It might not be a secret for long though thanks to a committed owner, a confident and talented rookie driver and a shop crew full of hard-working, motivated individuals.
ML Motorsports is making a name for itself among the “Big Boys” in the sport thanks in large part to its big belief in itself. That, despite being located in Northern Indiana, far removed from North Carolina, the Mecca of the sport and having an operation much smaller than some of the high-profile racing teams.
The ML Motorsports No. 70 Chevy Impala, driven by 20-year old Johanna Long, sits at 17th in the point standings currently in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Long notched a best-ever 12th place finish at Daytona July 6 despite being involved in a crash on the final lap. The team is preparing to compete in Joliet, Illinois at the Chicagoland Speedwat Sunday with the race on ESPN at 3 p.m. After that, it’s on to Indianapolis July 28 to race at the famed Brickyard at 4 p.m., also on ESPN.
Long, the youngest female driver in that sport’s rich history, feels good about her first season with ML Motorsports and her first on the NASCAR circuit. She has a two-year contract to drive 21 races both this year and next for the Warsaw-based team, which was started in 1998 by Mary Louise Miller, wife of Biomet co-founder Dane Miller.“I love working with ML Motorsports,” said Long in a phone interview earlier this week. “It’s been awesome for me. This year has went really well so far. It’s definitely a work in progress and we’re learning every race. I’m happy with the way the team is working together, but we want to run better.”
The competitive Long has been in the driver’s seat since she started racing go karts at age eight. The Florida native relishes the opportunity she has to be at the pinnacle of her chosen profession. Last year she drove for her family-owned team in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series on a limited basis.
“This is all I know,” Long said of racing. “I eat, sleep and breathe it. I would go insane without it. When I see that green flag fly, it’s the best thing. I’m in heaven then.
“It’s not an easy road though. You have to keep pushing and stay committed to it. Nothing about this year has really surprised me moving up to the Nationwide Series. I knew how tough it would be. Everyone is so competitive.”
Those in and around the ML Motorsports shop in Warsaw, like Long and their owner, are also committed to success.
“I think things are going great this year,” said ML Motorsports crew chief Mark Gutekunst, during a quick break Thursday at the shop. “We feel we can run with anyone and we want to set the bar high for ourselves. Our owner takes such good care of us and we have such good people here and work together so well as a team. I love every part of this. It’s hard to call it work.”Long, for her part, feels she is earning respect in the sport despite her gender.
“I belong here and I look at myself as another driver, not a female driver,” said Long, who has six top 20 finishes in 11 races this season. “I feel I’m here for a reason and that I’ve earned it. I’ve talked to Danica (Patrick) and I consider her a trailblazer. It’s really cool that there are more female drivers getting involved in the sport and getting the opportunity to compete at the highest level.
“I want to be someone that younger girls can look up to. I tell them you can do whatever you want to do, whether it’s driving a race car or not. Just go for it and don’t give up.”
Long has earned the respect and admiration of her colleagues on the ML Motorsports team.
“I’ve been very impressed with Johanna,” said Billy Hutchinson, the Director of Marketing for ML Motorsports and also a member of Long’s pit crew. “She definitely has the skills and is going to go far in this sport. She has no fear and her maturity level is incredible for someone who just turned 20 in May. We’re very happy to have her on our team.”
Hutchinson, who has been with ML Motorsports for three years, played college baseball with team president Ed Mullen.
“I’ve followed ML since it started,” explained Hutchinson. “It’s a great story here with the first female owner in Mary Louise and the youngest ever female drive in Johanna. We have the best owner and the best group of guys here. It’s just fun and challenging to come to work every day. I’m excited to come here every day. I get chills every race that we go to.”
“We’re definitely capable of winning a race. We were in sixth place at one point in the race at Daytona before the crash happened. It’s not going to be easy, but with Johanna and the guys we have here we can do it. It’s not impossible just because we are a team located in Warsaw, Indiana. We’re going in the right direction and we’re ahead of a lot of teams with the resources we have thanks to Mary Louise.”
Long feels family and fans have been huge in her rapid ascension to the top tier of her sport.
“My Dad is the person I’ve always looked up to,” said Long. “I can’t say enough about my entire family. They’ve always been behind me 110 percent.
“The fans are the best part of this. They are what makes NASCAR so special. It’s just really cool to see all of them at the tracks.”
Those fans don’t have to go far this weekend or next to see Long and the No. 70 Chevy Impala.
Right now, but probably not for long, racing’s best kept secret.