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No Longer in the Middle: Malcolm’s Frankie Muniz, in the Driver’s Seat

By Cassaundra Brooks
Photography by Eric Fairchild
Racing photo taken by Steve Happel


You likely know him as Frankie Muniz, actor. However, the young talent who opened his beautiful home to us for an afternoon is also Frankie Muniz, racecar driver—a title he has been working tirelessly for over three years to make stick. Though the Malcolm in the Middle and Agent Cody Banks star has not completely abandoned the art of acting, he has shelved it in favor of his new love, and his obvious talent for racing has sped into the foreground at full throttle.

After a successful seven-year run as TV’s memorable Malcolm, Muniz took to the cockpit of an open-wheel racecar for Formula BMW USA in 2006 before advancing to Champ Car Atlantics, which has now merged with the Indy Racing League (IRL) to form the Atlantic Championships—short for the “Cooper Tires Presents the Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda” series—which Muniz refers to as “the minor leagues” of racing. It’s Muniz’s fourth year of professional racing, and the young driver is excited about the new series, his new team, and racing alongside professional partner Swiss driver Simona De Silvestro, to whom Muniz refers as “one of the top drivers ever.” This year, he’ll hurtle down the track in lucky number 77, maintaining his sharp focus as he continues his quest for one day leading the pack, always learning as he goes.

North Valley Magazine: Your racing career more or less began with the Toyota Pro Celebrity Race, which you won in 2005. What was your journey from this race to racing professionally?

Frankie Muniz: Well, after I won the pro celebrity race, I was so hooked on racing. I think every young guy’s dream job is to be a professional racecar driver, you know? I thought, what’s the next step, or how do I make it to where I can do this all the time? A friend of mine was buying into a NASCAR team and was wondering if I wanted to be part of owning [it]. So, I went in and I was meeting with him about it, and he actually in the first meeting was like, “I have a friend who owns a Formula BMW Atlantic team with Jensen Motor Sports and I’m pretty sure I can get you a test in a practice session.” I flew down to Houston and drove the racecar for four days, and he ended up signing me for a two-year deal to race Formula BMWs in 2006 and then Atlantics in 2007. Here I am now, four years later, racing for Team Stargate Worlds, which is gonna be definitely one of the top teams in the series—now it’s my job, and I’m making a living doing it.

NVM: You also took up racing after a successful turn in acting. You’ve obviously proven your racing worth on the track, but do you hear things like, “Oh, you’re just another actor trying to be something else?”

FM: That was definitely the reaction I got in the beginning: “Uh oh, he’s gonna hurt himself,” or, “He’ll do it for a year and then it’ll be over.” But once I started beating people, slowly I started building more and more respect from the other drivers. [Sometimes] people will say, “Why are you racing? You haven’t done well.” But I’ve done really well if you knew what I was doing. But people just don’t fully understand it. So, people in the racing world for sure know that I’m for real and know that I can keep coming, and eventually—maybe even this year—win races. That’s in a sense why I would want to go the path of the IRL. You know Danica Patrick, you know Helio Castroneves—I want people to see me racing up there in the Indy 500 and be like, “Oh my God, like woah, that Malcolm kid actually can drive!”

NVM: Do you feel your background in acting has helped you in your racing, by way of discipline, focus, or other learned skills?

FM: Yeah—racing is a very professional sport. You have to be professional all the time and you have to be very focused all the time, so having worked in a professional business since I was 8 years old, I’m used to being around people and meeting sponsors and meeting fans and all [that] kind of stuff. There’s really no similarity as far as the actual work, (laughs) but definitely, there are things you can take from the acting world; and also the fact that people do know me from the TV show’s helped me bring a fan base to the racing world, which helps with sponsors. This year, I’m signed to Team Stargate Worlds, which has a video game coming out this summer based off the Stargate MGM movie and the Stargate SG1 TV show. I’m [also] now the Brand Ambassador for Cheyenne Mountain [Games] and Stargate Worlds.

NVM: How often and in what ways do you train for racing open-wheel cars?

FM: I’m in the racecar only six days in the off-season. They have a limit of the amount of days you can drive the car, because it costs so much. But the best way is to go karting, because physically, it’s the only way to really use the muscles—and your brain. I’m at the gym every day. I train with a trainer three times a week. And then, I’ve been training with my doctor. He’s doing all these stress tests and all this stuff. Having your heart rate at 160 [bps] to 180 [bps] for one hour isn’t really healthy unless you’re in really good shape. That’s literally a racecar driver’s life outside of the car—training.

