Garrett Mitchell is almost everything we should want the sport of drag racing to look like. He loves going fast, he loves the NHRA and he knows the history of the sport so much he uses Don Garlits’ Museum of Drag Racing as an example of a life goal. Mitchell is also just 23 years old, loves Mountain Dew, embraces storytelling and has 1.2 million subscribers on YouTube.
[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in DI #141 in February of 2019.]
Mitchell and his persona, the wildly popular Cleetus McFarland, have made him one of the most popular figures in the sport today. From December through the end of January, more than a dozen videos Mitchell released reached a million-plus views, most of them hitting that number in just days. Some in that span have eclipsed two million, another is approaching three million views and one video – “The Jet Camino’s Roll Cage Is Incredible” – was one of YouTube’s – yes, the entire website – top trending videos, as it accumulated nearly 600,000 views in less than 24 hours.
Providing entertainment was always part of Mitchell’s plan and it turned out drag racing was the backdrop for him to thrive. “(Growing up), my dream was to have a talk show,” Mitchell says. “I always looked up to Jay Leno and I’ve always been really goofy and I love making people laugh. That’s my biggest thing, making people smile and laugh.”
To say a guy like Mitchell is important to the future of drag racing is an understatement. Not only do legions of fans flock to his YouTube page the moment their phone dings with a Cleetus McFarland notification, taking the Cleetus show on the road has created a rollicking scene at dragstrips across the country.
He has 20 events lined up for 2019, including his wild “Cleetus and Cars” show that is the complete opposite of whatever you envision is a typical drag race. This is more like drag racing and partying on steroids, combining every aspect of what you wish a race, car show, fair and trip to the circus would look like. It promises demolition drag racing, burnout contests at sunset that go to the extreme, grudge racing and a post-event highlight video on YouTube to relive the madness. It’s not nostalgic Americana or even classic drag racing, but that could be why it works.
Young fans show up in force, embracing the light-hearted, full-on fun ‘Murica culture that Mitchell has thrived on. Terms like “Who’s ready to go FREEDOMING!” and “Bardle Skeet” and “Do It For Dale” fully showcase the enjoyment-at-all-costs approach, and millions of fans are more than happy to help play the part of the longstanding joke, as long as there are fast cars, wild antics and plenty of horsepower involved.
Mitchell and his crew take the redneck persona to entertaining, tongue-in-cheek levels, but drag racing and great storytelling remains the centerpiece of all of it. Looking at his success, one thing remains clear as the sport delicately tries to wade the waters of its growth and future in this new, digital age: Drag racing and fast cars are not the problem.
Mitchell can attest to that, and one look at his subscriber page and fan interest backs it up. “The sport is evolving, but there’s so many people interested in so many different aspects of the sport,” Mitchell points out. “There’s a huge car culture fanbase and that shows in all the different types of things people are interested in, whether it’s drag racing or burnouts or drifting or whatever. But I definitely think there’s a growing fanbase. I think people just like things they can relate to and there’s a lot of great things going on right now.”
McFarland is at the forefront of that, mostly because he’s willing to do something decidedly different. That includes bringing a salvage-titled, stripped Corvette to life, purchasing another Corvette with a truck engine in it and his latest project, putting a jet engine in the back of an El Camino.
It’s drag racing to the extreme, but it’s also not. There’s not 10,000 horsepower involved or 330 mph runs, and everything McFarland uses to get to his end destination is available to his fans.
Instead, it’s perhaps recognizing what the drag racing crowd wants to see, and Mitchell took note of this as early as 16 years old when he met Kyle Loftis, the owner of 1320Video. It was right when Instagram was starting, and Mitchell, knowing the massive following 1320Video already had on Facebook and YouTube, offered to run the new social media platform.
Loftis gave him the Instagram reigns and Mitchell soon became an expert in the power of social media. Since then, we’ve seen YouTube stars come to life, with the platform exploding in popularity for every subject matter imaginable.
But drag racing is part of that, with millions flocking to the page to watch endless videos. As Mitchell worked with 1320Video, he figured out how to embrace that new revolution, honing his producing, editing and monetizing skills, recognizing an opportunity on social media far before most – especially in this sport – saw it.
