David Reutimann knows all too well what it feels like to be on a roller coaster. The first-year driver from Michael Waltrip Racing has experienced the ups and downs of Nextel Cup racing harder than most everyone this year, going through the nerve-wracking procedure each Friday of attempting to qualify for races on time… not provisionals. When Reutimann HAS cracked the starting field, he’s had to deal with the gremlins of mechanical failure and rookie mistakes, all of which have taken their toll on a new Toyota team working hard to catch up to the rest of the pack. But having made six consecutive races on speed (PJ Jones drove the No. 00 at Watkins Glen), it’s clear the Burger King Camry is heading in the right direction – and a lot of that has to do with the way one of NASCAR’s brightest future talents has conducted himself behind the wheel.
Our Tony Lumbis talked with Reutimann during the Pocono race weekend about how he’s handled the nerves of Friday afternoons at the track, which Waltrip is the funniest, and why his program on the Busch side is having far more success than his Cup effort to date.
Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch: In many ways, you’ve been the face of Michael Waltrip Racing on the track this season, qualifying for more races than both of your teammates to this point. What do you contribute your success to?
David Reutimann: Ya know, I’ve been asked that a lot, and I really don’t have any answers. I mean, both those guys are good qualifiers (teammates Dale Jarrett and Michael Waltrip)… I just think that my guys are doing a really great job. (Crew chief) Frankie Kerr has been doing a good job getting the cars set up for me.
I probably drive more like an idiot on those laps than they do. I just drive it as hard as I can. Not that those guys don’t – but I think the setups for our cars have been better for qualifying, at least how I like to qualify. At the end of the day, you have to get your car to what your driver likes. I’ve gotten in Michael’s cars and have gone three tenths slower than he could just, because Michael likes something different than I do – and so does D.J. You think you have the same stuff, but a lot of times the setups are drastically different. It’s just completely different driving techniques, and you got to get to what your driver wants. I don’t think the other guys have been able to get that part of it. Also, looking back, I’ve had (crew chief) Frankie (Kerr) since the beginning of the year, and we’ve even tested some before that. So, we’ve been together for a long time. They’ve had some crew chief changes over on the No. 55 and the No. 44, so they haven’t had the chance to jell like Frankie and I have. In the end, I would say that it’s certainly that I’m not any better than those guys (Waltrip and Jarrett) because those guys are good, and they’ve sat on poles and won races. So, it’s just getting the combination that they need to run fast.
Lumbis: Did you have any say in getting Frankie over to be your crew chief?
Reutimann: They asked me, and when it came right down to it, Frankie and I work well together. He was in the organization, and he wanted to do it really bad. There’s a lot to be said when you’re sitting on the pit box; you have to want to do that just as much as you would want to drive the racecar. You want to have to win, and I definitely feel that Frankie wanted that, and we’ve worked well together. Also, it’s just a situation where it was a new team, and we had to get things up and going. Frankie was the guy, and it was a good choice, it was good for me. We’re friends, and I really like the guy. Up and down pit road, there are some crew chief/driver combinations that really aren’t that fond of each other, and I think it’s pretty important that you like one another in order to work well together.
Lumbis: Details are still up in the air regarding your contract status for 2008. It’s been reported that it’s 99% likely that you’ll be back, but you’re hoping for 100%. Does the fact that your status is in limbo affect the way you drive for the remainder of the season?
Reutimann: I’m here at the racetrack, and I’m not even thinking about contract stuff because there is so much to take your mind off everything else that’s going on. You have to focus on the task at hand. I’m really not even paying attention to that. But yeah, it’s in the back of my mind all the time whenever I’m out of the racecar. You’re worried about what your future is. I know Michael and everybody is working really hard to make things happen and trying to jump through all the hurdles and the hoops that it takes to keep good sponsorship on these cars. Hopefully, we’ll be able to announce something in the near future (where) everyone will know what our future holds, and we’ll be able to put that behind us and go on and finish out the year and start next year.
