Michael Waltrip Racing a long way from troubled Cup debut in 2007
Michael Waltrip (55) and Dale Jarrett (44) in 2007. (ASP, Inc.)
The following article was published on Oct. 12, 2007, during NASCAR’s Charlotte race weekend shortly after a press conference introducing Rob Kauffman as the newest investor in Michael Waltrip Racing was held.
At the time, Waltrip’s Toyota team was floundering in its, and the manufacturer’s, first season in the Cup Series. He would later admit to being nearly broke just months after the three-car operation debuted at Daytona. Enter Kauffman, at the time the latest in a long line of “investor-types” to buy into Cup teams desparate for additional funding. Many observers were apprehensive, and with good reason: A number of the same investment firms that bought in soon bailed when its shareholders saw the year-end ledger.
Credit Kauffman for being different. Turns out, he really is “a car guy,” as Waltrip told us that day — although I have to admit that at the time, I wasn’t necessarily buying it. With Kauffman’s aid, Waltrip’s passion and Toyota’s loyalty, MWR has defied the odds and five years later is a force in the most elite form of motorsports in North America.
The column you’re about to read (and its subject) drew more than it’s share of criticism and belligerence from readers when published — certainly more than this humble and somewhat dumbstruck author thought it deserved. That said, I’ve pulled it out of the electronic mothballs (something I’ve never done) as MWR prepares to take its maiden voyage into the Chase to highlight what Waltrip and his determined band of racers were fighting through early in the development of the company.
Passion Fuels Waltrip’s Past, Present and Future
by Matt Taliaferro
published October 12, 2007
The year was 2001. It was my 26th birthday. My father was receiving the Mayor’s Award of Excellence for community service in our hometown of Owensboro, Ky. Darrell Waltrip was there too, accepting the award for excellence in sports. Each recipient stood and spoke, and while I was very proud of my father and felt him to be deserving it was Darrell’s speech that spoke directly to me.
“Find your passion,” he told us that night. Whether that’s ballet or racing, teaching or writing, the path to being happy and successful is to zero in on what you do well and follow it.
The speech has never left me and I was reminded of it once again today — as I am on most — as I sat and watched Darrell’s younger brother map out the future of his racing organization in a press conference from Lowe’s Motor Speedway. I couldn’t help but watch Darrell who sat, nodding approvingly, from the front row as Michael spoke of passion; passion for what he and wife Buffy had created at MWR; passion for a job he feels lucky to do; passion for the community he is blessed to be a part of; passion for the garage area, which he knows is in his DNA.
Waltrip and current MWR driver Martin Truex Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
“It’s just the way I’ve lived my life,” Waltrip later told me from a dark and busy garage. “I’ve watched this sport in 15 years do amazing things and I feel like it was a lot different back when and I just want to be a part of the “pass-through” to make everybody understand that they should be honored to race the cars, not expected.
“I try to live my life that way; to do the best I can to respect the sport and the France family and all the people that have laid the groundwork before me so I can do this. I don’t take it lightly and I guess that’s why I’m passionate about it.”
Ty Norris, Michael Waltrip Racing’s General Manager, understands. He worked with Waltrip while the two were at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and helped mold what has become MWR.
“Michael has a lot of passion to give,” Norris explained. “Whether it’s a charitable event or NASCAR racing. The things he cares the most about he just pours his heart into it. He just becomes obsessed with it and the energy he brings when he talks about this (MWR) gets everybody excited.”
Now you may not be a fan of Toyota’s entry into NASCAR’s Cup Series and you may not be a fan of the driver who spearheaded its entry. Many view Waltrip as more a pitchman than a wheelman and if that’s your opinion, fine. But he’s more than that to a sport that has skyrocketed in popularity and exposure since his first Cup start back in the “old days” (read: 1985). It was a different sport back then; it was a different world. Waltrip knows that in order to stay in the sport he loves, he must change with the times … or stay one step ahead of it.
“It’s too easy in this sport to get down,” Norris continued. “It’s too easy to let the day-to-day minutia run a negative undercurrent (through the team). He doesn’t allow it. He’s always positive, even when we were in our roughest days. He keeps his energy going because he just loves this thing.”
