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.
“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.
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro