In June of 2006, David Gilliland stunned the NASCAR nation by winning the Meijer 300 at Kentucky Speedway, becoming one of only two non-Cup drivers to win a Busch (now Nationwide) Series race that year. Gilliland who was just a rookie driver with a part-time deal driving for Clay Andrews Racing was now considering serious opportunities with major NASCAR race teams from owners with last names like Childress, Yates and Roush.
Just a year and half later, Gilliland is driving the No. 38 FreeCreditReport.com Ford Fusion for Yates Racing in NASCAR’s top series the Sprint Cup Series. This turn of events changed not only Gilliland’s life but that of his young family that includes wife of 11 years Michelle and their two children, son Todd, age 8 and daughter Taylor, age 5.
Michelle Gilliland is a stay-at-home mom whose feet are firmly planted on the ground. She understands the demands of her husband’s job and tries her best to give her family the love and stability they need. I spoke with Michelle about what it’s like to be a NASCAR wife and how her husband’s success has – and hasn’t – changed their lives. Before I get to that though, I must say that Michelle is totally cool person. She is definitely a woman who understands the reality of this business of NASCAR and it so clear that she adores her kids and her husband.
I’m so glad I got this opportunity to speak to her. If you only read one part of this interview make sure it’s the part where she talks about the day David won the Busch race at Kentucky. The part about her son cheering on his father has got to be the sweetest moment ever!
On how she met David:
“We actually met in Red Robin in California where we’re both from. I was still in high school and he was out, and I just went up to him and started talking to him and I got lucky.
I was a senior in high school. And actually one of my friends thought his friend was cute and then she said “Will you go and talk to him?” and I said “Sure.” And then when I saw David I was like “Oh no, he’s really cute.”
One of the very first questions he asked me was “Do you like racing?” and I said yes because my grandfather and Robby Gordon’s grandfather were really good friends growing up. So we would always watch Robby a little bit, so I had an idea what he meant when he said “Do you like racing?” He didn’t race yet himself; he’d raced a couple Enduro races but his father raced and he helped on his team.
I got into it quite quickly when I started dating David. I’d go to the race track with him, just even with his dad or whatever. We met in 1995, and then we got married in 1997. And we were barely married and he came home and said “I think I’m going to build a race car,” and I was like “Okay!” He built a dirt stock car to race out at Perris Auto Speedway and it took him a long time to build it. He built it all himself and then he just kept moving up from there, we’ve never gotten out of it.”
On the day David won the Busch Series race at Kentucky in 2006:
“It was surreal; it was really, really, surreal. I was sitting in the motor home and at the time I had my kids there. We had driven the motor home up ourselves; it was David’s car owner’s motor home, that we’d barrowed. David had said to me, he came in and was like “Honey, the car is awesome.” And he was so excited, I was on the phone with my sister and I’m on like “Oh yadda, yadda, yadda, he’s really excited,” kind of blew him off about it. So he goes out and qualifies and looks at me and says “I told you the car was good” and I was like “Yea, good, we need a good finish, we really need a good finish.”
I took the kids back to the motor home and we were just kind of sitting there watching it. He had a pit stop and he fell back and I was like oh man, maybe we can still salvage top ten. I always thought I’d be more nervous when something like that happened, and in the meantime, my son’s standing there and as the laps wind down, I still get goose bumps talking about it, my son is standing in front of me going “come on daddy, come on daddy, come on daddy, come on daddy,” like every corner, every lap for like the last however long.
So I was so fascinated watching him knowing how much he knew about what was going on and then I’m sitting there, with three laps to go, going “Oh my gosh I don’t know where my shoes are, I don’t know where victory lane is, like oh my gosh, is this really happening.” I don’t even know what I was thinking. Then when he actually won and came back to the motor home after all the tech and everything and he goes “Honey, Jerry Nadeau says this means our life is going to change.”
He’d won a lot of races before and everybody tells you “Oh this is it, you’re going to get the call, this is it.” You always get excited and the next day the phone doesn’t ring and you go back to your life. Well the next day when the phone started ringing it was like David and I just looked at each like oh my gosh this is crazy.
