Waltrip In Prime Time Of His Career At Le Mans
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
A fictitious character dreamed up to sell a Mexican brand of beer has been dubbed The Most Interesting Man in the World for a series of TV ads. Is it possible there really is a person who qualifies for this title, a guy who was born in Owensboro, Ky. and will be driving a Ferrari in his first Le Mans 24-hour this weekend?
Consider the case for Michael Waltrip, who has a very interesting resume – even before teaming with his business partner Rob Kauffman, a London-based financial type, to compete in the world’s biggest and most famous road race.
Waltrip has driven to two Daytona 500 victories. He has run the Boston Marathon in less than four hours – although he wasn’t quite able to get under four minutes for an eight-mile lap of Le Mans during qualifying, ending up 15th in class with one of the AF Corse F458 Italias.
In the ferociously competitive Sprint Cup Series, Waltrip’s in very select company as a former driver who has become a winning team owner. He’s written a New York Times best seller prior to launching a stint as a stand-up comedian. “I had’t ever read a New York Times best seller,” he deadpans, “but I’ve written one.”
The ink has just recently dried on Waltrip’s movie deal for the book, “In The Blink Of An Eye.” He, too, stars in TV commercials, invariably for the sponsors of his race team – but won’t star in the movie biopic by Columbia Pictures. “Ashton Kutcher,” he says, “is going to play me.” And, he may not
In addition to racing on successive weekends at Talladega, at the Le Mans test day and on a dirt track, Waltrip travels faster than the speed of light, almost, via video blogs and Twitter, where he has 65,000 followers trying to catch up with him via @mw55.
By the way, he’s in training for an Iron Man triathlon, despite the fact his swimming is suspect at best. “I don’t train for the swim or on the bike at all,” said Waltrip of his first triathlon this spring. “There were 150 people at the race. They said go! And 149 of ’em jumped in. I just got in and swam behind ’em.” The only training he did on a bike was riding around the circuit at Le Mans to learn the course prior to the test day in April.
Waltrip is not a total neophyte when it comes to sports car racing. He has competed in 24-hour races in Dubai and finished third in the Spa 24-hour in Belgium last summer prior to the Le Mans gambit, which is hardly a lark. He and Kauffman, whom met when the latter opened RK Classic Cars in Charlotte, are looking to add a GT racing division to Michael Waltrip Racing, possibly in the American Le Mans Series.
Kauffman believes the GT class of endurance racing is currently undergoing a Renaissance due to the intense interest of manufacturers. “You have to be in it to win it,” he said. “The idea is to do something like Roger Penske or Chip Ganassi and have a multi-dimensional racing team,” he continued. “We want to try to be competitive and run up front and to put something good on the track. Have good drivers and win races and be a contender to win races.”
Waltrip, at 6-foot-5, and Kauffman, who is almost a foot shorter, make an odd co-driving tandem
visually. “Rob grew up dreaming of racing in the Le Mans 24 hours,” said Waltrip. “I grew up dreaming of racing in the Daytona 500. Our paths are quite different. But the fact we were both kids who loved cars has created quite a bond between us. I think it makes us really good business partners in Michael Waltrip Racing.”
If the GT team idea goes forward, perhaps they should consider calling it Deadpan Alley. Kauffman, like Waltrip, enjoys dry and offbeat humor. When asked about his first impression of the Kentuckian upon meeting him, Kauffman pauses thoughtfully and says, “My first impression was that Michael is very tall.” On one of his video blogs from Le Mans taken in the AF Corse team’s pit, Waltrip explains that Kauffman speaks Italian, which is handy for the team owned by Amato Ferrari. “Bye, bye, bye,” says Kauffman on cue, “means go, go, go.”
Portuguese driver Rui Aguas, a regular in sports cars and often paired with Kauffman and Waltrip, completes the driving line-up in the No. 71 AF Corse car, which will carry sponsorship from Waltrip’s book and RK Classic Cars. The No. 71 car will compete in the Pro class of GT instead of the Amateur class reserved for “gentleman” drivers, because that’s how the AF Corse entry made its way into the race, which is by invitation for those not participating in the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup. AF Corse is also running the No. 51 entry that is considered a contender for the GT class victory and includes former F1 driver Giancarlo Fisichella.
