Mike Mittler Keeps Cranking Out NASCAR’s Future Stars
By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
Concord, N.C. – When it comes to passion and picking talented drivers from the hordes of hopefuls out there, there are few people in NASCAR that can match Mike Mittler.
Mittler is the owner of a machine and tool company in Foristell, Mo., and a part-time Camping World Truck Series owner/crew chief. He’s best known for the list of drivers who have wheeled his trucks early in their careers. Among his graduates are Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray, Brad Keselowski, Regan Smith, Justin Allgaier, and two deceased drivers, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper.
Early on he helped build parts for Rusty Wallace’s short track cars.
“We won a lot of ASA races together,” Wallace said in a 2005 interview. “He was one of my major mechanics. He made all the special pieces, the trick parts that made the car go fast.”
McMurray said Mittler, a machinist by trade, puts the same attention to detail into his racing projects as he does at his day job. “He wants everything to be perfect,” he said.
Edwards said Mittler’s work ethic is an inspiration to him.
“You can look at people’s hands and tell how hard they work,” Edwards said. “Some people have clean hands, some have real dirty hands, and there are some people like Mike who are missing the ends of a couple of fingers. He’s a hard, hard worker.
“He can come in the morning at 8 a.m. and work all day at Mittler Brothers Machine and Tool and make the money he goes and spends from 5 o’clock to midnight working on the race car.
“He can build the engines, set up the trucks, drive the hauler, probably drive the race car too.”
“I learned a lot from him about digging deep and not using excuses.”
And Edwards insists there’s no way he’d be in Cup today if not for Mittler.
“Heck no,” he said.
Mittler’s latest driver is Ben Stancill, a personable, 20-year-old Ayden, N.C., farm boy who drove the No. 63 truck to a 19th place finish on Friday at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
As usual, Mittler spent the entire race at Lowe’s bounding up and down the steps of the pit box, enthusiastically directing his crew and encouraging his driver on the radio.
Stancill, despite his limited experience, put on a commendable performance. For lap after lap, he raced defending series champion Johnny Benson for the “lucky dog” spot and held it on numerous occasions even though the caution flag never flew to allow him to capitalize.
Mittler cheered his every pass, often springing out of his seat and craning his neck to watch his truck going through Turns One and Two side-by-side with a competitor.
Mittler said Stancill reminds him a lot of Edwards, who drove his truck in seven races in 2002 and recorded the team’s best-ever finish, an eighth at Kansas Speedway.
“His energy level is a lot like Carl’s, and he’s very focused,” Mittler said.
Stancill and Mittler seemed to communicate well, and their adjustments made the truck better every time. At one point they considered pulling behind the wall to change a spring but eventually fixed the handling with adjustments on pit road.
“Our fastest lap of the day was No. 113,” Mittler said, showing as much excitement over a seemingly small accomplishment as some owners exhibit for a victory.
As Stancill drove under the checkered flag, Mittler keyed his radio and congratulated both driver and crew.
“That’s a trooper right there,” Mittler said to Stancill. “Driver, you did a heck of a fine job.”
And he went on to praise his crew, a group of loyal volunteers from as far away as Texas and Louisiana, folks who see each other only at the race track.
Mittler has just two full-time employees at his race shop, Kendall Downs and Dean Hoffman.
A man who stopped by Mittler’s pit stall told him that it looks like he’s found another “keeper” along the lines of McMurray and Edwards. “They keep finding me,” Mittler modestly countered.
The irony is that while Mittler can find them, they all soon move on to bigger, better-financed teams. But he’s come to accept that and regards himself as more father figure than truck owner to his young drivers.
McMurray said his decision to leave Mittler’s team was the most difficult of his career.
“It was because he was my friend more than my owner, he and his wife Beth,” McMurray said. “When I worked there, I lived in his parents’ cabin. I drove his [personal] truck part of the time. He gave everything he had, and it’s hard to go do something different.”
Over the all-star weekend at Lowe’s, McMurray visited with the Mittlers, as did Carl Edwards, welcoming the couple into their haulers in the Sprint Cup garage.
“Mike is one of the most caring men I’ve met,” McMurray said. “And his wife reminds me of, and even looks a lot like, my mother. I’ve always looked at her as another mom. She’s a super, super sweet lady.”
In the past, Mike Mittler has expressed some regret that drivers left him just as they were starting to enjoy some success together, but now he seems OK with it.
“We all have a place in life,” Mittler said as he helped tear down his pit stall with the same enthusiasm he showed before and during the race. “Maybe helping these kids get their start is what it is for me.”
– Rick Minter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org