INTERVIEW: 23XI director of competition Mike Wheeler

“Mike Wheeler has been a huge part of helping build 23XI Racing,” Steve Lauletta, 23XI Racing President, said in mid-September when word came down that Wheeler will be spending less time on the pit box and more time in his role as 23XI Racing’s Director of Competition.

“From day one, ‘Wheels’ has helped put this team together, with a focus on the competition side. As we move towards 2022, it’s important for us to put the right people in place that help continue the growth of 23XI to the next level.”

And that’s what Wheeler has been doing: working to help make Bubba Wallace a contender for race wins, but to also helping keep the trains on the tracks for 23XI Racing debut season. Certainly no mean feat. spoke with him ahead of this weekend’s race at Talladega.

Q: You just be the hardest working man in NASCAR right now. With all that is before you, you’ve certainly got a full plate…

MIKE WHEELER: Yeah, my plate is full. Fortunately, most people in racing are busy as can be, as well. Obviously, it’s not just me. There are a lot of guys here, and there are a lot of guys in the sport that dedicate their lives to this. It is fun participating in a sport that involves vehicles – I’m a car guy. I can kind of get to combine both of my loves, which are working on cars and competing in a sport, and it’s kind of easy to put all of your effort into it.

Q: And what an exciting and new situation with Kurt Busch now being factored into the calculus of everything 23XI.

MW: Yeah, adding Kurt to the mixture is going to be good. Obviously, we’ve got a good driver in Bubba. He’s up and coming in his career and he’s still learning and growing. Adding a veteran like Kurt will definitely add the correct mixture of experience versus up and coming. Also, there is the new car. It’s going to be a different animal in itself, so having both sides with both drivers will especially help us in the learning process.

Kurt has been good to work with already. Obviously, I can’t have too much of a professional relationship with yet while he’s finishing up his tenure with where he is at, but we’ve definitely crossed paths and that’s been an enjoyable part of it. Seeing guys like Kurt, a guy who is a great athlete and who has great experience, want to join in and partake in growing the team and making it better has been great. It’s a never-ending process, but he’s already been part of it and said, “Hey, I’ll do X, Y and Z if it helps.” That kind of attitude actually makes things a lot more enjoyable.

Q: Then there is Toyota and the 2022 Next Gen Camry. Quite a bit to absorb?

MW: Yeah, we’re realizing with this partnership with Toyota that we need to become a powerhouse for them. Obviously, with Joe Gibbs Racing, they have their own stable over there, and they’re very strong and an organization to kind of role model off of, but it’s our business venture to become one of those powerhouse teams and be a strong stable for Toyota as well as for our sponsors, and be a team that contends for wins and championships in the future.

Q: With all the hype surrounding Denny (Hamlin) and Michael (Jordan) and Bubba as well as NASCAR entering this brave new era, what a great time for 23XI to be going to the next level.

MW: Yeah, it’s pretty neat. Obviously having new owners like Denny and MJ and everyone else who is part of the ownership group is a nice taste to have in our sport. Right now everyone that’s been around here in this sport for a while are the ones that are winning, so hopefully we’re the next business group that comes in here and contends in the future.

Q: What’s the year been like for you? From crew chief to director of competition to developing Bubba as well as the Toyota TRD Camry Next Gen race car and looking into 2022. New team blues…

MW: Yeah, it’s one of those things that people don’t realize. As much as I’ve been around the sport and Bubba has been around and driven enough, we are a new team. You know, we’re not in someone else’s building as an affiliate, and we’re not dealing with a name change. We are a new business and a new venture that needs everything from setups to personnel to phone lines to insurance to equipment. It has been a neat experience, no doubt. A lot of stuff has happened fast, and everything has kind of gone the way that we were hoping for. I can’t say there wasn’t headaches, but at the same time, we weren’t lacking what we needed.