“Rob and I both would probably hesitate to say we are pro sports car racers at Le Mans,” said Waltrip. “We just take it up as a challenge. When we were at Spa in my last stint of the race, I felt comfortable with my times. I felt like I was really close to the lap times of what Rui was doing and the other guys who drive full time. We’re close, but we don’t have the same speed that the folks who do it all the time. Our goal is just to finish and run all 24 hours.”
It was a goal of Dale Earnhardt Sr. to race at Le Mans in a Corvette after retiring from competition in
the Sprint Cup. While funny in places, Waltrip’s book about his relationship with Earnhardt Sr. as a friend and team owner is brimmingly poignant. The book had the very serious goal of enabling Waltrip to stop avoiding his feelings about winning the Daytona 500 on the day his latter-day mentor was killed on the last lap.
“I really had shyed away from talking about Feb. 18, 2001,” he said. “I didn’t tell anybody. I knew the 10th anniversary was coming up and I felt like I needed to come to terms with it better than I had and that’s what I did.”
He describes writer Ellis Henican “as a good dude.” But Waltrip was more engaged than most who use full-time writers to help put together books, he said. “It wasn’t a deal that he would just write down what he heard me say and that’s what the book would be about. I spent a lot of time writing it with him. We became pretty close, a lot of that stuff was pretty emotional for me.”
The book turned out to be therapeutic as well as a best seller. “It gave me an opportunity to not be so negative and try my best to practice what I preach. I was taught as a kid in the Bible it says not to worry about anything, pray about everything. I didn’t do a good job of dealing with that day. I think the book helped me more than I ever thought it would.”
The only other NASCAR book to recently make the Times’ best seller list has also been on the subject of an Earnhardt – the diary of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s rookie season in the Sprint Cup. But “In the Blink of an Eye” is more than an Earnhardt book. It’s much about Waltrip’s own struggles as a competitor in the often unforgiving sport of motor racing. Before he won the Daytona 500 in 2001, he had failed to find victory lane in all 462 of his races in the Sprint Cup.
“I think the reason the book has done well is because there’s a lot of human interest in it,” said Christine Ragasa, who represents the book for Hyperion and its imprint Voice. She also acknowledges Waltrip does far better as a pitchman on book tours than most authors. “He was willing to put in the time and effort beyond the call of duty,” she said.
Waltrip may have survived that losing streak as much by his sense of humor and ability to make friends, as well as his skills as a driver, which were on display in the understudy Nationwide Series, where he was a regular winner. Having an older brother like Darrell Waltrip who won the Sprint Cup three times didn’t hurt, either, when it came to people keeping faith in Waltrip the younger. His regular gigs as a racing commentator on TV helped, which kept him in front of sponsors and displayed the appeal of his wacky humor.
Just like his one-liners, Waltrip never seems to run out of energy or motivation. He hones his motivation by training for extremely demanding events. Waltrip finished his first standard length triathlon in three and a half hours, for example, but vows to be relatively more competitive in an Iron Man by training for an entire year.
“I have to do way better,” said Waltrip, who competed in four marathons before running one in less than four hours. “If you ran one and didn’t do it in less than four hours, that was somebody who just had a hard head and just wanted to run 26 miles,” he said of his marathoning. “If you do it in less than four hours, there’s at least a teeny bit of athleticism in it. It was important to me to be able to accomplish that. I’m still learning how to compete in the triathlons.”
Another source of motivation: Waltrip enjoys the limelight, which seemingly has been following him everywhere he goes at Le Mans, a sign of his recent times. Perhaps it would be stretching it to call him the Most Interesting Man in the World. But he’s sure got some interesting Tweets.
Check this one out from a recent short track race, where he started on the outside front row. “I’m sitting by a pole,” he tweeted. “I think that makes me by polar.”
– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments