Little did Mike Wheeler know when watching "The Last Dance" last spring that he soon would help write the first chapter in Michael Jordan’s foray into NASCAR ownership.
But on Sunday, Southold native Wheeler will climb on top of the pit box at Daytona International Speedway and call the shots for newly formed 23XI Racing as Bubba Wallace’s crew chief in the Daytona 500.
The stage isn’t too big for Wheeler, the crew chief for Jordan’s 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin when he won the Daytona 500 in 2016.
But just like with "The Last Dance," success and stardom have a way of shielding issues behind the scenes. 23XI may be debuting with big names and big sponsors, but it’s still a new company forming in the middle of a pandemic.
"We’re starting a business from scratch on top of our race team, so getting things done like phone lines and internet connections, let alone supplier accounts when we have no credit history," Wheeler said last week concerning the race shop in Mooresville, North Carolina. "It’s amazing how much time [that takes], let alone putting a race car together."
One wouldn’t think of credit history hiccups when Michael Jordan is helping foot the bill, but... "especially with COVID nowadays and the economy, you can say that all you want, but they still want bills paid," adds Wheeler. "We’re in good shape this week to get ready for Daytona, but I can’t tell you without having to jump over a few hurdles."
Hamlin, a future NASCAR Hall of Famer who on Sunday will pursue his third straight Daytona 500 victory and fourth overall with Joe Gibbs Racing, is happy with what he’s seen so far.
"I was taking my dad through the race shop, giving him a little tour [recently], and he’s like, ‘Who does all this? Who got all this stuff together?’" Hamlin said. "'Wheels' is a big part of that. He’s done a phenomenal job with the whole team getting everything ready, and he was just the right fit for me on the ownership side, and a lot of that goes to our past history."
Wheeler started his NASCAR career as an engineer with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2003. But his relationship with cars has been lifelong as the son of Dick Wheeler, who ran Wheeler’s Garage in Southold until retiring a few years ago. Dick Wheeler used to race at Riverhead Raceway and later sponsored drivers, giving his son a chance to help work with those cars.
Mike Wheeler became so connected to the action at the raceway that he’d drive his 1973 Oldsmobile 13 hours back from Kettering University in Michigan on the weekends so he could work the pits. He’d eventually earn a degree in mechanical engineering, but college classes couldn’t replace the lessons learned from his father.
"Every once in a while you have something [on a car] rattle loose," Mike Wheeler said. "And mechanics and engineers always butt heads a little bit about whose fault it is. But at the end of the day my dad was the old-school mechanic, and his motto was, if you make it tight enough it won’t come apart, it won’t rattle loose. And that’s totally true… He used to tighten the crap out of certain things. And some of the guys on the race cars used to get mad at him for over tightening it, but it was one of those things, it wasn’t supposed to come apart, so just tighten the crap out of it."
Before moving to North Carolina, he crew-chiefed for a year on the modified team of Eddie Partridge, who eventually purchased Riverhead Raceway in 2015.
"He had a system in place, and he followed that system to a T and wouldn’t deviate," Partridge remembers. "When we were racing, during the race he knew the adjustments he wanted to make, and it always kind of worked out."
Now he’s installing a system with 23XI Racing to help bring Wallace success in his first Cup Series situation with a top-funded team and an affiliation with a powerhouse four-car organization like Joe Gibbs Racing.
Wallace, a former JGR development driver, was excited to find out Wheeler would be running the team. After finishing fourth during qualifying Wednesday night, he brought up the Long Island connection between Wheeler and Wallace's longtime spotter, former Riverhead Raceway competitor Freddie Kraft. Kraft has come over from Wallace's former home at Richard Petty Motorsports.
"'Wheels' has been a lot of fun to work with, we’ve kind of vibed day one since we’ve walked in and he’s been super helpful of getting [me] to understand the cars better, in and out, walking me through everything over and over, making sure I get it, just being that support system," Wallace said. "So, I think what we have going right now is good, we just gotta keep massaging it and working it out."
"The sky’s the limit," Wheeler says. "It takes a lot of notoriety and finances to make some of these things happen. And obviously this group has that to start. There are a lot of good race teams out there, but seeing the leaders that we do have, we can make it whatever we want and make sure we can be one of the best."