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Michael Self, a rookie in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, has been taking business classes at the University of Utah when he’s not racing. He took a few over the winter quarter last year, but he is considering turning his focus to psychology. He says he might want to pursue a career in sports psychology if the whole NASCAR deal doesn’t work out.
If anything, Self, a 19-year-old from Park City, Utah, has shown he is a quick learner. He went from racing go-karts and Junior Rotax formula cars two years ago to stock cars in the West Series. He spent a couple years racing late models in Northern and Central California, but his experience in NASCAR has been limited.
His talent level and his approach to racing are a different story.
Self said he has learned more about the other drivers in the West Series than he has about himself. That has proven beneficial in his race strategy and competing against some of the top drivers in the West Series.
One thing he didn’t take into account, though, was the mechanical shortcomings of his race cars. Flat tires and severed oil lines have taken him out of contention in a couple races. Still, Self is one of the top rookies in the West Series, second in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings, and trails Luis Martinez by only four points for the lead.
“I felt like I’ve had pretty good success in the West Series this year despite some of the things that we’ve had happen,” said Self, driver of the No. 88 car for Motorway Motorsports. “I felt like we performed strongly and we’re definitely getting better everywhere that we go. That’s a plus. Every race that we go to is another race to look forward to, another opportunity, another thing to learn.”
Self made his debut in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series at the Toyota All-Star Showdown at Toyota Speedway at Irwindale in January. He did not have a guaranteed spot in the K&N Pro Series race, so he had to earn one through the Open Race. He won the that qualifier and learned quickly that patience and respect for the veteran drivers, like Eric Holmes and Greg Pursley, were the keys to moving through the field.
“It’s kind of new to me to be outrun by these older guys, double my age,” Self said. “That was all new to me. I learned that in the late models that when I got to the West Series, I was expecting the Holmes and the Pursleys and all those guys to be the dominant ones. I knew they were going to be the tough ones to beat. It wasn’t going to be like the go-kart, where the kids come in and run away with everything. That’s not how it was anymore. I got a taste of it a little bit at the Showdown, if you are going to be the younger kid maybe the older guys, the more experienced veterans, aren’t always happy with that. They don’t like to get out there and get beat by the newer guys.”
Through eight races, Self is eighth in the West Series standings. He has posted three top 10 finishes and probably should have a couple more.
Jamie Dick, who owns and operates the Motorway Motorsports team with his dad, Jimmy, said he was impressed at how quickly Self adapted and learned how to drive a stock car.
“It’s always been very obvious he didn’t lack the talent,” Dick said. “He just lacked the experience. We’ve expected that all along. As long as a talented driver is behind the wheel, there will be good results.”
Self has produced some good races. But there have been some races that didn’t produce the best results.
He was running in the top 10 when a flat tire in the season opener at All American Speedway in Roseville knocked him out of contention. A severed oil line at Douglas County Speeday in Oregon cost him a potential podium finish. It’s one of the lessons Self has had to learn, that there are some things out of his control, in his rookie season in the West Series.
“There’s so much stuff that can go wrong in a big stock car,” Self said. “There’s so many more pieces as opposed to a 350-pound go-kart. You just really don’t understand what all can go wrong. The littlest thing can just ruin your race.”
Even though he is in a tight race in the rookie of the year standings with Martinez and Todd Souza, Self said he is focused on winning races, just not beating the other rookies. He is looking forward to the races at Roseville and Phoenix International Raceway and a chance to return to tracks the West Series has already visited.
“Every race I go to, I want to win it,” Self said. “I don’t look at it like I have to go out there and beat the rookies. I want to win every single race we go to. That’s my focus. I’m coming to race. I’m coming to do the best I can. I’m not coming to prove that I’m better than X number of guys. I’m coming to prove that I’m better than everybody.”
His confidence level is certainly high. Self said the team’s confidence started building in the race at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma in June. In that race, he started 22nd, but maneuvered his way through the field and turned in a fifth-place finish. That confidence carried over to the race at Douglas County Speedway. Even though a snapped oil line took him out of the race, Self said he was able to show the other drivers he could keep up with the leaders. He hopes that sticks in the heads of the other drivers for the rest of the season.
“I love learning about what goes through a professional athlete’s head before an event. What he’s doing different than everybody else,” Self said. “I feel like I’ve dedicated my life to being a race car driver. I will do anything and everything I can to make it. But I understand .002 percent of the people make it in the racing world. I understand those odds are very slim. I’m going to push as hard as I can, with all I can to make sure I do everything I can to make it.”
Tim Haddock is a freelance writer and author of the blog www.haddockinthepaddock.com. Follow him on Twitter @thaddock