[Also], I broke my foot. I actually get the MRI results today. I waited seven weeks to get it checked, but now that I have a week before I’m in a racecar, I figured, hey, maybe I should go now that I can’t do anything about it! (laughs)

NVM: Explain to us the difference between road courses, street courses, and oval courses, and which, if any, you prefer.

FM: Road courses are permanent road-racing courses—two- to three-mile tracks built in the middle of nowhere. A street track is literally like the downtown streets of Long Beach and Toronto. It’s a little bit slower and the cars don’t go as fast, but I think they’re a lot more fun for the fan because there’s a lot more that can go on. I actually prefer street courses the most, although the road courses are fun because they’re a lot faster. You can get to 175 mph and to pull 4 Gs in a corner is a crazy-cool feeling.

I don’t do the ovals yet. That’s what the IRL does, or the NASCAR, for example. I don’t do those right now, mostly because I’m not sure that that’s the career path I want to go. My dream was to race Champ Car, which races on just road courses and street courses. Now they’ve merged with the IRL. An oval is very dangerous because its speeds are so much higher. The average speed at Indianapolis, for example, is 220 mph, so when you’re going 220 into an oval and you lose control, you hit the wall at 220. Not only that—then you bounce off the wall and come back down where everyone else is going 220 and they hit you. I don’t really have a fear of dying or getting hurt—but my girlfriend does. (laughs)

NVM: Your goal last year was to break top ten in overall points, and you landed in a very respectable eleventh place. What are your goals for 2009?

FM: Well, my goals actually at the beginning of last year were to finish in the top half of the field. Then during the season, I started having decent success. I said, “Okay, my goal is tenth.” And I was in tenth until the last race, and I missed it by one point. Still, I think I exceeded a lot of people’s expectations for only my third year as a racecar driver. I’m racing against people who have been racing since they were 5 years old, so they have tons of racing experience. I think I proved that I belong in racing at that level. So, my goal this year is to finish fifth in the championship. If I do better, great! My new engineer Gerald Tyler is one of the best engineers ever in Atlantic history, so the car should be really good.

NVM: What is your long-term goal for racing, or are you simply taking it a day at a time? Do you hope to one day race in the Indy 500?

FM: It’s definitely something that goes year to year, because there’s no more Champ Car. I really like the American Le Mans Series (ALMS), but then I also want to drive in the Indy 500. I want to be one of the people who get to do that. I think I have a real shot at being able to do it next year.

NVM: If Elycia will let you race at 220 mph.

FM: Yeah, exactly! (laughs) But it also has so much to do with the sponsor. Because unfortunately, with where the economy is and what racing has sadly become, 95 percent of the time the drivers that are in the race are there because they dropped a ton of money. It used to be where a driver was getting paid and the team would go and find the sponsors. But now, it’s kind of switched around to where the driver has the responsibility to go and find the money to be able to ride. Fortunately, with Team Stargate Worlds, they’re looking to run for a bunch of years, move up the ladder. It also kind of depends on my results this year, so I’m really going to have to do well in order to get to the next level.

NVM: What, for you, is the best part of racing?

FM: I just like that, depending on how much effort and time and focus I put into it, you’ll see the difference in the results. And with the team working together, you see the results based on how hard or how well you perform. As an actor, it’s unfortunately become [that] how big a celebrity you are [indicates] how far you’ll make it, or how much money you’ll make, or if you’re respected. It’s so sad. It’s not about the work anymore. It’s annoying to me as an actor who actually wanted to do good work, and I’d like to be known for the work I did, not some scandal.

But with the racing—if I’m not performing, people aren’t going to care. If I’m not up in the front, people are going to forget that I’m even there. And the people who everyone knows and likes make the most money, do well, [and] are the people who are winning.

NVM: You once owned the Volkswagen Jetta driven by Jessie in the movie The Fast and the Furious. What is your ultimate dream car that you own or would like to one day own?