It soon led to his first appearance in a video and Mitchell’s Cleetus McFarland persona was hatched in 2015 at Rocky Mountain Drag Week. The character – with ‘Murica oozing out of his pores – went viral overnight and Mitchell had found his path. He started “Cleetus’ Garage” on 1320Video and before long Mitchell had his own YouTube channel that catered to his growing fanbase. “That is the foundation of what built my channel today,” Mitchell says. “I learned skills, I was able to gain a following and Kyle basically threw me out of the tree and said, ‘fly.’”
Now, Mitchell produces multiple videos every week on the hijinx of his daily life in the sport and the off-the-wall cars involved in them. He took viewers on an emotional, thrilling ride last year as “Leroy”, the salvage-titled Corvette, finally became the first GM-powered stick shift car to make a 7-second ride when it went 7.824 at 176.57 mph in August. Around three million people have watched Mitchell buy his latest Corvette – one with a truck engine in it – and his burnouts in everything from “Project Neighbor” to his Dale Earnhardt truck have become massive hits on his channel.
With his popularity continuing to boom, Mitchell talked with DRAG ILLUSTRATED about how he built a massive following on the basis of storytelling, why interest in the sport may be higher than ever and what the future holds for the captivating YouTube star.
This story has such a fascinating, humble beginning and certainly something you never could have expected, especially as you compare it to the full-length videos you create now. What do you remember about how Cleetus came to be?
I did this video right in front of Tom Bailey’s 6-second Camaro that he brought to Rocky Mountain Race Week (in 2015). Basically I stood there and said, “I just want you guys to know my car is made in America and so am I,” and I did this goofy redneck accent and Kyle just blurts out this name, “We’re standing here with Cleetus McFarland,” so I do this whole goofy little skit. I thought it was pretty fun, but you’re like, whatever. So I go to sleep and Kyle edits up this video he took on his cellphone and he posts it on his Facebook page that had around 2 million followers at that time. I wake up at around 8 a.m. – five hours later – and my phone was just exploding. There were nearly a million views of the video already. It literally went the definition of viral and pretty much from that day on I was known as Cleetus. It’s been pretty amazing.
Throughout this process of building a following and creating this Cleetus persona, you’ve surely discovered a few methods to stand out and develop content. What have you found has worked for you in creating a connection with drag racing fans?
Probably the number one thing is positivity and remaining positive no matter what happens, because shit happens. We’re devoted to keeping a smile on our faces and moving forward. There’s just so many times on my channel where I’m leading people into something as epic as I can make it and a head gasket blows or a transmission breaks. You take that hard sometimes, like you let down the world, and it’s all about positivity. No matter what happens, at the end of the day, if one of my viewers sits down after a long day of work and wants to watch a Cleetus video, I’ve got to be there and be doing something fun and having a good time. Positivity and good vibes are at the core of our channel for sure. We try to never have a bad time.
What other aspects do you have to consider when putting out content as frequently as you do?
There’s so many aspects of it. We have to work really hard to make good content and you can tell if something is good or not. It’s so transparent when content was worked for. There’s a lot of YouTube channels – and I used to do it, too – where you think of the easiest possible video I could make at this time. Some of those did get good views, but people wouldn’t stick around for the next video. But I found the more work I put into them, making every video that much better, it’s a key ingredient into actually growing. You know, sometimes you can get lucky and get someone in the door with a good title and a good thumbnail, but if you don’t have what they’re looking for on the other side of that door, they’re never going to come through it again. That’s been an important thing for me to remember.
When it comes down to it, what constitutes something being a good video in your mind?
For me, we’re very real-time, so there’s not an exact formula to my videos. We’re not thinking like, “Intro, Climax, Outro.” It’s not on that level because it’s so real-time and so day-to-day. Some videos are like a movie, but a good daily video is welcoming everyone to the channel, setting the video off with a good tone, going to do something fun and interesting and have it pay off, whether it’s something funny or something that makes the car faster. And then we’ll outro the video and that’s a good daily video. My favorite videos, though, would be a series, like when we made the 7-second pass with Leroy. It took me almost a year to get there. So there’s probably 50-60 videos of us trying, breaking stuff, fixing things, figuring out how to not do that again and repeat a mistake and then trying to better ourselves to reach our goal. And then when we did make that 7-second run, it was basically like a 48-minute video and it was pretty incredible. That’s like a movie and it really paid off. There’s not a perfect formula, but it’s a matter of putting everything out there, no matter if it’s your best day or your worst day so our viewers can be right there with us.
