Michael Waltrip took a big step last year by starting his own team in the Nextel Cup Series. He's taking a bigger one this year by switching to the unproven Toyota Camry.
Waltrip also will own cars driven by Dale Jarrett and David Reutimann. He took time out during a recent break at a test session at Las Vegas to talk about the challenges of the upcoming season. Here are excerpts of that interview:
Question: How difficult has it been to get ready for the new season?
Waltrip: It's been challenging, but it's been really fun and at times rewarding with all the different hurdles we've cleared. The on-track testing that we've conducted is so far very positive. Obviously, getting Dale and UPS and Domino's and NAPA and everybody signed up to go, it just made you smile. Those people trusted their marketing dollars with our organization to say, "We think you can go race with those guys." That meant the world to me. We've hired a lot of smart people. I really wish y'all would come over there and look. I got more engineers than I've ever seen anybody have. This is my team. That's funny. Everything is going well. Toyota has been a huge support, obviously. I think that the media and people in general just missed the whole key to what Toyota did for me. They brought me credibility. They allowed me to go to NAPA, say, Toyota is going to be my manufacturer. They're going to provide me with technology and equipment that will allow me to go race these other guys. It's never been and it will never be about money. We needed their support to be able to do it, not their money.
Question: How many people does it take to start a team like yours?
Waltrip: We have close to 200 employees on our team. TRD has probably 20 or so dedicated to the teams at the track. Four or five of those are dedicated to our cars. There's a bunch of us. As they say in Stewart, Va., it's a bunch mob.
Question: How will Toyota be greeted in the sport?
Waltrip: More eyeballs are going to be looking at the Fords, Dodges and Chevy's on the racetrack because Toyotas are going to be out there. People are going to tune into the TV to see how Toyota does against the good ol' boys, basically. It's silly for anyone to have a problem with them being here. They're just showing up to race. NASCAR will be more popular because they're here. NASCAR is going to be more popular because Juan Pablo is here. What I don't understand, Jack Roush doesn't have a problem with Juan Pablo coming, why is he so mad about Toyota showing up? You can't handpick who comes in your door. This is a global society. Toyota is certainly welcome here. I haven't talked to one driver who doesn't say it won't be good for the sport.
Question: Will it take time to win traditionalists over to Toyota?
Waltrip: Like Dale (Jarrett) said earlier, I don't have a problem with where we are today. The process to me is going fine. Anytime something is new or different, it's got to be bad. That's pretty much what people think. I'm sure back in the '60s, whenever it was, when they stopped racing on dirt, everybody thought that would be the end of NASCAR. Then when the Chase for the Championship came along, that had to be the worst thing ever. It's been the greatest thing ever. Toyota got fortunate. They came out along about the same time they announced the Car of Tomorrow, and everybody hates it. So now people spend more time griping about it. Changed their target. They have to have something to gripe about. They move from the Toyota to the ugly car. I happen to love that, too. I'm sorry.
Question: Race teams are always looking for speed, but is there a point where speed erases competition?
Waltrip: Obviously, the sport that we have wasn't totally built on speed. There are other forms of motorsports that that's what they're about, is the speed. Ours is built on competition. I think that's where the guys are coming from in talking about that. We don't necessarily have to run 205 miles an hour down these straightaways and slow down very little in the corners when you're out of the gas because that makes it difficult to pass and race side by side to do that. But this is what we have. I mean, there's no reason in really complaining about it. It's what this racetrack is. They felt like this was what was best to keep the fans interested. But we can't lose sight. What we're here for is to have really good competition and close racing. That's what this sport was built on, and we have to continue with that. I'm sure that whether it's this tire or another tire that Goodyear brings back, we'll get all of that right and we'll end up with some really good racing.
-- compiled by Don Coble