Many people view the short track racing world as the place where the future stars of racing cut their teeth on the race track. It’s where drivers learn how to race before making the jump to the top of the world of big time auto racing.
But Riverhead Raceway, a quarter-mile bullring located on Long Island, isn’t where Mike Wheeler learned to bang doors with other drivers. Instead, it’s where he learned how to set up a race car and make the calls necessary to give his driver a shot at winning races.
If you don’t know Mike Wheeler’s name yet, he’s the guy that just won the Daytona 500 as crew chief for Denny Hamlin. “Wheels” as he’s known, grew up in the small town of Southold, New York, on the north fork of Long Island, and became a mechanic, because his mom never allowed him to race for himself.
“My mom really wanted me to go to college,” Wheeler told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “We had a lot of friends on my dad’s side, and my dad being one of them, that would spend a lot of time and money at Riverhead trying to make it work to get to the next level. Pretty much all of them had their dreams dashed.”
So instead of driving, Wheeler went the route of mechanic and started out with Ed Densieski’s race team before joining the team of Roger Oxee, a 64-time winner in the Late Model ranks at Long Island’s only remaining race track.
“Mike started with me when he was about 16, so you’re talking about 21 years ago,” Oxee said. “I remember the first time Mike came down to the shop. Mike wouldn’t talk. He just did what he was told to do. He would be there, but you wouldn’t even know it because he’d never say a word. Now you can’t shut the guy up.”
Wheeler and Oxee aren’t sure of just how many races they won together, but the number is north of 20, according to Oxee.
“You could tell Mike knew his sh–. He showed us that every time he made a decision,” said Oxee. “We did great together. The reason I won a championship some years back was because of him. The reason I won so many races was because of Mike Wheeler. We had a dynamite car, and a lot of that was because of Mike Wheeler.”
While Wheeler and Oxee were winning races together on Long Island, Wheeler was attending college at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, studying for his degree in mechanical engineering.
Kettering University is 741 miles away from Riverhead Raceway, but Wheeler would drive back to Long Island every Friday for the race on Saturday, and every Sunday to get back for class on Monday.
“I would basically skip out of a class or two on Friday late,” Wheeler said. “I’d leave about noon on Friday, drive the 13 hours to Long Island overnight. I’d get there around one or two in the morning, and usually the guys at the race shop would wait for me. I would drive all night, get to the shop, say hi to everybody, go to the race track, race 25 laps at the Late Model race or the occasional 50-lapper, and then the next morning I would drive back to school. I did that countless times.”
Wheeler’s mechanical expertise sometimes came into use on those long drives home, instead of just at the race shop or the race track, too.
“I had a cheap fuel mileage car,” explained Wheeler. “I ended up breaking a cam shaft. I took the timing cover off and found the cam shaft cocked in the engine and I was like, ‘Oh that’s not good.’ And crazy enough, with a set of hand tools I went to a junk yard and found a cam shaft from a Plymouth Sundance, rusty as could be. I wiped it down with WD-40, and called my dad up to ask him how to time it right. I drove it all the way back one time with a rusty old cam in the thing.”
In 2002, Wheeler graduated from Kettering with his degree, only he wasn’t at the ceremony to receive it. Instead, Wheeler was at Connecticut’s Stafford Motor Speedway setting up Bo Gunning’s SK Modified for a race during their championship year, a championship that Wheeler refers to as a ‘really big deal.’
“That was back when there were 50 or 60 cars showing up to compete on a weekly basis,” Wheeler said. “Teddy Christopher was in his prime. You had Doug Coby and Ronnie Silk just coming into it. It was a really good field between there and Thompson.”
Two days after winning the Stafford SK Modified championship, Wheeler got a call from Joe Gibbs Racing to be an engineer for their NASCAR Busch Series program, as the series was known at the time.
But even after moving down to North Carolina, Wheeler still makes time to get back to his old stomping grounds of Riverhead Raceway. As a result, his Long Island racing community has been about as excited as Wheeler has been about him winning the Daytona 500.
“It’s overwhelming, but it’s definitely neat,” he said. “Obviously I saw the fire department post. I saw some of the local people posting about it, and it definitely put a smile on my face knowing that they’re all proud of their guy from Southold. Obviously it’s a small town and they all know my Dad being a mechanic and a firefighter and being there forever. But it’s cool to see all that and make everybody smile.”
Wheeler said he can’t wait to get back to Riverhead Raceway this year to see friends like Oxee, even though he knows that it’ll now be just a little bit different now that he’s the proud owner of a Daytona 500 ring.
“I think it’ll be a little bit different for sure,” Wheeler said with a laugh. “That hasn’t sunk in yet, what it’s going to be like going forward. I’m looking forward to the day that I get to go back (to Riverhead) and shake everyone’s hand and say that dreams do come true.”
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Southeast Editor – Twitter: @RobBlount
-Photo Credit: Mike Wheeler Twitter