You mentioned the 50-60 videos entailing your journey with Leroy and how people just latched onto that whole journey. It was pretty remarkable to watch and each part of the journey seemed relatable, like someone could take this path alongside of you in their own car. Why do you think people have felt so close to this?
A lot of people have asked me when they’re trying to start a channel, “You know, what car should I buy,” or something like that, and obviously a good project car is good for a channel. But, man, it’s always about the stories. Say tomorrow I went and bought a new McLaren or Ferrari or something crazy and tried to force it on the channel. People would say “cool” at first but that eventually wears off over time. A month ago, I bought this Corvette at the auction and it had a freaking truck motor in it that someone swapped in it and took it to the auction. Stupid me, I bought it online and never got to see it, and the video got a million views and everybody loved it. It was just a cool story.
People obviously want to see the cars, but it seems like personality and storytelling have really made the difference. How has that been apparent to you?
It’s not only about the car, it’s about the story. You can find the coolest cars in the world and bring them to the channel and people will like it, but man, when you get a good story behind it, that is priceless, man. The red Corvette and Leroy are two perfect examples of top-notch stories.
People want to see you go fast, but I think I could be going a lot slower than we are and still have a big following. Leroy is extremely fast, no doubt. Does he need to be that fast? No. Could we have set our goals a little lower and done well? Yeah, I think so. I think people are there for the journey, man, and the good stories that go along with that. I know that’s what we’re there for and that’s really important to us, finding good stories and showing everything about them, just totally real-life things that a drag racer goes through on a day-to-day basis.
It’s almost like you’re bringing fans to life, making them love something they didn’t even realize existed or they knew they wanted to be part of. In looking at that, do you feel like there’s a significant young fan base that wants to be part of this sport?
Yeah, I think there’s a huge fanbase from people who want to do what I do. I think there’s a big fanbase for the car culture in general. It’s a way to make a living now and it’s a way to do what you love and I think there’s a growing fanbase in that. In that same aspect, I think people who do what I do and are respectful and kind, and show the fun of drag racing while we’re at it, I think it helps grow the fanbase of drag racing.
One of the things I do on my channel, we try not to have any hard language so that dads and grandpas can watch with their kids. We let stuff slip here and there when you’re really pissed off or it’s getting really crazy, but when we keep it clean it allows the younger audience to get into the videos because their parents let them watch.
How much is being relatable a part of your success? It seems like someone could watch this and decide they want to build a car and take it to their local dragstrip.
That’s 100 percent the case and it is relatable because, really, all we’re doing is building a car and racing it. It started in a garage and I’m still using the same tools and I’m still going to the same dragstrip right by our house. They’re all parts you can get online and not a single part is proprietary to my car. These are all attainable things and there are no secrets. My car is what it is and my tuneup is out there and online for people to see. The tuning changes are all online. Every part of it is reachable. It would take time and money, but I definitely think it’s attainable.
It seems like there’s a segment of the drag racing community who continuously long for the “good ole’ days” or think the sport’s in trouble when that’s really not the case. That’s a mindset we’re really trying to change as well, but do you see a different perspective of the sport?
There’s definitely a crowd that frowns upon the way that I do things because we’re very headfirst even if we don’t know what we’re doing. We’re doing something different. You know, we don’t even have a body on our car (Leroy) and that pissed a lot of people off. But I gotta tell you, and the drag racing community has a lot of hate sometimes, but there’s so many good people in the sport. The competition is good, it’s fun, it’s respectful and it’s good for everybody. Even if you frown upon the way the next guy is doing something or faster than you, who are you to say something? The sport has to evolve and you just have to do your thing. The sport’s going to evolve no matter what and whatever path you take, so be it, man. The sport is going to evolve no matter what, so you just have to be able to adapt.
At the events you’re at, whether it’s Cleetus and Cars or the Street Car Takeover, there’s definitely a young fan component there. How is the sport evolving, based on what you see?
I think it’s evolving in a very positive way. There’s so many street cars that people bring out. You go to a Street Car Takeover and there’s 400 street cars there drag racing in 15 different classes. It’s so fun. You’re back in the pits and everyone is talking about what’s in their car, and vendors are there talking about their products. I think the street car market is incredible and it’s on fire right now.
