Growing up in Indiana, Cody Zeller always had an interest in racing. He wanted to attend the Indianapolis 500, but as an aspiring NBA basketball player, the annual event never matched with an open weekend on his schedule.
Now, living in Charlotte and playing for the Hornets, Zeller has been able to attend two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Charlotte Motor Speedway as a guest of Michael McDowell and Leavine Family Racing.
On May 24, Zeller attended the Coca-Cola 600 – the longest race of the 2015 NASCAR season.
"I'm excited for it," said Zeller before the race. "In October I got a taste of it, but obviously this is a bigger race and everything surrounding it is bigger so I'm looking forward to it. It's amazing to see the pre-race activity and the access everyone has before the race starts. It would be like having family and fans on the court during pre-game warm-ups."
Zeller and McDowell first met at the K-LOVE Fan Awards in 2014 where Zeller was nominated in the Sports Impact category and McDowell presented the award. They ended up spending time together and developing a mutual respect for one another. Zeller was complimentary of McDowell and Leavine Family Racing's approach in NASCAR.
"I think that's the reason Michael and I hit it off right away," he said. "I've always grown up and been raised the same way, as far as doing things the right way. I respect him for that and for taking a stance on that as it's uncommon in sports today."
The Charlotte Hornets almost made it into the conference playoffs this past season, where Zeller played in 62 games of his second NBA season.
"There are a lot of little things about NASCAR that are comparable to basketball," he said. "The preparation for it and the teamwork aspect stand out the most. Just being around these guys you can tell it's a whole group effort. And the same as basketball – everyone has to be on-point to create a victory."
Zeller stayed for the entire race – watching from the No. 95 pit area where he chatted with the No. 95 pit crew and listened in to the calls and strategy from crew chief Wally Rogers.
"I really enjoyed watching Wally call the race from the top of the pit box," said Zeller. "I was able to listen in to the discussions and hear what drove the decisions. Overall, it was a great experience and I think I'm turning into a race fan!"