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Michael Waltrip’s Goofy Run At Team Ownership Hits The Skids

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, August 21 2015
Michael Waltrip Racing's unlikely shot at the big time is coming to a likely finish. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

Michael Waltrip Racing’s unlikely shot at the big time is coming to a likely finish. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

It’s debatable as to whether people make their own luck or not. It’s less debatable as to whether goofy, um, stuff, happens to goofy people. Enter NASCAR’s Michael Waltrip.

It was a couple days after first-round qualifying during the 2007 Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway when NASCAR made a stunning announcement.

bugopinionMany in the media had headed out of the infield media center and were down on Atlantic Avenue for warm breezes and cocktails when NASCAR’s top cop, Robin Pemberton, announced that Michael Waltrip Racing had been caught cheating.

Two MWR crew members – vice president of competion Bobby Kennedy and Waltrip’s own crew chief, David Hyder – were escorted off the DIS property after it was determined that the team had violated a sacrosanct rule on fuel additives.

When Waltrip finally took the dais to talk about the incident, he looked like he had just been probed by an unclean space alien. He talked about children and explaining things to them and how he had thought about pulling out of the 500 because of the penalties.

In the back of the room, officials from Toyota, the Japanese automaker which was attaching its NASCAR wagon to MWR in its debut season in Sprint Cup, also looked probed.

Then-head of TRD Jim Aust would issue the following statement: “We are disappointed and concerned in the events that have happened over the past few days. These activities have been a distraction to our main goal this weekend – which is to compete in our first Daytona 500.”

Embarrassment was order of the month for all involved back in February of 2007.

Thus began MWR’s entry into stock car racing’s big time.

Then on Wednesday of this week, the exit was announced.

In between, there has been often-bizarre history – some of which that has wobbled back and forth between clumsy and maddening for fans, team, drivers and, especially, Toyota Racing Development.

There has been a bit of tragedy as a driver upon whom MWR had pinned massive hopes – Brian Vickers – has gone through life-threatening consequences of blood clotting.

And then there was the beginning of the end: The 2013 penalty the team was assessed when it was deemed that Clint Bowyer had purposely tanked the race finish at Richmond in order to get a teammate Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase. MWR sponsors freaked.

What there has not been is the success that many in the sport had expected for a team backed by superior corporate sponsorship and what became the world’s largest car company.

Waltrip himself is enigmatic. Everybody knows he’s the younger brother of NASCAR Hall of Famer and three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip. Everybody knows he’s won a couple of Daytona 500s but little else. Everybody knows that he appears to revel in being a buffoon.

Not many people know much else.

Over the last couple of weeks, as the future of MWR was being put into question, a couple of colleagues who have spent a lot of time around Waltrip were asked about him and queried as to what their thoughts were about him as a person/racer.

To a colleague, the answer was: You got me. They described a person who ran hot and cold and was a rapidly moving target when it came to doping the guy out.

Many wondered how a guy with limited success as a driver and a persona which may be best – and charitably – described as American Gothic goofy – would be able to assemble a competitive Cup team much less work his way into being Toyota’s bell cow operation.

But after setting to work, some positives began to emerge at MWR. Waltrip began to attract top, Fortune 500 sponsors to his team. Then there was the signing of Cup champion and future Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett to one of the team’s drivers seats.

A visit to a TRD engine facility in North Carolina during a media tour back in the day produced this thought: Perhaps this guy, with TRD at his back, just may be able to build a competitive organization.

Other people came around to agree over the years. Smart people. Talented people – like wealthy businessman Rob Kauffman and top-tier driver Clint Bowyer, who signed on to fund and drive with MWR respectively.

After Bowyer came aboard in 2012, MWR finally began to experience consistent on-track success. It appeared the team just might become top tier.

But success proved not to be sustainable. The two MWR cars – down from three – this year have fallen back to mid-pack. Bowyer’s chances of making the Chase are looking extremely iffy.

Then came news this month that Kauffman was bolting and would hook up with Chip Ganassi’s team. Then came news that Bowyer was being freed up to pursue another job next year. And then came Michael Waltrip telling reporters that his team’s future is bleaker than bleak.

“My hope is somebody wants to have a really nice shop, full of really cool people that work together well and want to have a race team,” Waltrip said during the Truck Series broadcast. “Hopefully somebody wants to have a team and they could have it right there at our place.”

So, what happened? Did he end up spending too much time on his TV gig at Fox Sports? Was he  in over his head from the beginning? Did his act grow stale?

A person who has worked for MWR for most of its existence once told me that Waltrip is a lot smarter, a lot shrewder than he appears. That’s probably true but in a business in which hundreds of millions of dollars are involved, appearances matter.

The take here is that Michael Waltrip was just never cut out to sit at the adult’s table; that goofiness can only take you so far – especially when you’re going head to head with the likes of Penske, Hendrick, Roush and Ganassi.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, August 21 2015
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