Your videos get an instant reaction these days and it’s not uncommon for them to reach a million views overnight. That still has to be a massive thrill for you. What goes through your mind during this process, when you see a video take off instantly?
It’s so unbelievable, man. I’m just blessed to be in the position I am in. There’s so many people to thank for it and so many people have taught me so many things, including all my sponsors who dove in blindly with me with this. There’s so many good people in this sport and so many passionate fans who have helped me through the rough times when parts are flying and things are going crazy. It’s totally surreal, man, and I couldn’t be happier with my job.
With your position and popularity, you’re now a big part of bringing new people into the sport, almost like a beacon of hope for drag racing in a sense. Do you view that as pressure?
I don’t look at it as pressure because no matter what happens I’m going to do my same thing every day. I don’t think there’s pressure. I don’t have anyone who tells me what to do because we don’t have any corporate people above us and that’s the way we want it. We’re just doing what any other guy would do. I try to keep it as pure as possible and I don’t feel like there’s any pressure because it’s real life to me.
Looking into the future, do you have aspirations to drive competitively, whether it’s a Top Sportsman car or something else?
I’d be silly to give up what I have to go to work for a team that could control me. I would probably love driving a faster car. I live for adrenaline, but I would be silly to give up how much fun we have every day to work for a team.
What about your own team? Would you want to start your operation?
I don’t want to get to that point. I like my junkyard car and I like my ghetto Pro Mod Corvette and I like my jet car that I’m building. I don’t want to be the fastest car on the planet, I just want to entertain people.
When you look at the sport overall, is it something where you consider yourself a fan? Do you follow NHRA and are there drivers that really stand out to you there?
I think the NHRA cars are unbelievable and those teams work so hard. The NHRA, just like everyone else in the drag racing community, is going to have to adapt to the new movement of everything. As far as racers go, “Stevie Fast” (Jackson) is the man. I’m actually hoping to do a video with him soon.
A guy in your position with a tremendous fan following, is there advice you would give to a guy like “Stevie Fast” or another top driver to continue to try to reach a new segment of fans in the sport?
I think some of those cars can be unrelatable in certain aspects because of how gnarly they are, but those guys are so good. They know those cars in and out and I think they could still do exactly what I do. In his videos, “Stevie Fast” started explaining what they do in a way everybody could understand, so I think someone like him could be successful doing something like what I do, and I think he already is. It’s just a matter of making everything relatable. Even though we’re doing a jet on our El Camino, it seems crazy but it’s pretty basic in the grand scheme of things.
I’ve come up with so many ideas in the past and been excited about them. I’ll produce, post the video and it will get a quarter of my normal videos. It’s so hard to know what works and doesn’t work, and YouTube is super unpredictable, but until you try you’ll never know.
So where does this journey continue to go? Have you mapped out how want this all to look like, whether it’s more project cars, a different direction or something else entirely?
I hope I’m a YouTuber when I’m 80 years old. There’s a life cycle to every business and I understand that, but I’m going to do this as long as I possibly can. Like everyone else, I’m going to keep an eye out for that next thing and the next transition, and I’ll try to adapt to the best of my abilities. There’s a few ideas we’re working on right now just to better ourselves in any way possible, just like any business. It doesn’t look like a business, but it is a business, but at the same time you have to keep it like it’s not a business. That’s kind of how YouTube is. I just want my fans to see the cars, see us having fun and I want them to feel a part of it. But at the end of the day we need to keep the business aspect alive, too.
In your dream world, and you’re probably pretty much there already based on what we’ve see online, what does your future look like?
My real dream is to buy a restaurant, almost what a Quaker Steak would be, and have some of the cars we’re not running at the time around the restaurant, and then maybe a museum down the road like Don Garlits has. That’s all in the future, but I sure do dream about it a lot. I hope I can keep going with this and keep doing our thing.
I’ll say this, I don’t want to be a mainstream person. If Good Morning America or some other show called tomorrow, I don’t think I would even take the time to be on their show. As cool as mainstream is, man, I would rather spend my time making a cool video for my viewers than go be on some massive, mainstream news outlet. I love what we do and how we do it. We use GoPros to film everything and we have no plans to increase our production budget.
We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing, and hopefully more people catch on and tune in and smile with us everyday.
Photographs by Josiah Richwine and Kevin Cox