Q&A with Bruno Massel
Elmhurst drag race star and TV commentator switches gears, yet comes full circle
Bruno Massel is best known today as a commentator for motorsports on Fox and for his two popular TV series on the Discovery channel, Garage Squad and TruckU. Winner of two National Hot Rod Association World Championships and in the race for a third title this year, Massel has made his mark in drag racing, with four Divisional Championships and three All-Star titles. Born into a drag racing family, Massel did not intentionally re-tread his father’s path. A football player at York High School in Elmhurst, he hoped to continue playing at the University of Iowa. When injuries derailed those plans, he considered law school. But his career path took a rapid U-turn when he was offered the opportunity to model for famed photographer Bruce Webber in the long-running Ralph Lauren underwear campaign. Now living back in Elmhurst with his wife and two young sons, Massel has taken a circuitous route back to his childhood, and in the process, fallen in love with racing all over again.
Talk about your early connection to the western suburbs
I was born and raised in Elmhurst, and my dad’s business was in Addison. He built racing transmissions and used to race himself. I basically grew up at the race track. That’s the bond my dad and I had — it was always over race cars. Rather than going to baseball games, we’d go to the drag strip together.
Where was that?
The one we’d go to a lot was in Byron, near Rockford and there’s another across the Wisconsin border — Great Lakes Dragaway. My dad traveled around the country quite a bit with his racing. Summers, I spent a lot of time with him on the road.
But you didn’t immediately go after a career in racing?
Right, it’s bizarre the way the world works. At University of Iowa, my goal was to play football, but I had a few injuries that set me back so things never really panned out. I got a degree in marketing and finance. My intent was to go to law school at DePaul here in Chicago. But when I walked in on the first day of orientation I realized it wasn’t for me.
What happened next?
Just prior to that, I was introduced to a modeling agent through a family friend. The agency wanted to represent me and I figured I’d give it a shot. My parents were devastated [laughs]. I moved to Miami and spent the next six months working as a model. I was fortunate to book a pretty good job right off the bat with Ralph Lauren. I had a steady base for the next four or five years, traveling — to New York, to LA, to Europe.
What made you get back into racing?
Well, my dad got sick. I was in the process of moving to New York but, long story short, I needed to come home. Dad was in for emergency surgery. He came out of it OK but there was a long recovery period. I ended up taking over the family business. I built racing transmissions for the next eight months until dad got back into it. I still did some modeling but I couldn’t travel quite as much. And I got more involved in the racing aspect of things.
How popular is drag racing?
It’s not all that big around here. In the south it’s much bigger or on the west coast in southern California — there’s a big car culture out there. It’s much harder in the Midwest, but there is definitely a presence. There’s the Route 66 Raceway every July in Joliet. It’s part of the tour we follow, the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). That’s actually a great event for me because I have so many family and friends who come out and experience it for the first time. It’s kind of a shock and awe experience with the noise — you feel it through your whole body. There’s another great one in Minnesota. My family comes every year. We’ll get a cabin out on one of the lakes and make a little vacation out of it. It’s something I’ve been doing with my dad since we were kids.
Have you tried other types of racing?
Drag racing is what I grew up with — it’s second nature to me. I would have loved an opportunity to race on a circle track, but some of those disciplines can be very difficult to break into. And at this point in my life I think I’m too old to learn something new [laughs].
Have you been in a serious crash?
I’ve had a few crashes. There was one back in 2010 at the Route 66 Raceway. We’d just won the Saturday night All-Star race and next morning we had a preliminary round of racing. Well, I won that round … but I crashed. Pretty badly. My wife and kids hadn’t got back to the track yet but my mom was there and that was tough for her to see. I got a concussion but other than that I walked away. The car was totaled, but that’s what these things are made to do, to protect you. So my mom has always been a little leery, my wife too. But they put up with it.
Do you work with your own crew?
Yes. I have two guys who work for me. For years it was just my father and me but it’s grown as I moved up in the ranks. My dad works for me as well. It’s definitely a team environment because a lot of our success is based on the car itself. Even the greatest driver in the world — if he’s not in a top-notch car — doesn’t have a chance to win. The two go hand in hand.
How many cars do you have?
I have four race cars right now. And I race them all at various times. My wife says I have three too many [laughs].
Are you still racing competitively?
Yes, I am. My plan this year was just to run a handful of races, but then I won the first two coming out of the blocks. It’s the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series Championship. Fortunately, I’m able to finagle my work schedules so I can go after a third world championship. Right now I’m sitting second in the national point standings with about six races to go. It’ll wrap up in mid November in California, so we’ll see how it shakes out.
How did you move from behind the wheel into sports broadcasting?
I knew a guy who was starting up a race organization, just when that younger, hip car culture was taking off in 2000. He wanted a fresh new face for his broadcast. I came in pretty green. I struggled with it a little bit, but he stayed with me. The shows were aired on ESPN2. I was the face of that organization for a couple of years and got my break into television.
Tell us about your TV series.
I host two shows for Velocity Channel, under the umbrella of the Discovery network. TruckU is in its 11th season. It’s a how-to show for people making modifications to their vehicles. With Garage Squad, we’re in our fourth season and we are switching from a half-hour show to an hour show. We’ve had 22,000 submissions from viewers, and the network whittles them down to projects we can cover in 10 episodes. On the weekends I’m not racing, I work for Fox Sports as a commentator and reporter for the drag racing series. It keeps me busy.
Do you ever get behind the camera?
Actually, I’ve got my own pilot show in the works. It’s called Behind the Helmet. It’s a look at famous motorsports personalities — a day in the life. So far it’s got good reviews. We just need to find a home for it. I really enjoy doing television. I think it suits my personality. You can have a lot of fun with it and that’s what makes it worthwhile.
How do you manage your time?
Scheduling is tough, but we try to make it all work. Sometimes my wife tells me that I need to back away from some projects. But it’s very hard to get traction in this industry. I worked for a long time waiting for that phone to ring and it’s pretty hard to pass it up when it does. There’s always someone there who would happily take that position. So it’s a balancing act and it’s something I’m still trying to figure out.
Do your sons want to race too?
My oldest son at 10 is very much into it. I want him to be more involved in traditional stick and ball sports growing up, because once you get to a certain age you can’t do those anymore. Racing will always be there if it’s something he wants to go back to. What I love about drag racing is that it’s very much a family thing. Everyone comes to races with me. My mom and dad, too. It’s something we do together. My wife would rather be on the beach, of course, but my kids love it. It’s a family-friendly environment, and that’s kind of neat.
What’s your fastest speed?
242 mph. That was in competition.
Favorite sport outside racing?
Football. I’m an avid, avid fan. I’ve got many aches and pains from football I still feel every day.
Favorite street car?
I drive a BMW 528i xDrive. But my favorite on the market . . . a Porsche Panamera.
Where is a great place to drive
in the US? I usually don’t have time to take a leisurely drive, but I love driving through the mountains out on the West Coast. I also like the drive into Las Vegas — at night.
Your tips for dealing with traffic?
Patience. Just grin and bear it.
Do you ever get speeding tickets?
Yes, unfortunately. When I was young I had many. I’ve learned the hard way that going 96 in a 65 is not desirable. And it’s very expensive.
Favorite things to do in the Chicago area?
We love Topgolf. It’s almost like bowling but with golf. And we love going to North Avenue Beach.