Follow me on

Twitter Feed Facebook Feed RSS Feed Linked In Youtube

The pressure's on for Michael Waltrip: time for a breakout

  Michael Waltrip: showman and pitchman extraordinaire....(Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

   By Mike Mulhern


  Is this the make-or-break season for Michael Waltrip?
  Is this the long awaited breakout season for him...as team owner?

  Waltrip, who by the way is a two-time Daytona 500 winner (2001 and 2003), has been driving on the NASCAR Cup tour since 1985, lately as a part-timer, while he builds his own team.
  Throughout it all, Waltrip, now 48, has shown a remarkable sense of humor, typically self-deprecating. And that has helped him during the struggles to make it as a Sprint Cup owner, in a sport where so many other hopefuls have wound up in the ditch.
  But this season, which will be his sixth as a Cup owner, he may wind up having the last laugh -- he's restocked the larder, picked up hard-driving Clint Bowyer (from Richard Childress), picked up Scott Miller (also from Childress) as competition director, and picked up legendary Mark Martin (from Rick Hendrick). Plus, there is the sense that Toyota, his long-time backer, is under the gun this year to get back in the NASCAR game.
  Waltrip's forte has been his sponsor savvy, and his TV work (although at times he comes across as too much the house shill), and his politically astute pom-pom cheerleading for the sport.
  Some of this must be in the genes, considering older brother Darrell, the brasher of the two.
  Since adding Robert Kauffman, the international banker, as business partner (to save the hard-pressed team a few years ago), Waltrip has been much more in the game.
  Waltrip has long been one of NASCAR's best pitch men. And with the addition of X-gamer Travis Pastrana to his marketing operation, Waltrip looks to be sitting pretty -- on the selling side of the game at least.
  Still, this is the bottom line here: Waltrip has only two Cup tour wins as team owner -- with David Reutimann at Charlotte in May 2009, and with Reutimann at Chicago in 2010. Last season, though the tour had 18 different winners, none of Waltrip's men made it to the winner's circle. And Reutimann got bounced at the end of 2011, to make room for Bowyer and Martin.
  But while Waltrip's operation may appear to be struggling out on the track, it certainly is playing a solid game on the business front. This is no down-and-out operation, struggling to make it from week to week.
  In fact, a walk around Waltrip's mammoth racing shop, filled with all the shocks and springs and monster-transformer pit boxes and cars and stuff, the first question is 'How come this bunch isn't contending for wins every week?'
   Here's the deal for 2011:
   -- Martin Truex Jr., who was supposed to be the turnaround player when he was signed for 2010, has little to show so far. He wound up 18th and out of the chase. He did finish second at Bristol in August, but otherwise it was another disappointing season....until Miller arrived late in the year. And Miller points to Truex' strong run in the Homestead finale (a third, contending) as indication of the looming turnaround.
   -- Reutimann showed even less; he wound up 28th in the standings. A second at Kentucky was the high-water mark. Otherwise, likewise a nondescript season.
   Enter Martin, who though in his 50s now is still a potent driver, and Bowyer, whose split from Childress was curious but probably well-timed all-in-all.
   And Miller. He's the guy who gives this thing credibility. Or at least he's supposed to.
   Miller was key to the turnaround two years back at the Childress operation, and he insists he was quite comfortable there, as competition director....until Waltrip and Kauffman came to him with an offer he couldn't refuse -- to turn around what was originally Toyota's flagship operation in NASCAR.
   Waltrip's take on the road ahead:
   "I wasn't smart enough not to do it, when Toyota offered me a team back in '05," he says with a laugh. "Heck, yes, this is exactly what I want to do."
   Of course those early years were, well, disappointing to put it mildly.
   "As we look back now, after walking through (now defunct rival) Red Bull Racing (on the auction block the other day), I realized the resources I've been racing against. I was naive to think I could, financially, race like they did.
   "I cried walking through Red Bull, thinking 'I didn't have a prayer....'
   "They had way more tools than me, but they only won a couple of races.
   "And I'm still here. Hopefully this desire and passion will pay off one day.
   "I just wanted to race; I didn't consider it all. So I spent all the money I had...and fortunately I found a guy who had some more.
   "Rob's financial wherewithal to fund this makes it all possible.
   "My main goal is to take care of these people, to be the spokesman for our sponsors. And I think I did a good job last year of getting Scott Miller on board, and working our team into the right direction. I have a good gig."

   Why hasn't the Truex project worked out yet?
   Waltrip says his company simply wasn't building the right cars. "We're a different organization today," Waltrip says. "We didn't have the right direction.
   "So Rob and I decided in January last year that we were going in a different direction. The leadership we'd had here just didn't work; we weren't consistently battling for wins and for the chase...
   "So Rob and I decided we would take a more active role in what goes on here. The result of that is we've got Scott Miller...and we've reorganized how we run our race teams.
   "We really wanted Scott. And he has not disappointed. He's a race car guy, and he knows how to bridge the gap between engineering and manufacturing.
   "If Scott recommends something, it's highly likely that's what we're going to do."

   One project for Waltrip and Truex is getting results this season that will persuade sponsor NAPA to renew. And Waltrip points to the pressure: "We feel we're giving them the tools to go do the job. And they're looking at 2012 as 'We like how we ended 2011, running top-10 in points the last six or eight races, finishing third behind those two crazy guys in Miami...'
   "Pressure overall going into this season? No question that we are in much better shape. Our cars are better, our engine package collaboration between TRD and Gibbs is better, Scott Miller has his eyes on competition from a global point of view...
   "We have upped the whole organization."



Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.

© 2010-2011 www.mikemulhern.net All rights reserved.
Web site by www.webdesigncarolinas.com