FM: Well, the Jetta is sitting in the garage right there. It’s one of the few cars I kept when I moved here. Right now, I have the Jetta, which I don’t drive at all; I have the Smart car, which is my everyday car; and I have an E63 Mercedes. But I don’t have anything super-cool like a sports car. For a racecar driver, I should be driving something really fun, but there’s not even really any car that you could say is my dream car. Anything that I looked at I either don’t want to drive because I don’t want to be “the guy who’s driving that car” or it isn’t fast enough.

NVM: With Malcolm in the Middle wrapped up and a few more grown-up roles under your acting belt, what do you hope to get out of acting in the future?

FM: I don’t know. I just want to be respected as an actor, which is a tough thing to do. You know, Malcolm was, I think, an amazing show—won tons of awards, critically acclaimed. So I’d like to be remembered as being on a great, great TV show that people loved and an actor that people enjoy watching. But I don’t know what the future has in store for me as an actor. I did an episode of Criminal Minds that aired last year, and that was one of the first things as an actor I felt amazing about. It was the first thing that was kind of different for me, too. I played a murderer. So, I’d like to continue, if I do act again, [to do] roles like that, that really make me feel good. Unfortunately, with the acting world, it’s not like I can be, well, this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my career and this is how it’s going to play out, because it really just depends on who wants you when and for what. It’s kind of a luck thing as well, to tell you the truth. So it’s hard for me to say where I’ll be, especially because my focus is racing. When I look ten years into the future, I still see myself in a racecar or at least owning a race team and that being my world, my life. I love it more than anything. I love getting to travel around the world doing it. It feels good when you have a good result when you do well. I don’t think there’s any role that could come to me or any amount of money that could persuade me to get out of the racecar right now.

NVM: You race all around America and some in Canada, but open-wheel racing is big in Europe. Where has your racing taken you internationally, and do you have a favorite?

FM: I did a six-hour endurance karting race in Monaco in November. Me and Simona—my teammate for this year—we finished third of forty-eight teams, which was really cool. We had a really good time in Monaco. I love Australia—Sydney is probably one of my favorite places in the whole world. But I love racing in the U.S. as well, so, right now I’m staying here.

NVM: We hear you’re a big Clippers fan. What are some of your other interests?

FM: I love playing golf, which is great here. Golf, and racing, and basketball. We’re huge Cardinals fans. I’ve always somehow been a fan of really bad teams so I was happy to actually be able to cheer and make it far with a team.

NVM: What inspired the move to Arizona, and what are some of your favorite things about living in the Valley of the Sun?

FM: It’s funny, because basically for the past five years I’ve been saying I wanted to get out of LA. But I just didn’t know where I wanted to be. You know, I tried buying apartments in New York and I’d be in escrow and be like, ah, I don’t want to live in New York. My family’s in New Jersey, but [I] really wouldn’t want to move back to New Jersey. And then I met Elycia at the gym. We were living together in LA. We were getting stuff done in the house that I had there, trying to get it perfect, and we were spending all this money on it. And finally I looked at her—we were literally putting our credit card down for [a] barbecue—and I was like, “Would you ever want to move to Scottsdale?” Because she actually grew up here, and her family’s here. And she’s like, “Yeah!” Literally the next day we drove out here, found this house, bought it eight days later and moved in three weeks later—and haven’t been back since. I literally say that it saved my life, moving here. Because I feel so much better. In LA, I kind of just went where I needed to be, and everything was a hassle—you know with the traffic and always surrounded by a billion people. Where here, it’s so much more relaxed. Anything you can do in LA, minus the beach, which I didn’t do in the ten years that I lived there, you have here, and it’s nicer and better. Amazing restaurants. Amazing everything.

NVM: You’ve turned your recently uncovered talent for racing into something great. What advice do you have for people pursuing their dreams?

FM: Just to never give up. Of course, it’s so cliché to say, but realistically, especially in the acting world, there are millions of people who would love to be an actor. You have to really go out and push and try and work at it. You know, I say when I’m done racing, I’m either going to own a team [or]—my new thing is—I’m going to join the PGA Tour. So I’ve been golfing a lot. Or, I’m going to join a band and be a drummer. So that’s kind of where I’m at right now. (laughs)

Elycia: He’s dead serious.

FM: (grinning) That’s where I’m at. That’s where I’m at.

There are eleven more races in the 2009 season, beginning in May. For schedule information and more, soon to include live video, visit frankiemunizracing.com or atlanticchampionship.com.