When a driver frequently moves from team to team, he’s often called a “journeyman.” Some may think of the term as derogatory, but Mike Bliss embraces the nickname.
And in the process, Bliss essentially holds an unofficial NASCAR record that likely will never be broken.
Before he retired after the 2016 season, the 56-year-old Milwaukie, Oregon, native developed a reputation that he would drive anything, anywhere and for anybody. As a result, Bliss wound up driving for 49 different teams during his 21-year career.
That’s not a mistake or typo: Bliss drove for 49 different teams. Some were for a race or two, others were for several seasons. Granted, there were a few organizations that may have been owned by the same individual, but the teams were on different NASCAR levels such as Cup, Xfinity and/or Trucks. Hence, one owner may have been counted two or even three times, but that was a rarity.
By checking one of the top statistical sources — Racing-Reference.Info — Bliss drove for 18 different Cup teams, 17 Xfinity teams and 14 Trucks teams. There’s even a YouTube video that breaks down Bliss’s career — although their counting is off: they have him running for only 39 teams.
“So I bounced around a lot, but I had a pretty good time,” Bliss said with a laugh.
He then added with another laugh, “Even I have a hard time believing it was that many (teams).”
While he drove in all three of NASCAR’s premier series, it was in the Camping World Truck Series where Bliss found his greatest success, earning 13 wins, highlighted by capturing the 2002 championship.
“I think at that point, it was the biggest achievement (in NASCAR), but before that I also won the USAC Silver Crown championship (1993) and that was pretty big,” Bliss said. “And there were also a lot of races in there that meant, I don’t want to say meant more than the championship, because I would say the championship was more of a success. But there were races that I won that were pretty special.”
Regardless of who he drove for, be it Joe Gibbs or James Finch, Bliss gave it all he had, no matter what.
Bliss unceremoniously retired after his final Xfinity Series start late in the 2016 season at Kentucky Speedway, driving just two laps before he pulled the car in the garage due to mechanical failure and earned a last-place DNF.
He was done.
He spent the next few years working for a sandblasting company and also doing some carpentry and touch-up work for a home builder in Atlanta and Charlotte.
“I tried to get out of racing,” Bliss said. “When I first got out, I tried various things, but it just didn’t work. And everything just kind of led me back to racing.
“You race all your life and you don’t know what else to do when it’s over. I struggled on trying to figure out what to do. I wanted to get away from racing, but I just couldn’t.”
Bliss also faced a Catch-22 situation. As much as he missed racing, he also didn’t miss one key element of racing, namely, the driving part. After doing some testing for several ARCA teams for the last few years, he came to a realization.
“I just didn’t have it, I just didn’t feel it anymore,” Bliss said. “What I do miss is a long time ago when I was competitive. I wasn’t (competitive) the last three or four years of my life in racing.”
Bliss got even more involved in somewhat of a comeback to racing — albeit not behind the wheel — at the beginning of this year when he went to work for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports late-model program.
But when 2020 USAC National Midget Championship winning team owner Chad Boat called Bliss in late April, offering him a job as a jack-of-all trades, Bliss couldn’t say no, especially since sprint cars and midget cars were his first racing love.
Bliss has become an integral part of Boat’s CB Industries operation, including driving the team hauler, working on race cars and whatever other duties that need to be done for the team’s USAC midget and sprint cars, as well as their POWRi teams.
Bliss doesn’t have an official title with the team, but jokingly calls himself a “vice principal,” similar to high-ranking “principals” in Formula One and IndyCar teams.
But some of Bliss’ duties are, well, below the pay grade of a usual team principal.
“I’m sitting here in front of a dryer in Placerville, California,” Bliss said with a laugh in our phone conversation. “We’re heading to a USAC Midget car race later this morning.”
Hey, it’s a job, and somebody has to do it, especially since the team is currently on a one-month West Coast swing. (Its final race of the season is Dec. 1 near St. Louis before heading home for the winter in North Carolina.)
“This is, you know, going back to kind of where I started,” Bliss said. “This is what I did do, raced midgets in the past when I was first coming up.”
Bliss is glad to be back in racing, albeit not behind the wheel. Still, he’s able to give the teams’ drivers the benefits of his experience, a great knack on how to set up a car and any other advice his nearly 40 years of racing might provide.
But he’s also still learning himself, as well. He’s seeing a side of racing he never really saw or gave much thought to when he was chasing checkered flags during his USAC and NASCAR days.
That is, how a crew member sees a race differently than how a driver might see it. The differences really are quite fascinating at times, Bliss said.
“It’s exciting, you understand now what the guys on the team, what it felt like to win a race and lose a race,” he said. “As a driver, you just get out and go, but you never really realize how much the whole crew feels good about what they’ve done.
“You understand the crew chief or the car chief or the tire guy, they take pride in everything they do. And I’m not saying when the driver lets them down or they lose a race or don’t feel like the driver put everything into it, you just totally see a different part of the racing.”
Bliss has learned so much in what has kind of become an apprenticeship of sorts with Boat’s USAC/POWRi operation that he offers up a good bit of advice to up-and-coming and even veteran NASCAR drivers.
“I think it’d be good for a driver to go backwards in life just once to see what it feels like (as a crew member),” he said. “I think that might make them a better driver.”
Bliss is still at an age where he potentially could get back into some type of race vehicle. He was asked if he might consider joining fellow former NASCAR drivers like Greg Biffle and Bobby Labonte in competing in the upcoming second season of Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart’s Superstar Racing Experience, which begins its second six-week season next June.
“I don’t know if I would,” he said, before quipping, “My thing is I don’t want to get in a car again and like it. I don’t want to go back. I want to stay away.”
