistake, then you’re inside a mistake. You don’t really have a chance to avoid their mistakes.
That’s what I like in the sport, we need each other
Sorry, even though you’re competing there’s still some camaraderie going on that you’re working together. Especially on the superspeedway, you can’t win alone. If you’re alone on Super Speedway then everybody will pass you – its a very strategic sport.

JJ: What would you find is the most challenging part of NASCAR racing inside and outside the track?

When I started to race (in NASCAR) I didn’t realize that I will get like, three, four Gs in my neck in each turn and I suffered a lot with that. I was not prepared for it.

so then I had to find a training partner and I’m training with him since five years now and just really changed my neck and all the top of my body because you have a car which is very, very heavy. It’s more than one tonne, like 1400 kilograms.

The cars have big tires, not good breaks like in Formula One and the car is very hard to drive. You can have 2 laps, where the car is loose and two other laps where the car is tight.

People think “okay, turn left. It’s easy to go fast” but I’ve never driven a race car with so much difficulty. You are never comfortable. You have to always think “what will the car do” and to feel that is exhausting.

You know, it’s not as simple as turning in NASCAR. You have all these different tracks and some of them have a lot of banking some other of them don’t have that much banking so it’s always difficult to understand the new track.

JJ: They’re all very different, physically demanding tracks and I’ve seen some crazy angles of the banking, some of which you couldn’t probably even walk up if you tried.

MD: In Europe. We don’t have that many tracks where you stay at full gas on a turn. There have been less and less turns like this because Formula One tries to avoid that speed since Ayrton Senna died.

And when I arrived in Daytona It was really hard to keep that speed. It’s like my brain says “no, no!”.
I’ve had a few laps to keep that speed and now I’m okay. I can start from the paddock at full throttle.

JJ: What else would you say would be needed to push NASCAR to the European audience?

MD: The first image that people (Europeans) see of NASCAR are crashes. At my first Daytona where I was racing for my first time, they had a very big crash. I was the only Frenchman and European driver to be in Daytona, not my series, and all the major media in France showed the crash and had the facilities but never said that a Frenchman was racing in Daytona. The major media they show the crash. One car flew into the grandstand. Now they show the image and nobody of them.

Also, the problem is that the races are too long for the European market. The average race is like two, two and a half, three hours and this is also a problem for the US market. They have moved to social media much better in NASCAR and they do a good job with social media, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter. Yeah, we are to be trying to get with the young the young people because most of the young people, they only on social media. They look at TV less and less. They are doing better and better with we the social media, so you know with the social media, you can reach the world. I felt since I was involved in NACAR that there is a huge public not only in the United States but in countries like you will never imagine like in Turkey, Japan and China.

I see the sport really growing a lot since 10 years for sure. When we had some Formula One drivers those guys brought a lot of publicity.

The races, for me, are still too long because most of the race we are not pushing and then we get crazy in the last 50 laps.

JJ: The rules are changing, and the other things are being introduced to make this sport more appealing to the audience. Do you feel that it may be alienating the older generation fan base, the people have been loyally watching for decades?

MD: I don’t know about Formula One but in NASCAR when I see all the generations this is really amazing. You see very old people and very young people too. You see with Michael Schumacher I know he was winning for almost 10 years, it switches off the interest for the sport. With NASCAR You never know who’s going to win. Yeah, each weekend you have a different winner.

JJ: As the only current European in NASCAR, what advice would you have would you put out there to encourage other Europeans to race in NASCAR?

I have some difficulty to realize that I am in NASCAR or what I’ve done until now and I’m still spending so much energy. It’s a lifelong story. Most of the people now want something not easy, but not so hard. Step by step I proved to myself I was going to do it and I had seen the eyes of the team owner, which I was racing (with) that they were on the same line with me and gave me the confidence, too and to me that’s the most important to see this in the eyes like I have my place and this showed me that I was where I had to be.

For advice, are you ready to spend most of your life, most of your time to achieve your dream? If you are, then, you can try. I have in mind that if you love something really hard – nothing is impossible.

JJ: That’s, that’s what we believe at The Mechanists. That you should be in charge of what you want in life and you should be steadfast in achieving it.

MD: People give up so fast not thinking that nothing is easy but nothing is impossible, too.

JJ: What other racing championships, which you would you like to participate and why?

MD: For sure I’d like to do LeMans, rally of Monte Carlo and Paris Dakar. It (Dakar) is not anymore in the desert in South Africa. I would like to do it but in Africa where it was basically. I love Moto GP and also motocross because I was racing motocross or seven years. I think motocross is one of those sports that I like to watch the most. It’s very interesting to see those race on TV.

JJ: How long were you in Motocross for?

MD: I was racing when I was like 13 until 21. I won the French championship but in my mind, I wanted always to be on all four wheels. So when I get the stage I really pushed everything to find a way to start to race on wheels. Yeah I really love motocross.

JJ: So your gateway to driving on four wheels was through Formula Ford, was it?

MD: Yes. Formula Ford was crazy because I won my first race and then I was thinking “Okay, that’s going to be easy.”. Then, after four races, during the ’90s, there was a big crisis in France and Europe so I couldn’t find and sponsors. Then I had to wait till 1998 to restart racing in Formula France which is a sprint car series. And that’s how I really restarted my career. I did a lot of different things and maybe this helped me in NASCAR because I’m not only a single seater racer. When you are a single seater racer you can be comfortable in some ways because you have a lot of downforce, good breaks, tires also very good. In NASCAR is so different, because the car is heavy, it is changing all the time, the tyres and brakes are not so good. Maybe because I did GT cars, single seater and also motocross, they helped me to adapt much more than a classic driver

JJ: What you’ve essentially done is taken aspects from all the different championships that you’ve participated in and drawing from them to help you in NASCAR.

NASCAR is more about the drivers decision. That’s what I was searching for instead of being told by an engineer that I need to turn or brake here or there. I wanted to be free and make much more decisions. It’s still a team effort and you have to grab the energy around you and when you are accepted in a team, it really feels like a family especially in theUnited States.

They are very respectful for that and I impressed that I took this decision to, you know, one and they love the idea to that I helped us both. Also, it’s always what I felt from them.

JJ: I think it’s fantastic that you’re out there representing especially because you’ve gone against the norm despite being told by the people around you that no one will like you at NASCAR. It must have taken guts.

MD: I don’t think it’s bravery. I just think it’s in my heart to push me to get there and my intuition and I would be so sad if I didn’t do it.

JJ: I think that’s a good note to leave this on and I just want to say thank you for this interview. You’ve pretty much answered all the other questions that I’ve had lined up for you. It’s been a real pleasure speaking with you. I hope we have the opportunity to talk again.

MD: It’s been a real pleasure Jamil. I am happy to a part of your company and the ones you’re doing and I’m sure it will be a good partnership.

JJ: What you’ve described in today’s interviews, very much how we feel like The Mechanists. You go and follow your heart, you are in the driver’s seat of your own life and you are in charge. You’ve demonstrated that in your life impeccably.

MD: I have a lot of things left to achieve, I am just focusing on the future. When I am a grandfather, maybe then I’ll think about the past.

JJ: Thanks again, it has been a real pleasure. I hope to meet you sometime and good luck this weekend All the best with the season as well.

By Jamil Jafri

Editor at The Mechanists