If an athlete is supposed to slow down in old age, somebody forgot to tell Michael Waltrip.
Waltrip will be 50 this year. The two-time Daytona 500 champion was at the Canadian Motorsports Expo (CME) this past weekend to greet fans and answer questions.
He’s in the middle of a career transition from full-time driver to full-time owner, but the competitive streak isn’t going anywhere — it’s evolving.
Waltrip stopped driving a full schedule in 2009, and began to focus mostly on team ownership. Mixing the two simply didn’t work for him.
“When we started our team, our cars weren’t competitive and I just mentally didn’t handle it well,” he said. “I put a lot of pressure on us to survive, we weren’t performing for our sponsors, I couldn’t process it all mentally and I think my driving suffered because of it.”
Today, he gets to race at NASCAR tracks he loves — this year he confirmed he’ll race four events, including the Daytona 500 and Talladega — and watch his drivers race for championships. He’s happy with that.
And he’s ramping up the pressure for 2013.
Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) driver Clint Bowyer finished an unexpected second in the Sprint Cup standings in 2012 and expectations are high for 2013.
“If I would have told you at the beginning of 2012 that we’d be racing for a championship, you’d say I’m goofier than I already am,” Waltrip said. “But as we race into 2013 we can’t kid ourselves, we have to say we’re here to win the championship.”
His team, on paper, will field its strongest driver lineup yet in Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Mark Martin and Brian Vickers.
And his cars, he said, are ready.
“If you look at our cars in the wind tunnel and from a chassis development standpoint, the numbers are science, you can’t argue them either.”
It didn’t start well though.
Waltrip began racing the team in the Winston Cup circuit in 2002, inspired by his friend and former boss Dale Earnhardt. He talked about hanging around Earnhardt’s shop before he was even hired to drive for the Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) team, and seeing the respect the man had among his staff. He looked forward to the day he would inspire the same awe.
“I didn’t accomplish everything Dale did on the track,” he said. “But everything I did accomplish, and worked for is there. I spent every penny I had to start a Sprint Cup team. I put it all there. Hopefully the folks that work for me appreciate that and understand the sacrifices and commitment and when I’m there everyday they’re inspired to build our cars faster than anyone else’s.”
A relationship with another racing legend, Joe Gibbs and his team Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) has put Waltrip’s team over the top , Waltrip believes.
In 2011, he began to lean on Toyota, manufacturer for both teams.
“We said we have some smart people at MWR and they have some smart people at JGR and if we put those heads together we’re gonna gain more than we ever will separately.”
They began to work on small projects together, such as tire modelling studies and aerodynamic studies. By the end of 2011, they were sharing information and had Toyota bring everything together.
“Last year was the first year we really saw the results of it,” he said. “I think everybody respects each other on the track and certainly everybody respects each others’ opinion off the track. I’m a big fan of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, and I’ve always been a big fan of Matt Kenseth, and I’m very respectful of all they’ve accomplished and all JGR has accomplished. We’re just trying to accent them and make them better.”
And Waltrip expects the relationships and collaboration to help his own drivers as well.
But if it’s him against one of his guys at the Daytona International Speedway on the 24th, headed into the last lap, he’s not thinking like an owner. He’s still a competitor.
“I want to win,” he smiled. “I’ve got to win.”
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