At first glance, it’s understandable why one wouldn’t get the warm and fuzzies for a guy that just sold half his operation to another “outsider” — some corporate suit that knows P&L’s but not K&N’s. But Waltrip, along with being the eternal optimist, is also a realist. It’s just too expensive for a guy — a racecar driver, at that — to survive without more and more money to fund the beast.
We, as fans, must be realists as well. Without guys like Waltrip, whose passion fuels his love for the past, present and future of the sport, what will we be left with? What will the sport become?
Michael left me standing near the garage gate after we spoke, but just before he hopped onto his little golf cart and into the night, he looked back and said something — almost as an afterthought, but with deadly conviction nonetheless — that proved to me his passion and that will stick with me, just as his older brother’s speech years back:
“…and somebody says they saw a boring race last week I wanna hit ‘em, ‘cause I’ve never seen a boring race. Every race I’ve ever seen, I’ve loved it. I’m just a racecar guy.”
Well said, Mikey. If you can’t get behind that kind of fire, you just don’t get it.
MWR experiencing banner year in 2012 with revamped driver lineup
Martin Truex Jr. (56) and Clint Bowyer (15). (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Vito Pugliese
“I’m sorry guys, I just … can’t drive my racecar …”
Those words, tinged with embarrassment, pain and reservation, served as both the low point and springboard for Michael Waltrip Racing. Sitting in his crumpled Camry on the backstretch at Charlotte after wrecking on his second lap of qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600 in 2007, Michael Waltrip’s transition from racecar driver to team owner was going anything but smooth. From crashing out during time trials and having to head home on Fridays, shoddy performance and reliability, to a divorce and a much-publicized incident that saw him barefoot and beating a hasty retreat from the scene of a tipped over truck, the upstart organization that Waltrip started to coincide with Toyota’s arrival in the Cup Series has long since been referred to as a “second-tier” team.
But, while once said with a bit of condescension and hesitation, it appears safe to finally say it with assurance: Michael Waltrip Racing is for real.
Last year, Robby Gordon deemed his fledgling racing operation “a marketing company that races.” Despite two wins with former driver David Reutimann, that same observation so wryly stated could have been attributed to MWR not that long ago — but no longer. Don’t believe me? Watch any NASCAR race (or NASCAR-related programming), and tell me how many commercial breaks are absent a 5-Hour Energy commercial with Clint Bowyer, a NAPA spot without Waltrip or Martin Truex Jr., or an Aaron’s commercial without Mark Martin and Waltrip.
You’d be hard pressed to find a team owner that is as big a piece of marketing his racing operation as the two-time Daytona 500 champion. Waltrip is now also a commentator alongside Chris Myers during FOX race broadcasts, and last year was one of the hosts of Showtime’s “This Week in NASCAR.” It is that popularity and familiarity with die-hards and casual fans alike that has helped Waltrip’s race team bridge the gap from pretender to contender in the span of a few short years.
MWR suddenly boasts, along with Roush Fenway Racing, perhaps the best-balanced driver line-up in the sport. After Carl Edwards declined overtures from Joe Gibbs Racing in 2011, Bowyer became the next most-eligible driver at the end of his contractual rope. Sponsor 5-Hour Energy came a-calling — which in today’s world of finding a ride is as essential as having a helmet. When Richard Childress Racing could not honor Bowyer’s salary demands, it was MWR that offered him a home, much to the bewilderment of many in the media.
Was one of the hottest properties in NASCAR taking a step backward? After all, it was Bowyer who, after being involved with a wreck with Waltrip at Bristol in 2008, deemed him, “The worst driver in the history of NASCAR. Period.”
Bowyer is a driver who has made the Chase for the Championship three times in his six-year Cup career, as well as a Nationwide Series championship in ’08.
As it turns out, his defection to MWR has been anything but a step backward. His No. 15 has been fast weekly, albeit with a couple of stumbles with some blown tires and wall contact at Phoenix, but has since rebounded with a sixth at Las Vegas, fourth at Bristol, and a 13th in California. Sitting eighth in points, just 38 markers out of first, Bowyer’s Chase chances — and opportunities to win — are materializing quicker than most had suspected.
Think of his team as the No. 5 of Kasey Kahne without the hype or horrendous luck.
