Frankie Muniz, child star of Malcolm in the Middle and the movie series Agent Cody Banks, wants to go pro in auto racing.
How cute, right?
Not exactly. We interviewed Muniz at Daytona International Speedway at noon on Saturday, and a couple of hours later he went out and, in a brand-new car (to him), with a brand-new team, lapped the big 2.5-mile oval at 182.175 mph, good for tenth among the 60 driver practicing for the ARCA Menards race in February and barely one mph slower than the fastest car of the two-day test.
This should not come as a massive surprise to those who have been following Muniz’s motorsports career. Here’s a bit of an interview I did with him in 2009:
“My parents and my agent said, ‘Great, go ahead, have a good time, we’ll see you in a few weeks.’ And that was like four years ago. When I first started racing, I was really serious about it, but I think a lot of other people thought I was just joking around. But I’m a hundred percent serious about it, and I’m starting to get some good results.”
Muniz was 23 then. He’s 37 now. Back in ’09, he was in his third year of racing in the open-wheel Atlantic series, considered a steppingstone to IndyCar. Unfortunately, that same year Muniz broke his back in a crash, marking the end of his full-time racing career.
Until now, that is. He plans to run the entire 20-race ARCA series (it’s owned by NASCAR now, and features outgoing-generation NASCAR Cup cars) on tracks that include the massive Talladega and Daytona ovals, the Watkins Glen road course, and the one-mile Illinois State Fairgrounds and DuQuoin dirt tracks. Also the Bristol Motor Speedway bullring and Charlotte, Kansas and Michigan ovals. The only track Muniz has experience on is Mid-Ohio, the sports car road course.
His team is the No. 30 Rette Jones Racing Ford Mustang; at Daytona, Ford Performance and Hairclub were the sponsors. “I’m throwing myself off the deep end by joining ARCA and I wanted to have a team behind me that would teach me as much as I need to learn,” he said Saturday. “I feel like I’m ready.” Last year, Rette Jones had Canadian racer Amber Balcaen behind the wheel, and she was seventh in the season standings, with six top-10 finishes.
Rette Jones, owned my Mark Rette and former driver Terry Jones, uses chassis CGR-005 that Sterling Marlin drove for several races that included the 2001 Daytona 500, in which Muniz was able to ride in the pace car during the parade laps as a special guest for Fox. It was the last time he was at Daytona. He met the drivers, and received a compliment from Dale Earnhardt: He told Muniz how Malcolm in the Middle helped him bond with his daughter, Taylor.
A few hours later, of course, Dale Earnhardt was killed in what was, by Daytona standards, a relatively mild crash, and it involved Marlin’s car. But Earnhardt had declined to wear a Head And Neck System, known now as a HANS device, that prevents a driver’s head from snapping forward in an impact. The HANS is now mandatory in all NASCAR-owned series, including ARCA.
None of this means that Muniz is done with acting. This week, “I’m flying out after the test for a 10-day movie shoot,” he told Hagerty. “But it’s the last thing that stands in the way of me going racing full-time.”
“I think I’ve shown that I belong,” Muniz said. “Everyone’s been really supportive. I’m looking forward to really proving myself this year with some podium finishes and chasing the championship. It’s been crazy, but I’m having a blast.” (That quote was from 2009, too.)
Now Muniz has to prove himself all over again in cars that weight triple the race cars he was used to, but he’s determined. “It’d be great to win races,” Muniz said. But every time “I get out of the car, I want to look back and say I did my best. I don’t want to look back and wish I had tried harder, put more effort in, spent more time with the team or trained harder. If I do what I’m supposed to do, then I should have a pretty good year.”
And then, of course, maybe NASCAR proper someday. “That’s the goal,” he said. “But it’s a long way off, and I have a lot to learn.”
School resumes Saturday, February 18, the day before the NASCAR Daytona 500.