Michael Waltrip: Freak of the Week
DW’s (TALL) LITTLE BROTHER BRINGS CONTROVERSY AND A JAPANESE CAR TO THE DAYTONA 500
(If you don’t enjoy stock car racing, you may want to avoid these pages for the next nine months. While I won’t dedicate every story to the Nextel Cup season, I will cover important events and controversies as the year unfolds.)
Boy, do I love NASCAR! I got hooked on the sport (yes, it’s a sport–I want to see the doubters drive a car for an entire 400-500 mile race at 150mph and tell me how they feel the next day) twelve years ago when I worked at a radio station and had to play local commercials during the race. Less than a year later, I was in Daytona as part of a news team (I was the cameraman) covering Speed Weeks. We would go around the garage area and interview drivers as they prepped for the big race and the upcoming (then) Winston Cup season. Meeting the crew chiefs, tire changers, and big-name stars of NASCAR was a privilege and it helped me appreciate the depth of the sport.
Not every driver was ‘nice’ to the folks covering the event. The late Dale Earnhardt was very serious and difficult to meet. If he saw a camera on your shoulder or a microphone in your hand, he would disappear in a flash. He simply refused to talk to reporters one-on-one, opting instead to hold a press conference where all of the ‘sports lemmings’ could asked questions en masse, thus avoiding having to repeatedly answer the same questions hundreds of times. It was understandable because he was so big and had to exercise some amount of control where he could.
Richard Petty (then roughly three years past his driving career) was just the opposite. I stood next to him and chatted about the weather and his wish to be out on his boat on such a beautiful day. Here was the most successful driver in the history of the sport, running his mouth while sticking tobacco between his cheek and gums, treating a nobody like me as a friend. Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace were also extremely approachable and were able to instantly put you at ease with their kindness. On the other hand, there were some unjustifiable jerks like Geoff Bodine and Ernie Ervin that would make you shake your head in disgust with their rudeness.
One character that stood out amongst the others was Michael Waltrip. Standing well above six feet, he was an imposing figure, yet he had the goofy demeanor of a child. The moment you met him, he would make you feel like you’d been part of his busy life for a long time. His older brother, Darrell, was even goofier sporting his brand-new silver racing shoes like a kid on the first day of school.
Last Sunday, as I watched the drama that has engulfed this year’s Daytona 500 unfold, I felt bad for Michael Waltrip and his entire family. He was already facing a terrible uphill battle as a driver and team owner introducing foreign made cars to an American tradition. Fellow owners (like that hatted midget Jack Roush) had been bad-mouthing Toyota since it initially announced the formation of the teams that would be competing in the 2007 season. Accusations of cheating make bitter old men like Jack Roush smile and only adds fuel to a fire that had been burning bright without this kind of assistance.
Obviously a line has to be drawn somewhere when in comes to bending the rules. Adding some sort of jet fuel to an engine to enhance its performance (as was the case in Waltrip’s offense) is inexcusable. So is the tactic attempted by four other teams (one belonging to Roush Racing) where holes were drilled to increase the down-force on the rear of the car. Too much money is involved on all sides of this issue for these kinds of bad decisions to be made.
I completely agree with the suspension of team members, the amount of the fines assessed, and number of points deducted in all of those cases. I also support the decision to penalize Jeff Gordon’s team for the irregularities that lead to him being moved to the back of the field for this Sunday’s race (even ‘mistakes’ need to be addressed in this manner, especially when they give a race car a distinct advantage.) If anything, I probably would have gone a bit further and docked him 25 points for the infraction. Teams should be forced to step up their vigilance and help curb all offenses; even the ones that are due to an error and not due to some sort of scheming on the part of crew members.
Fortuantely for Toyota, Michael Waltrip was allowed to qualify for the Daytona 500 in a clean backup car that passed all of its pre-race inspections. He wound up making the field and will start 15th when the green flag waves this Sunday. Letting him at least try to make the race gave him an opportunity to take away some of the darkness his team brought to the ‘Super Bowl of Racing.’
Waltrip’s rebound gave a much-needed boost of confidence to his fellow teammates (one of them being my personal favorite driver Dale Jarrett #44) and to the fans who may have lost confidence in his team. For that, I declare Michael Waltrip the Freak of the Week. May he use this title to do some good and clear up any doubts that may follow him the rest of the year.
Boogity-boogity-boogity…let’s go racing, boys!