Jamie McMurray, NASCAR Driver in front of the Citation X
The NASCAR driver and Daytona 500 winner has always loved speed. No wonder he also loves flying in a Citation X.

Jamie McMurray

With NASCAR season in the home stretch, revisit our interview with one of the greats of stock-car auto racing.

The NASCAR driver and Daytona 500 winner has always loved speed. No wonder he also loves flying in a Citation X.

The last thing you’d ever call NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Jamie McMurray is a late bloomer. The Joplin, Missouri native began racing at age eight, won his first national go-kart title in 1986 at age 10 and added the World Karting Championship in 1991 at age 15. He started racing NASCAR late-model stockcars in 1992, moving up through the ranks over the next decade by competing in the ARCA RE/MAX Challenge series, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and the NASCAR Nationwide Series. 

His prowess behind the wheel and friendly, easy-going manner off the track opened doors to many opportunities over the years. He represented the U.S. in a kart race against Russian boys in the Soviet Union in 1989, for example, and substituted for the injured Sterling Martin during the latter part of the 2002 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) season, winning at Charlotte [Lowe’s] Motor Speedway in just his second NSCS start. The next year he was named NSCS Rookie of the Year.

One of only approximately three-dozen drivers who currently compete in the full 36-race Sprint Cup schedule, McMurray routinely pushes his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet SS stockcar to speeds of more than 200 miles an hour on oval tracks and superspeedways across the U.S. He is one of only three drivers to win the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 in the same season (2010). He will compete again at Daytona a few weeks after this issue goes to press.

After each race, he rushes home to North Carolina via a leased Citation X to spend time with his wife Christy, three-year-old son Carter and year-old daughter Hazel. Before recently taking off from one such event, he made time to chat with us at Phoenix International Raceway in Arizona.

In your racing career, you’ve flown on a variety of private aircraft. What do you like about the Citation X?

When our [team’s] partnership with Cessna started and I found out that we were going to fly on the Citation X, my comment to Christy was, “If we were to win the lottery, this is the plane that I would buy.”

The number-one reason is that it is fast. Speed is certainly something that is an everyday part of my life. We race 500 miles on Sunday, but as soon as that race is over, the next race is who can get to the airport the fastest because there might be 60 planes waiting to take off. In the Citation X, we don’t have to be the first one to take off to be the first one home. At 525 knots [normal cruise speed], it’s unbelievable how fast it is, both in climb and at cruise. And it holds nine people in our present configuration, which works well for the adults and a couple of car seats. 

Who’s usually onboard with you?

Sometimes my family, usually a couple people from the team. Other drivers will often fly with me to races. On the West Coast trips, I have a few more friends than on the shorter trips, but we all share aircraft, especially if someone’s plane is down or if their family is coming out later. 

What are some of the other uses for the Citation besides transporting you to the races?

Obviously that’s the most important use. [Flying] commercial really isn’t an option because the commercial airports are often far away from the track. We’re usually required to be at the track Thursday through Sunday. On commercial, you would be flying out on Wednesday and wouldn’t get home until Monday night. 

Other than going to the track, the plane is used to go to [sponsor and media] appearances and testing. Felix Sabates, one of the other owners of our race team, also uses the aircraft for business and personal trips. And occasionally I’ll use it for a personal trip. Christy and I flew to a Victoria’s Secret fashion show in New York last November. She sacrifices a lot—all of our families do—and that was a nice thing we were able to do because of the airplane

Do you ever see yourself as a pilot?

I tried to get my pilot’s license. I wanted to do it because my dad had done it, and I took about 40 hours of flight lessons while I was driving for [NASCAR team co-owner Jack] Roush. The drivers over there—Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Jack himself—were all pilots. We’d go to dinner and the whole conversation would be about flying, so I wanted to learn. What I learned was that I wasn’t willing to put in the time to be a really good pilot, pay attention to weather and study as thoroughly as I’d need to. I realized that being a pilot probably wasn’t in my cards. But I don’t care at this point. I like sitting in the back.

I missed you by a day this year at [AirVenture] Oshkosh [an annual gathering of aviation enthusiasts], where the Citation X and one of your stockcars were displayed. What did you think of the event?

My dad went to Oshkosh about 25 years ago. He had a small, single-engine prop plane, and he was really into general aviation. I remember as a kid him telling me about how grand it was, how many airplanes there were. Most things to a kid seem big, but when you grow up, you realize things aren’t as big as they seemed. 

