COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Thirteen months after a mysterious medical incident sidelined him from driving, Ohio native NASCAR driver Matt Tifft is now NASCAR’s newest – and youngest – team owner.
Tifft, 24, announced Friday that he will field a full-time team in NASCAR’s top-level Cup Series in 2021 alongside current NASCAR owner and driver BJ McLeod. Live Fast Motorsports will enter its No. 78 Ford Mustang in all 36 Cup races next year, beginning with the prestigious Daytona 500 on Feb. 14.
The 24-year-old was born in Virginia but grew up in Hinckley, Medina County, in northeast Ohio. Tifft began his racing life driving go-karts in the Akron area. His race team will be based in Mooresville, N.C., near where most NASCAR teams are headquartered.
“I know in a lot of ways I’m older than 24,” Tifft told reporters Friday over Zoom, “as far as just things I’ve been through, things I’ve learned in my life that are above what a normal 24-year-old goes through.”
An unexplained illness
Tifft’s path to ownership is a unique story of perseverance. After driving his first career NASCAR race at age 18 and rising through the ranks of minor league series, he landed a full-time Cup Series ride in 2019 with Front Row Motorsports. But before a race in late October last year, he suffered a mysterious seizure.
The Ohioan was sidelined for the rest of the 2019 season but was prepared to race in 2020. Then, while on his honeymoon on Dec. 12, Tifft had a second seizure. His body convulsed, he couldn’t breathe or speak, and his tongue and eyes rolled back.
“I could actually see my other eye. It was the freakiest thing out of a nightmare movie that you could ever imagine,” Tifft told NBC Sports in February.
This past summer, Tifft visited University Hospitals in Cleveland so doctors could study what was happening inside his brain. But even after being seizure-free since last December, he says experts are still puzzled.
“They have a general idea, but to be honest, we don’t completely know what was happening or why things are happening,” Tifft said.
Tifft said his seizures were a “protective mechanism” for his body’s electrical activity, akin to how a surge protector prevents electrical fires in a home.
“If you think of a computer, when it trips the surge protector it’s doing it so your house doesn’t burn down, so it doesn’t blow the electrical fuses in there,” he said.
A longtime partnership
Tifft said doctors told him he needs to be seizure-free for two years before there is a low chance of them returning.
Knowing he couldn’t immediately return to driving, Tifft said he explored options from public relations to driver coaching, but mentally he fell into “kind of a dark space” in that “I’ve worked my entire life to get here and all of a sudden it’s gone.”
Ultimately, Tifft found a renewed purpose as a team owner alongside longtime friend McLeod.
“BJ is honestly like an older brother to me,” he said.
McLeod, 37, will drive Live Fast’s No. 78 car, a number that carries over from his full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series team and one that he has driven with since he was three years old. His best finish in 57 career Cup starts is 19th in the 2019 Daytona 500.
A native of Florida, McLeod brings seven years of ownership experience to LFM, having owned teams in all three NASCAR national series. Live Fast will also get help from longtime NASCAR owner Joe Falk.
Tifft and McLeod’s relationship goes back more than a decade to when Tifft enrolled at a driving school in Florida at 12 years old. Tifft drove for McLoed in his NASCAR debut in 2014, the two spent Friday nights on race weekends at the movies, and McLeod was even a groomsman at Tifft’s wedding.
“We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and we can bounce that off each other,” Tifft said. “I’ve been with big teams, he’s ran his own team, so there’s a lot of elements that really balance each other out.”
Live Fast Motorsports will essentially merge with the part-time Cup team McLeod fielded in 2020. The gruff veteran racer is known in the NASCAR garage area for his long hair and skull-and-bones face mask.
“If any marketing partner comes along and asks me to look a little bit different or cut my hair maybe or not wear a skull here and there, I’ll be more than happy to,” McLeod told reporters with a laugh.
“More importantly,” he continued, “we just want the team to be successful, that’s number one. And I’ve just always done my own thing because it worked for where we were at. But this is definitely taking a step up.”
More opportunities ahead
Live Fast will have a “strategic partnership” with prominent Cup Series team Stewart-Haas Racing, “to assist the team in competition and navigating the difficulties of developing a successful NASCAR Cup team,” according to LFM.
The Cup Series will switch to a new “Next Gen” car in 2022, and Tifft says his team’s alliance with Stewart-Haas will help with the transition.
“When we get to the Next Gen car, we’re all going to be learning, we’re all starting from ground zero,” he said.
Tifft also said he does not expect LFM to run at the front of the field or make the 16-driver Cup playoffs in its first year, but he hopes the Next Gen car will be an equalizer.
“Going into 2022 and beyond, it’s a whole new deal,” he said. “Nobody knows what’s coming in that, so we just want to be ready for when that time comes.”
Tifft says that ownership relieves him of the year-to-year worry of whether he will be guaranteed a Cup Series ride. As an owner, he can plan years in the future and make his own unique mark on the sport.
“We want to be here for decades and the long term of NASCAR,” Tifft said, “ I think the biggest thing is that I have a little bit younger demo of a following that can help bring new fans into the sport.”
Tifft said his health situation is “ever-evolving,” so it is not out of the question for him to one day get back behind the wheel of a race car. However, his ownership duties come first.
“I’m not ready to (race) mentally, because my focus right now is on this race team making it as good as it can be,” he said.