M.J. McBride: A legend on and off the track
By Bert Lehman
Editor, Full Throttle Magazine
The last few days have been very emotional for me and many others in the local racing community, with the passing of M.J. McBride.
I was deeply saddened when I found out.
I could spend time sharing with you the many accomplishments McBride achieved on the track — there were many of them. But there was more to McBride than his accomplishments on the track. That is what I want to focus on.
In 1990 I was a freshman in college and I did something that wound up changing my life forever — I wrote a letter.
I had never met or spoke with M.J., but I found his address in the phone book and sent him a letter asking if I could visit his race shop when he and his race team were working on the race car. I mailed it and the rest was out of my hands. Yes, it would have been easier to call him, since his number was in the phone book, but I was too scared to do that.
I don’t remember how much time passed, but one day I was sitting in my apartment on campus at UW-Green Bay and the phone rang, it was M.J., he had received my letter.
I also don’t remember how long we spoke on the phone, but he gave me directions to his race shop, and we made plans for me to come to the shop on a Saturday afternoon.
Fast forward to the visit to his race shop. Even though that was 26 years ago I still remember pulling into the driveway of the race shop. The garage doors were open and I could see members of the race team working on the race car. I had no idea who anybody was, but as I walked toward the shop I recognized M.J., based on his photo that was sometimes in the newspaper after his many feature wins.
I introduced myself to M.J. and he introduced me to every member of his race team who was at the shop that day. One of them actually put me to work cleaning an oil pan. When the crew was finishing up for the day, M.J. told me to go to the back of the hauler because they needed some information from me for pit passes.
I don’t remember asking in my letter to be part of the team, and I didn’t ask M.J. that day, but at that moment, he accepted me to be part of his team.
In addition to helping out on Saturday nights at Shawano Speedway, over the next 20 years I got to travel up and down the highways of Wisconsin with M.J. and his team to tracks all across Wisconsin.
I knew my role on the team, I didn’t do anything special when I first started out. One of my “duties” was to hand out Hot Shots cards to kids after each night of racing. This required me to stay near M.J., as he would autograph the cards for the kids — and adults. Sometimes a kid would think I was M.J. and I would be asked to autograph the card. I’d tell the kid, “I think you want this guy to sign it” and introduce them to M.J.
As the years went by I helped more and more on the race car, but nothing too specialized. That was fine with me, as I also became what I would call the “defacto PR person” for the team. I helped M.J. with some sponsorship proposals, made sure he did the things at the track required of him like drawing his number before the races, keeping him updated when his next race was in the racing program, filling out the driver information sheet for each track, stuff like that.
When M.J. traveled to other tracks for a weekend of racing, I’d usually stay in the same hotel room as M.J. and his wife Marilyn. After working on the race car at the shop on Saturday afternoons, prior to the races at Shawano, I’d go to M.J.’s house to change clothes, and Marilyn would make us a meal.
All this allowed me to see the person that M.J. was.
I saw how he interacted with fans young and old, always greeting them with a smile, whether he had a good or bad night racing.
I saw how he helped other drivers if they came to him for help. I remember one time when another Late Model driver brought his Late Model to M.J.’s shop so M.J. could help him scale the car.
When M.J. retired from racing, people would ask me if I would join another race team. The thought of joining another race team never entered my mind because I knew the experience wouldn’t be as good as the experience I had with M.J. and his race team.
After M.J. was retired for a few years, some people would ask me if I missed being on a race team. I’d tell them I didn’t miss the weekly racing aspects of the team, what I missed was spending time with the team. That’s because it wasn’t a race team — it was a racing family.
I could share many more memories, as I have enough of them to fill a book, but I want to share one more thing.
Recently I was asked what I will remember most about M.J. What I will remember the most isn’t what he did on the track. What I will remember most is his smile. He was always smiling, whether it was at the track, playing cards in the hauler on the way to the races, having beers after a night of working on the race car, greeting kids, you name it, he was always smiling. I’ll never forget that.
Looking back, I don’t remember ever asking M.J. what his thoughts were when he read my letter, or if he ever hesitated to contact me after reading the letter. What I do know is I am glad he did contact me because it gave me the opportunity to see what a great person he was — on and off the track.