Michael Self keeps winning
Ryan Summerlin June 21, 2013
"There’s the champion!"
Michael Self barely made it through the door of Wasatch Bagel and Grill on Wednesday afternoon before he was recognized.
"What’s that, three straight wins now?"
The man was referring to Self’s recent run of success in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West where, on June 7 and 9, the 22-year-old driver became the first driver since 1977 to win two West races in the same weekend by earning victories at the Iowa Speedway and Lebanon (Mo.) I-44 Speedway. He had also won his previous race in Brainerd, Minn.
In fact, Self, who graduated from Park City High School in 2009, has taken five checkered flags in his last 14 starts.
After posing for a picture with a young friend/fan, he took a seat in the booth, directly beneath a picture of his car he had autographed for the owner of Wasatch Bagel, whom Self considers a friend.
Soon, he hopes to get that sort of recognition wherever he goes.
Self was born in Alabama and lived there until he was six, so becoming a NASCAR fan was about as natural as breathing.
"Down there, it’s a way of life," he said. "Down there, it’s what you do you watch NASCAR every weekend. You just learn to kind of love the sport and get involved."
It didn’t hurt that Self’s father, Mike, was friends with a racing legend.
"My dad was really the one who got me involved with the sport," Self said. "He was really good friends with Bobby Allison (winner of three Daytona 500s and one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers) and the Allison family."
But Self wouldn’t get his start in racing until he moved out to Utah in 1997.
Finding his place
Self started racing dirt bikes and four-wheelers when he was eight, but that didn’t last long.
"I ended up on my head a lot and got hurt a lot for that age," he said. "My dad wasn’t about that. So when he saw a couple guys drive by with a couple go-karts on a trailer, he flagged them down and asked where they did that."
Soon, a switch was made.
"I ended up getting a go-kart and started racing that," he said. "Kind of right off the bat I was fortunate to have a lot of luck. I won a lot of races and won rookie of the year that year out in Wasatch Race Park (in Lindon, Utah)."
Before too long, go-karts weren’t enough of a challenge.
"I started competing more against older kids and won the local championships a couple times," he said. "About the time I was 15, it really started to take off. I won a couple national championships those next years, and a lot of Western Regional stuff."
That earned him the chance to travel abroad for a race.
"When I was 16, I got invited to Portugal for a big road race," he said. "I was one of seven junior drivers from the United States to get to do that."
Shortly thereafter, he switched from karts to cars.
"When I was 17, I really got my start in cars. I got a scholarship from Champ Car (a group that eventually merged with Indy Car)," he said. "When I was 18, that was my first year getting into a stock car. I started racing all over California, in Tucson and on the West Coast."
Self’s stock-car career quickly took off, earning him recognition and opportunities to move up.
"By the end of the (first) year, I got noticed by the Golden Gate Racing Team," he said. "They’re the developmental team for Richard Childress Racing" (a team that has featured drivers like Paul Menard, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton).
With his growing success, he’s been recognized as one of the rising stars of NASCAR and was recently named one of 13 drivers in the NASCAR Next class.
"One of their goals is to sort of train us and make us household names," he said. "And to be able to market ourselves as the fans watch us progress through our careers."
Self was honored to be chosen for the group.
"That, off the track, was the biggest point of my career since I got the Champ Car scholarship," he said.
He hopes fans appreciate his no-holds-barred racing style and support him in the coming years.
"Full throttle, wide open"
Self has ruffled plenty of feathers with his competitive fire over the years. Most recently, he took some criticism for his win in Lebanon.
"There were three laps left to win and we were three wide going for the lead," he said. "We went three wide into the turn and the two guys outside of me ended up getting spun (into the wall)."
He said he understands why there might be some hard feelings from the two who wrecked, but he’s not sorry.
"I’m never going to take the blame or say I’m sorry for it," he said. "That’s hard racing. That’s what you have to do to win."
Though quotes like that might bring to mind the late Dale Earnhardt, who earned the nickname "The Intimidator" because of his ruthless tactics, Self would rather not draw comparisons to other drivers.
"I don’t really want to be compared to anyone," he said. "I want people to think I have my own unique style."
He said his crew chief, Steve Portenga, found the perfect song to describe his racing style "The Only Way I Know" by Jason Aldean.
With lyrics like "Straight ahead, never turn round. Don’t back up, don’t back down. Full throttle, wide open," it’s easy to see why the song fits.
"I only know one way to race," Self said. "(Portenga) said, ‘You’re never off the throttle, you only know one speed and you never back down.’ I’ve never, ever in my career been told, ‘You need to get going. You need to go faster.’ It’s always been ‘OK, we need to pull the reins back a little bit.’"
Going for four
Now that Self has a winning streak, he’s going to do everything in his power to keep it going. After all, that’s what it takes to earn sponsorships (he’s currently sponsored by iON Cameras, the Rockwell Time watch company, his father’s business Self Plastic Surgery and Golden Gate Meat Company, among others).
He said the drive for a championship has consumed him.
"I’ve never led the points standings before now," he said. "I want it so bad. Prior to this year, I’d wake up and go through my day-to-day activities. But now I wake up and every minute of the day I’m thinking about this championship and what I have to do to win Sonoma this weekend."
Self will take the track in Sonoma today hoping to extend his one-point lead in the season standings over Derek Thorn.
"This is one of those races that can really make or break someone’s season," he said. "Hopefully we can come out of there with the points lead. A win would be huge for us."
And a win isn’t out of the question for Self, especially when the race is on a road-style track, something he’s very comfortable with from his years of go-kart racing. (Road-style tracks feature several winding turns, differing from the oval-track races many fans are accustomed to seeing.)
"The road courses are like going home to me," he said. "I’ve got such a good feel for those."
If he can win in Sonoma, he might just come home to Park City with yet another trophy to add to his collection.