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Interview with Michel Disdier, Le Frenchman in Nascar

editorial & arteditorial

11 September
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Piloting is like music, it is going beyond the notes straight to a final composition, with a lot of passion. This is what Michel Disdier tells us about being a NASCAR driver, the only Frenchman who has competed in NASCAR, in fact. Hence the expression, Le Frenchman in Nascar!

What is the story behind this expression?

The story is the fact of being the first Frenchman since 1970 to participate in these Nascar races, the most important car championship in the United States, the second most popular after American football. From here "the Frenchie in Nascar". There are many people who know me more by this nickname than that of Michel Disdier.

What is it like to be a NASCAR driver?

For me it was a dream to go and run abroad after France and Europe. I wanted new challenges and that's how I discovered the Nascar. I've always wanted to live in the United States, to live the American dream. When I was young, at 17, I went to the art school in Boston and had a pretty positive eye on the United States, on the vastness of this country.

What are the conditions to be part of Nascar?

It seemed more like impossible than possible. It might have helped also the stubborn mind that I have. When I started talking about Nascar in Europe in the world of motorsport, everyone took me for crazy saying that there are no French, that there is no European driver. There are 90% American pilots, very few Canadians. I've been told it's just impossible, that I have to stop dreaming. But, I started to make contact with the leaders of NASCAR, and I felt an interest, a desire to open the doors of this huge championship to a different, foreign driver. And that's how, in fact, I started to put my first foot forward. I was first invited to a Nascar test and I fell in love with the sport and the people, too. In the United States, everything is done in connection with the fans, the fans have access to the paddocks, can come and meet the athletes. In Europe, this is not the case. And I love the interaction with the fans because without the fans, we don't exist.

What type of car did you drive at the Nascar?

There are all the American manufacturers who are present: Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge etc and a foreign manufacturer, Toyota. We race for factories but it's like in Formula 1, the cars are made just for racing. For the American manufacturers and for the sponsors, when you win a race on Sunday, the next day there are more sales, for them, in the United States, thanks to the victory at Nascar. The return of investment is colossal and that is what people, here in Europe, have a hard time realizing. NASCAR has 80 million fans in the United States, the second most watched sport, between 25 and 30 million television viewers, broadcast in 150 countries, translated into 22 languages, that's enormous.

Is there an anecdote that impacted you during the Nascar moments?

There are a lot ! At the beginning, I was said that it is impossible to access this sport. In fact, the first race I did was in Salem, Indiana. In Toldeo, Ohio, I did 2h tests with a team I raced in Salem back in 2008. It was a whole new team, we didn't really know each other, we did half a day of testing on the circuit, and we left for the first race a week later. My goal was to finish the race, to gain experience, to have a result. We were about forty pilots. The race was extremely difficult, there was rain, there were stops, accidents. And, we finished 13th out of more than 40 pilots. At the end of the race, the team was crying. Crying for joy!

This links to the next question about the difference in mentality between America and Europe ...

In a such a big country like the United States, we can have a lot of mentalities. As in France, too. What I liked about the approach with NASCAR was their openness and the respect they gave me knowing that I left my country to come and play this very difficult sport. I also felt their encouragement to continue, to persevere, whereas in France, it was rather negative, critical. In the United States, I immediately felt that I had my place. Now, I have a lot of support coming from Europe. 

All this passion started from your childhood? 

I've always wanted to do this. My father did rallies, in the 60s, 70s. He had me very late, so I never saw him race. My father was not someone who really pushed me to do this. He wanted me to have a "normal" job. He didn't tell me much about what he had done, the rallies he had won. But I always wanted to do this. I did not realize the difficulty of this job, then. It's not just about being a good pilot, but also knowing how to communicate, knowing how to talk about yourself, and sometimes fight against financial competition, the media, federations or sponsors who supported other pilots.

Just like in the American movies...
Exactly like that!

You told me about art and your ideas...
This is another passion of mine, art! I did art school when I was younger, I love photography, I need to be creative. During the confinement, I started doing a lot of things around art. I also made a partnership with a French artist called Richard Olinski who is the French artist who sells the most, internationally. He made the design of my race car. I myself want to do things. I included myself in works of art ...

Is art part of your future plans?
I have so many passions. It would take me 40 hours a day to be able to do everything I want to do. But art is a great passion and I love to get closer to artists, to make collaborations. I always imagined myself to end my career, by doing art.
There is also the television side! We started a TV show called Fast and Fabulous. We just did the pilot! We put it, for now, on Youtube but the production company will sell it to several TV channels. The idea is to go meet people, do a bit like you, the journalist, but always in connection with a motor. It could be a plane, a boat, a car. Our first report was at McLaren in England, at the factory and I met the daughter of Bruce McLaren, the founder. What interests me is the human story behind it.

And I left with one idea in mind: to always listen to one's instinct, one's passion, one's deepest voice. Always go towards one's dream and act to achieve it.
Don't listen to what others think about you, or say you can or can't do, you are the driver of your own car!

Interview by Andra Oprea