It was funny ’cause they were racing Pocono the next day, the Cup series, and so he wanted to watch all the pre-race coverage. And so I’m driving the motor home back to North Carolina so he can watch it all ‘cause he was so excited about it. It was by far, I’d say it was the most amazing day of my life and no, I don’t want to discount my children’s birth as the best day of my life but it was definitely right up there. It was a really great day.”
On the biggest changes in their lives since David’s move to the Sprint Cup Series:
“Just him being gone a lot more, that was the biggest change. My kids have done really well with it. We try and go to as many races as we can… And he has a lot more demands on his time now, even when he is home and everything else.”
On the things that haven’t changed:
” …The one thing that never changes is when he walks in the door he’s still Todd and Taylor’s daddy. Even if he has a bad race he’s still Todd and Taylor’s daddy. They don’t care if he finished 43rd… I hate to say there’s more important things in life but there is. I’m not saying it’s negative to racing because it’s not a negative thing. You can’t let Sunday’s finish determine who you are for the next week.”
On the ways they keep their family connected even when they’re apart:
“We just got new Sprint cell phones and mine has video on it now. I’ll video the kids and they’ll just say “I love you Daddy,” and I’ll send it to him so he can have video of them when he’s gone. David and Taylor’s little thing is “I Love You” in sign language. So they send it back and forth to each other in pictures with their fingers up. The other thing we do is Todd has always made a picture to put in David’s race car on Sundays and then he tapes it on the inside and this year now that Taylor’s older she’s gotten in on it too. This last week, it was really cute, we got a bunch of the old books out that I used to make and Todd was looking at them. David’s very first late model, pavement win was Todd’s very first time to the race track. He was only 3 weeks old. So I had a bunch of pictures of him and Todd said “I really want to use that.” So he took one of those pictures and put it on the paper and wrote all around it. It was really cute.”
On misconceptions people have about NASCAR wives:
“I do think the misconception is that we all get dressed up in fancy clothes and prance around on pit road. It’s partially like, yeah we might go out and buy a new pair of jeans or a top to wear to the race track but, I mean, when you’ve gone out on a night you might go get a new pair of jeans or a shirt. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think a lot of those women, and I can’t credit myself for this, are very involved in their husbands charity work and stuff like that. And I hope to get involved in that, I hope that we can start a foundation and do all of that. I mean some of those women are amazing, all the things that they juggle, and to say that they’re not working women would be an insult because they really are. I don’t think they get the credit they deserve.”
On Pit Lizards (NASCAR-speak for groupies):
“Oh that’s so funny. Oh yea, I see them at every race track. It kind of makes me laugh, but I’m fairly comfortable in my marriage. Honestly, I find it flattering if there’s some girl who thinks my husband is good looking, it’s like “Yea, I do too! Thanks!”
On what it feels like to listen to other people badmouthing her husband:
“…I’ll never forget when my son, I don’t want to say who it was, my son was watching on TV and there was a driver that he had really, really respected in the past and he heard him say something bad about David and he said “I will never be his fan ever again.” And I thought ya know I wonder if drivers think about that when they’re saying something negative about another driver that there are little kids watching them. And I understand heated emotions, they’re going to say stuff and I’m not saying David’s never said anything wrong…
It is hard to hear somebody say something bad about your husband. I don’t know if you ever watch The Bachelor, but there was a professional football player on there and he said to the girl “What are you going to do when you’re sitting in the stands and everybody around you is booing me? How are you going to handle that?” And she goes “I’ll be fine with it.” And I’m like you’re not fine with it. Sometimes you want to go up to the person and be like “Look!” You have to control your emotions ya know. I used to read message boards and blogs and hear bad stuff about him and I’d be so upset. People would be like “I hope he crashes and hurts himself” and I was like, how can you say that? You don’t even know him personally and finally I just said I’m tuning it out. David’s not bothered if anybody says anything bad. I just have to tune it all out.”
On her advice for women who want to date a race car driver:
“I’d say “Run like hell and never turn back!” (laughter) Honestly I don’t know what I would say, I mean I joke and tell David I would say that, but you just have to be willing to deal with a lot of stuff. Just be ready to be a very patient person… Their careers will come first, no matter what, their careers will come first… I believe they’re a different breed of people, race car drivers are. Probably any athlete is, they’re very driven, very, very driven people.