There’s no question Bliss’ most successful season was 2002, when he won the Truck Series championship, including earning five of his 13 career Truck Series wins.
And what a back story there is.
Xpress Racing had been caught cheating with one of its Xfinity Series cars (then known as the Busch Series) in mid-June 2001. Team owner Steve Coulter and driver Tim Sauter were each penalized, but crew chief Dave Fuge suffered the biggest hit: He was suspended indefinitely from the sport and fined $30,000.
The team promptly shut down and went up for sale within days of the punishment being handed down. But by the end of the season, Fuge had convinced Coulter — a successful trucking company owner — to return to the sport in 2002 and field a Truck Series team because operating costs were significantly lower, and with Bliss as the driver.
But, there were initial problems that left the team’s future in question.
“It started off the year that we weren’t going to run,” Bliss said. “We didn’t know. (Fuge) was suspended … and didn’t get reinstated until five races into the year. We didn’t know what we were doing, there was no plan, no plan to run the whole year. But we just started winning and finishing good, were leading the points and it just all came together. (Fuge) got his license back and we put everything all together. It was really pretty cool.”
Given the uncertainty the team faced at the beginning of the season, Bliss wasn’t totally convinced he had won the championship right away.
“Like everything else, it doesn’t really sink in until you get home or maybe a few days later, and then it all sinks in,” Bliss said. “I mean, it was really cool because there was no pressure, we didn’t know what we were doing, we were just kind of having fun.
“After it was all over, you want to do it again. But I moved on to the next year and an Xfinity car for Gibbs (Joe Gibbs Racing) and didn’t get a chance to come back and do the Truck again.”
Travis Kvapil replaced Bliss in the Xpress Motorsports Truck and won the championship in 2003. Fuge purchased the team and owned it from 2004-07. In 2009, Kyle Busch bought the team, forming the foundation for what would become Kyle Busch Motorsports.
Another of Bliss’ career highlights also came unexpectedly in 2004.
He was racing full-time in the Xfinity Series for JGR, but he and his team were given an opportunity to compete in four Cup races that season, as well.
On Sept. 11, 2004, Bliss wasn’t on anyone’s radar. He qualified 33rd and probably would have been lucky just to finish the race — likely at least a few laps down.
But he and his team surprised everyone, finishing fourth in a race that was won by Jeremy Mayfield. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second, followed by Jeff Gordon, Bliss and Mark Martin.
“That we finished (fourth) at Richmond was really cool,” Bliss said. “That was an achievement we didn’t expect to happen. But there were also several USAC wins that happened that were pretty cool, like it came down to the last lap and were pretty exciting.”
There also was an unexpected regret to his racing career, one Bliss still thinks about, especially when the month of May rolls around every year.
“When I was in USAC, that was about the time that the IRL (Indy Racing League, now known as IndyCar Series) was starting to form (eventually began in 1996),” Bliss said. “I had some chances to do that and I turned them down to go Truck racing.
“I always wish I would have ran Indy (the Indy 500) in an Indy car and never did. That’s one thing I really missed out on. I’m not saying I really wanted to do a whole, full open-wheel career. But Indy (the 500) was one thing that I kind of missed and not ran. I tested an Indy car a couple times (1994), but I just went Truck racing.”
Bliss also has one key regret when it comes to his time in NASCAR.
“I was driving a truck for Jack Roush in 1999 when I went to drive in Cup for A.J. Foyt in 2000,” Bliss said. “It’s not really a bad thing to go drive for a guy like Foyt, that’s what I thought, but it didn’t turn out.”
After finishing 33rd in the season-opening Daytona 500, Bliss failed to qualify in the next three races (Rockingham, Las Vegas and Atlanta) and was fired.
He eventually hooked up with team owner Jack Birmingham, driving 24 races the rest of that season (ultimately finished 39th). After competing in just one race each in the Xfinity and Truck Series in 2001, he bounced back to full-time competition in 2002, essentially going from zero to hero and Truck Series champion.
So there you have it, the story of Mike Bliss, NASCAR race-car driver.
Wait, scratch that, make that the story of Mike Bliss, journeyman NASCAR race-car driver.
“I never really thought about it (being called a journeyman),” Bliss said. “I just wanted to drive race cars. People would call me to drive ‘em and I just did it, you know? I look back and I wouldn’t want to have to do that (again), but I had to do it (then).”
The Mike Bliss File:
* Age: 56
* Hometown: Milwaukie, Oregon
* Personal: Has been married to wife Sue for 33 years. The couple has one child, a daughter, Brittney, 21.
* Notable: Won the 1993 USAC Silver Crown championship. He likely would have continued running sprint cars and midgets but received an offer to drive in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 1995, the series’ first year of operation, from team owner Jim Smith. Bliss would finish eighth in the standings. … Bliss likely would have won Rookie of the Year honors in 1995, but the series did not name a ROY that season.
* NASCAR Cup Series career: 179 races, zero wins, one top-five and seven top-10 finishes. Best season finish: 28th (2005).
* NASCAR Xfinity Series career: 359 races, two wins, 29 top-five and 76 top-10 finishes. Also three poles. Best season finish: fifth (2004, 2008 and 2009).
* NASCAR Truck Series career: 206 races, 13 wins, 61 top-five, 109 top-10 finishes. Also 18 poles. Best season finish: won the championship (2002).
Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski is writing a number of Where Are They Now? stories this year for NASCAR.com. Check out stories he has already done on Doug Richert, Brian Scott, Robby Gordon, Ricky Craven, Terry Labonte, Kenny Wallace, Trevor Bayne, Ken Schrader, Shawna Robinson, Sam Hornish Jr., Bobby Labonte, Greg Biffle, Ricky Rudd, Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya. Follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.