That wasn’t the case with Oshkosh. I was completely blown away, not only by the number of aircraft, but also the number of people who camped directly beside their small planes. I thought it was so cool, how much passion these guys have for flying. I have that passion for racing and it’s really great to see people who are that passionate about flying. 

The NASCAR season runs from February to November, with races nearly every weekend. With that schedule, how much time do you get to spend with your family?

We get some spells where they come to the races and we’re together every day. Then there are races where I leave home on Thursday and I won’t be home until Sunday, so you’re apart for a little while. But we get to spend a lot of time together.

The deciding factors for whether the family comes along include activities for kids to do around the racetrack, whether our friends are bringing their kids and what the weather is going to be. If the forecast calls for rain and you know two kids and Mom will be trapped inside a motorhome for three days, it’s not the right place for that. Time change is also a factor; West Coast races are tough with the three-hour time change.

You had your first major win since 2010 this past October, at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. What are some of the factors that helped you succeed there? 

Plate races [in which a device installed at the intake of engines restricts their power] are completely different from [short and intermediate track races]. I think good plate racers aren’t emotionally tied to what happened early in the race. Some drivers get panicked or upset, and I don’t. Plate racing usually isn’t about what’s happening on this lap; it’s about what you think will happen five minutes from now. Some people do a better job envisioning what’s getting ready to happen than others. 

What does it take to be a NASCAR driver?

Not only do you have to be a good driver, you have to be a good spokesperson. What separates NASCAR from a lot of other sports is the personal interaction between sponsors and teams. In football or basketball, for the most part the players aren’t as worried about satisfying the sponsor as the team owner or manager is. In our sport, the sponsors are dealing directly with us and we all know that it just can’t happen without the sponsors. When [sponsors] meet us, they can’t believe how friendly we are, but it’s because without them, we wouldn’t get to do this. 

Cessna is a good example. When they bring customers to the track, the customer gets to come out to the hauler, be a part of the driver’s meeting, do the meet and greet and get a picture taken right before the race with the car. That’s an experience that you just can’t buy.

At Talladega we had Auburn [University] on the car because they had just bought a couple of new planes. It’s really cool the way Cessna is using the partnership to help sell aircraft and take care of customers. I think it’s a brilliant way to use their partnership with NASCAR. 

Many NASCAR drivers race in other series during their off time. Do you still do kart racing outside of NASCAR and are you concerned about injury in those off-duty races? 

I competed in the [Superkart USA Supernationals] biggest kart race in the United States in November. When I raced this about six years ago, all the kids racing [15 and up is the adult class] obviously really wanted to beat me, so I got wrecked every time. I felt that was insane, so [in 2013] I entered the Masters division [35 years old and up]. There’s still some danger involved, but most of the Masters are thinking about the fact that they have to work on Monday. I consciously did not enter the highest-performance class because I didn’t want to get hurt and I thought I would have more fun. 

Besides karting, what else do you do to stay in shape?

I’ve generally always been an exercising individual, so I’ve kind of done it all. I hired a motocross trainer full time for about four years and was probably in the best shape ever—really low body fat, great cardio and strong. 

I’ve been to the extreme of eating nothing but fish and chicken for years, which is miserable, but I’m beyond that now. Recently I signed up for CrossFit, and I like running. My wife and I watched the New York City marathon on television, and I thought completing a marathon would be a great goal to set when I quit racing.

Speaking of retiring, what do you see yourself doing after racing?

I don’t know. I have no intention of racing until I’m 50. I want to hang out with my kids. Getting to be a normal dad is something I look forward to. I don’t know how much longer I will race. Quite honestly, my biggest goal in racing is for me to be the one that chooses when I’m done racing. 

The Jamie McMurray Foundation has raised more than $200,000 for autism charities. What made you choose autism?  

I have an autistic niece, and when I put the foundation together back in 2002 and 2003, I felt that the general public didn’t know a lot about [the condition]. It was just becoming national news. And I was witnessing it firsthand through my sister and the challenges that she faced having an autistic daughter. It just seemed like a really good fit.

We did a public-service announcement for Autism Speaks that asked: What are the odds of a boy from Joplin, Missouri winning the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same year? One in 195 million. The odds of having a child diagnosed with autism? One in 110. 

I was going to ask you about the fastest go-kart you’ve built, but I guess that’s a silly question because they don’t have speedometers.

Yeah, I had someone ask me about the fastest I ever went, and I have no idea. 

Sometimes, the fastest speed isn’t the most thrilling. Bristol [Motor Speedway in Tennessee] is a track that you can run only 165 miles an hour at, but it feels the fastest. So speed doesn’t relate to thrill.