Character actor Chris McDonald may be best known for his roles as the arrogant golfer Shooter McGavin in "Happy Gilmore" and the meteorologist in "the Perfect Storm," but he added another impressive role to his long list of credits last Saturday in Long Beach. The current star of Fox TV's "Cracking Up" won his class in the 28th running of the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race during the Long Beach Grand Prix weekend, besting a dozen other celebrities and finishing 2nd overall to CART veteran Max Papis.
"What an honor to be on the podium," McDonald reflected after his champagne baptism. "The adrenaline rush is like nothing I've ever experienced. I did this three years ago and got the bug a little bit. Then I did a race at Chicago (Motor Speedway), but I would never do what these guys do. Max Papis and company are some of the best athletes in the world - they are so dedicated. We did ten laps, but they do 90 to 150 laps going four times as fast - it scares me."
"Overall for me this was just a great weekend," Papis added. "Last time I was on the podium was in a ChampCar when I finished third two years ago. Coming back year to make the podium again with such a special group of people is something that makes me really proud. The Toyota Pro/Celebrity race makes you understand you don't just race for yourself. You race for kids; you race for the crowd that comes over."
Papis won the overall pole Friday with a speed of 66.286 mph, while McDonald qualified 7th at 64.351 mph. But with the four Pro drivers (Papis, 2003 winner Reckell, 2002 winner Dara Torres and Mike Follmer) moved to the rear with a 30 second handicap at the start, McDonald actually gridded third behind "Access Hollywood" reporter Tony Potts and reigning "Bachelor" star Andrew Firestone (brother of former Indy Lights driver Nick).
Morning rains left the track ominiously slick at the start, and McDonald found himself in trouble on lap 2, when he slid wide in turn nine. "The pavement changes down there and becomes asphalt rather than cement," he explained, with the resultant bounce off the tire wall bashing in his left rear fender. But McDonald managed to not lose a position, and when Potts spun out of contention at the hairpin two laps later - and Firestone promptly joined in with a sympathy loop - he found himself inexplicably leading.
"For a while I looked back there and said 'whoa, what's happening here?' I had six laps left and thought I could win this thing if I could just hang on, try not to make mistakes, drive my race and I've got a little comfort zone now. Then I saw the red car coming."
As the Pro duo of Papis and Reckell (who recorded the event's fastest lap at a 1:59.865) closed in on McDonald on the penultimate lap, Reckell's Toyota Celica suddenly shot into the inside turn 1 wall head-on, ending his day. McDonald soon experienced a second spin, letting Mad Max by for a 2.006 second margin of victory overall, but he finished nearly seven seconds clear of Firestone for the Celebrity class win.
Afterwards, Papis had nothing but compliments for the Celebrity grid. "These guys out there - actors, swimmer, boxer - they really surprised me. They handled themselves on a track that was so slippery and really complicated as it is, and they ran very fast. It's very complicated to drive this kind of car with front wheel drive; it spins with the rear end getting ito the corner, especially when it's wet. The whole matter of this game was driving fast but driving smooth. That's what I suggested to all the guys before the start. The one who's going to win will be the smoothest driver overall. It looked like they listened to me pretty well."
Regarding McDonald, "this guy was doing something very different than in his real life, and he's out there not that far away from me. Honestly I wasn't expecting that, and I was very impressed by all these guys. When you have a passion for the sport, you can see it out there when they're driving."
The actor had a bit of extra technical help in his corner, with brother-in-law Memo Gidley (absent testing his new Speed World Challenge ride at Firebird) having offered some advice by phone heading into the weekend. "He's the reason I got into racing. The first year I came here (in 1998), he won the Toyota Atlantic race in the rain and did a phenomenal job, and I got really attracted to this need for speed. So he's a good man to have in my corner, and I've been around racing since he's been doing his thing. He's got a lot of talent, but he just doesn't have a million dollars."
Papis, currently pursuing the Grand-Am Daytona Prototype championship with Chip Ganassi's new Lexus-based effort and running the ALMS endurance races for Pratt & Miller, counts this as important a victory as any. "Winning always helps. Over the last couple of years I've read a few books, and I remember a quote by Dale Earnhardt. 'If you win, everything else takes care of itself.' I've tried to apply that this year. The last couple of years, I was trying really hard to get a good opportunity, and I think I took too many compromises, especially last year. These compromises didn't help a lot, because I wasn't surrounded by the right people to be successful. Wanting to be successful and being the same person that was on the podium in previous years - you can't really make it happen by yourself."
Mad Max also received some words of advice beforehand from current Grand-Am teammate and 2001 overall Pro/Celeb winner Scott Pruett. "Actually before coming here Scott told me, 'man, you've got to keep the tradition up!' And I said, 'an old man winning like you?'"
For McDonald, this victory means an automatic invite to next year's running, where he - like Reckell this year - will start from the rear in one of the red Pro cars. "Once it gets into your system, like golf, when you get good at golf - when you get good at it, you have to follow that passion. It is truly an amazing sport, and I have a lot of arguments with people about it. They don't consider drivers athletes because they're in a car, but I know differently. I have a lot of respect for drivers, trust me."