With COVID going on and with some of the supply chain issues, there was a bit of a struggle, but we were able to land where we needed to and to perform, and that’s been good. Like I said, it has been a never-ending battle, especially now growing to two teams. You still want to do it the best that you can and as cost efficiently as you can to use your money wisely, but it s a good experience. I’m fortunate to say that I think everyone is pretty proud of where we are at right now. We are contending for things that we want to, but obviously we are falling short in a few aspects as far as performance. All things considered, we are constantly growing and progressing and that’s good to see. We’ve had good growth, and obviously without practice and testing I would say that some of that growth might have been slowed down a little bit. Going back to racetracks the last part of the year is hopefully going to help us really apply what we have learned. We’re still a little bit in the initial phase of the guessing game with going to tracks the first time. Going back, it definitely helps. We can take cars that can run top 15 and we can go and run top 10 with them. We not only want to perform on the track as far as car speed, but we also want to execute as a team to get to the top 10.

While Wallace is keen to start running up front, Wheeler says he’s realistic about where the first-year team is on the development curve. Matthew Thacker/Motorsport Images

Q: You’ve been going through all of this change and growth and development with Wallace. How’s he been through all of this, and what’s he make of everything?

MW: Yeah, Bubba is really chill. That’s what’s nice about him. Obviously, he wants to be a fierce competitor and he has that mindset of wanting to win, but I also realize that he’s really cool and chill to be around. Again, he wants to win and he’s good about putting the effort in to do so, but he also realizes that it is not easy. As much as you want it to be an overnight situation where you turn the key and flip the switch and the next thing you know you’re winning races, it takes a lot. So that’s the stuff we are going through and experiencing this year. Bubba has been good to work with. Every week we get graded in the race, and fortunately we get another chance the following week to go out and get a better grade.

Q: How about Denny? I’m assuming he is constantly checking in with you and checking in on the development of the team.

MW: Yeah, I mean I’ll tell you, Denny has been a great leader right from the start. Seeing him mature has been amazing. I’ve known him for, gosh, almost 20 years. Watching him develop from just being a Late Model driver to being a Cup driver to being a contender every week to now being an owner has been neat, and it has been neat having a relationship with him and seeing how much he has matured and able to kind of run this business with us.

Ultimately, he’s still the driver and we have to make sure we do our jobs here at 23XI Racing to let Denny be the driver of the 11 car, and we’ll focus on keeping 23XI going the best we can. So right now Denny is in the playoffs and winning races, and as much as I want to talk with him about ancillary things, a lot of our mindset is to make sure he has plenty of time to focus on what he needs to, and we’ll just handle things over here.

Q: How has it been dealing with Toyota, TRD and Joe Gibbs Racing on a day-to-day working basis? Probably quite a bit to juggle to there?

MW: Yeah, we’ve had a really great relationship. Most of these guys, I say, under-promise and over-deliver. They have been really helpful, not only on the things they’re supposed to help us with, but also the extra stuff. Whether it be conversations about supply chain issues, or better ways of approaching things, having a relationship with them has been great. And it is not just a professional relationship, but a personal one. All of it has definitely made us grow easier. I wouldn’t say that it is less stressful, but when you want to run something by someone, a lot of these guys are willing to take that conversation and give you advice on how to approach things. I think they realize that in as much as they want to succeed themselves, they also want us to be successful to be another powerhouse team, for not only for them, but for the sport, and it has been really been kind of an enjoyable experience with them.

Q: How are you and Bubba going to look at these last six Cup races of 2021?

MW: You know, we honestly just want to perform the best that we can. We’re still trying grow. Obviously, having Bootie Barker as crew chief now and in there kind of leading the charge on the weekends and getting the plans in place has been great. It’s still a growing process. Fortunately, we are about to go back to the races that we’ve had good history at. We won a stage earlier in the year at Talladega, and we have had contending cars at a few races, so the sky is the limit there. We’re going back to some tracks that we have good notes for, and we’re looking forward to tracks like Kansas and Texas where we think we can go run top 15s and maybe get in the top 10 and go towards the front. These opportunities and chances are getting stronger each and every weekend, so we’re kind of looking forward to seeing how all that plays out and continuing on with the growing experience.