Truex has been in a similar situation as Bowyer. Since winning what was the Busch Series championship in 2004 and ’05, his Cup pursuits have been left wanting. He joined what had been Dale Earnhardt, Inc. as driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet as it was devolving from Earnhardt’s business built for his children into a diluted conglomeration of other teams that were both failing and floundering.
Truex has one NASCAR Cup win — a Monday running of a rained-out Dover event on the day that Bill France Jr. passed away — and Chase appearance to his credit, both of which were in 2007. Since joining MWR, Truex has little to show beyond having the most appearances in a commercial break.
However, in the last five races of 2011, Truex and crew chief Chad Johnston strung together four top-10 finishes and built upon that with runs of seventh, third and eighth in 2012. And this from a team that, prior to its hot streak, taped together only three top 5s and 15 top 10s in nearly two seasons.
The Mark Martin/Brian Vickers ride. (ASP, Inc.)
On the other end of the driver spectrum is Martin. The 53-year old veteran who five years ago went to a limited scheduled — then back to a full-time ride with Hendrick Motorsports for three seasons — is now back to a part-time arrangement at MWR. Taking over what was formerly the No. 00 Aaron’s Dream Machine, Martin’s re-branded No. 55 has been perhaps the company’s most consistent force over the first five races of 2012.
Martin was up front for the second half of the Daytona 500 before finishing 10th. The following week he won the pole at Phoenix and was running in the top-three until gremlins in the EFI reared their ugly head and saddled the 55 with a “disappointing” ninth-place finish. Martin was then headed to the front in the closing laps at Las Vegas until he tangled with Dale Earnhardt Jr with a handful of laps remaining, relegating him to an 18th-place showing. His 12th at the Southern California 250 last weekend has him 17th in points — despite taking a week off at Bristol (and the tangle with Junior that cost him 10 points).
Bristol brings us to the other half of the No. 55 story — and a fitting counterpoint to Martin.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that Brian Vickers was winning the Busch Series championship at 20 years of age. Following a one-win stint at Hendrick Motorsports (a controversial win, at that), Vickers too jumped aboard the Toyota train as part of Red Bull Racing’s foray into NASCAR in 2007. Driving the No. 83 Red Bull Camry, Vickers established himself as the lead driver with the most experience for the organization and the face of Toyota in the sport. While it took Red Bull a few years to “get right,” a win and a Chase birth in 2009 was evidence that things were headed in the right direction.
However, just as soon as the quirky newcomers came to the sport, they were gone.
Vickers had his own troubles during this time. A recurring problem with blood clots threatened to derail his racing career (and his life) in 2010. When he returned from near career-ending heart surgery though, it appeared as if “The Sheriff” had some scores to settle. Memorable run-ins with Tony Stewart, Marcos Ambrose and Matt Kenseth last season seemed to doom any efforts made in trying to find a ride once RBR made its exit. In short, Vickers had pissed off just about anybody who was in a position to help him.
When Chevrolet intervened and informed Elliott Sadler he was not to pilot MWR’s Toyotas in Martin’s absence, Vickers found his break. At Bristol two weeks ago, he led 125 laps en route to a fifth-place statement finish. He returns to the scene of last October’s crime this Sunday at the track he and Kenseth traded paint, body panels and barbs — and which nearly proved his undoing in the Cup Series. Instead, he’s offered a chance at redemption (and a legitimate shot at winning) with crew chief Rodney Childers atop the pit box, the same man who built the first go-karts Vickers began his racing career in some 20 years ago.
In the face of continuing difficult economic times, the landscape of NASCAR continues to change. From cars that are so sensitive you dare not tinker with a body panel lest you incur a six-week suspension, to EFI units that go bonkers once the engine gets hot or vibrates too much, to former mega-funded teams that have parked the very cars that got them into the sport in the first place, new teams and drivers are starting to emerge as legitimate weekly contenders. During this time, we’ve also seen virtual unknown teams — Furniture Row Racing, Phoenix Racing — and drivers — Trevor Bayne, Paul Menard — become winners.
After five years fraught with frustration, Michael Waltrip Racing’s three teams are now legitimate contenders with a cadre of drivers who have all had their shared struggles in the sport. It’s a long way to the top in NASCAR, but also a short fall to the bottom, and MWR has had a good view of both during its short time in the series. With the current lineup and early-season momentum, it is on the verge of establishing itself as one of the major forces in NASCAR competition for years to come.