DAYTONA BEACH — Frankie Muniz remembers holding his newborn son almost two years ago and asking himself the question every parent does at some point. What will my child think of me?
Muniz realized his major accomplishments were buried in his past. He used to be the star of the hit TV sitcom ”Malcolm in the Middle.” He used to be a famous teen actor and the title character in the film “Agent Cody Banks.” He used to be on “Dancing With the Stars” and drumming in a rock band.
“Everything I’ve done is in my past, right?” Muniz said. “But I wanted him to see me reaching for a dream or reaching for a goal and striving for that.”
So Muniz decided to return to the one piece of unfinished business that still bugged him deep down: auto racing. He’ll drive in his first pro stock car race Saturday at Daytona International Speedway as a full-time rookie in the ARCA Series.
“I think maybe when people hear the story that I’m going racing, they think automatically — ‘Oh, he’s going to have fun, or it’s just a hobby,’” Muniz said. “‘He has money, and he’s just going to go and waste it.’ I’ve heard it all.
“As a racecar driver, my intention is to win the race. I’m not going there thinking I’m going to be happy in 20th. No, no. I want to win.”
Muniz’s sincere love of motorsports started young. As a kid, he’d get up early on the weekends to watch Formula One and NASCAR. He went from his home in Raleigh to NASCAR races in Charlotte and met Dale Earnhardt Sr. before the 2001 Daytona 500 that claimed his life.
Muniz got into a car for a pro/celebrity race at Long Beach and won it in 2005. By that point, Muniz had been nominated for an Emmy and two Golden Globes, acted alongside Amanda Bynes and Hilary Duff and voiced a character on “The Simpsons.” Winning that race trumped all of them.
“That was the greatest feeling I ever had, to cross that finish line,” Muniz said. “I caught the bug.”
He jumped into open-wheel racing in the Formula BMW USA Championship before advancing to the Atlantic Championship. He thought he was poised to get a ride in the prestigious IndyCar Series in 2010, but a bad wreck late in ’09 derailed those plans. While his teammate, Simona de Silvestro, moved on to IndyCar (where she has raced in six Indianapolis 500s and twice finished in the top six at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg), Muniz was left behind with a broken back and pins in his wrist.
“Then,” Muniz said, “life took over.”
Muniz took up acting again. Joined a rock band. Bought an olive oil shop. Got married.
Though the itch to race never disappeared, it took the birth of his son to push it back into the forefront and send Muniz behind the wheel again.
“I’m an old guy in the sport,” said Muniz, 37. “But if I want to do it — if I want to make it at the level that I want to make it — I’ve got to do it now, and I’ve got to do it at a way quicker pace than most people do.”
To that end, Muniz is all-in on racing. He’s only accepting acting gigs if he can fit them around his ARCA schedule (like a 19-day film shoot scheduled in the six-week gap between races at Phoenix and Talladega). Eventually, he hopes his connections in the business and racing world help him become a NASCAR team owner.
For now, though, he is like any rookie. Granted, he’s a famous one, though “Malcolm in the Middle” fans might be taken aback by his facial hair. He’s a fast one, too; his No. 30 Rette Jones Racing Ford turned the quickest lap (182.212 mph) Thursday among the 33 cars who participated in the ARCA 200 practice session.
But during a news conference Wednesday, Muniz sounded giddy about the opportunity in front of him, as if he was still trying to convince himself that he’s about to race on one of the most iconic tracks in the world.
“I’m ready,” Muniz said. “I not only want to prove it to myself, I’m ready to prove it for my family and the amount of time we’re dedicating to this on and off the track. And, I don’t know. Hopefully we’ll be in this world for years to come.”