Lumbis: So if you had your choice, for long term plans, it would be right here at Michael Waltrip Racing?
Reutimann: Well, Michael Waltrip has been awfully good to me over the years, whether I was driving for Darrell on the Truck side or Michael on the Busch side. They’ve given me a lot of opportunities, and the organization has gotten stronger as time progressed. I’m proud of the people and what they’ve done and I like the people around me. Yeah, I think there is a lot of unfinished business and it would be good to stick around and see what happens. So, we’ll see what the options are and see what the future holds. Nobody for sure knows what is going to happen. I think the No. 55 and the No. 44 are pretty solid. Our sponsorship is the one that’s in question right now.
Lumbis: Jason Leffler just won Toyota’s first race in the Busch Series at O’Reilly Raceway Park. You have also enjoyed success this year in the Aaron’s Dream Machine, currently sitting second in points. To what do you attribute Toyota’s high degree of success in that series? Do you think your manufacturer’s success in the Busch Series will soon translate into Cup?
Reutimann: It might. Some of the aero stuff and some of the stuff we’ve learned may (allow) us to gain a little bit. You won’t (gain) so much on the CoT stuff next year when all the races are CoT races. The reality of it all is that the motor in the Busch car is the motor we ran in the Trucks. It’s the same basic configuration, it’s really no difference. You’ve got a motor that makes really good horsepower; it’s been tried year in and year out. All they did was take it from the Truck and put it in the Busch car; so, you started off with a proven piece right off the bat. It makes really good horsepower, runs really strong, and it’s everything you need to run up front and win races with. Even though there’s only three Toyotas in the field most times, those three are usually strong contenders to finish well. I think it comes down to the fact that on the Cup side, the motor is completely different, a completely different configuration. It hasn’t had its time to be developed, and we’re falling short on the horsepower side in a lot of situations. They’re getting closer and working very hard on it, but it doesn’t come overnight.
Lumbis: Is it harder to transfer that Truck technology over to the Cup side as compared to Busch?
Reutimann: Yeah. Fortunately, they learned a lot on the Busch motors and Truck motors, but still, it’s a different motor. If you sat them together (Cup and Busch/Truck) side by side, they don’t even look the same visibly from the outside, and there’s a ton of stuff different inside. So, you’re taking an unproven piece versus a proven piece, and it’s really not a fair comparison because the Toyota Cup configuration is so new.
Lumbis: You’ve followed in the footsteps of your father Buzzie’s career. How influential has he been in your own career to date?
Reutimann: He’s, wow, I mean, he’s influenced everything I’ve ever done in more ways then he probably will ever know. He’s my dad, first and foremost. I’ve been all over the United States and Canada with him racing since I was very young, basically since birth. Then when my career started going and he was cutting back a little bit, he was with me all over the country racing. He’s basically kept me racing, and not really so much through money because we really didn’t have any. We just raced really hard and worked really hard. He’d been down there with me week in and week out thrashing on racecars and putting things together and trying to make (things) happen and get me noticed and keep me racing. I tell people a lot that I can’t ever remember my dad and I throwing a football at each other or throwing a baseball around the yard. But we’ve been in Victory Lane together. We’ve been broke together. Broke down alongside the road. We’ve argued and we’ve cried. We’ve done a lot of stuff, and we’ve spent more time together than a lot of people ever get a chance to spend with their parents. I feel pretty special that we were able to have that kind of relationship.
Lumbis: You have the unique situation of representing two primary sponsors this year with both Domino’s and Burger King. Does that add on extra demands to your time?
Reutimann: No, both sponsors are very good. They both ask very little. Burger King sponsored a car some years back, and Domino’s has been affiliated with NASCAR as the Official Pizza and (is also) affiliated with MIS. I think they’re really a joint venture together. Even though they’re not the same company, they’re both sharing time on the car. I think it’s a pretty unique situation, carrying two places on the car that sometimes may compete against each other.
It doesn’t really add any pressure. You just want to do the best you can for your sponsors all the time, and that’s how it is. They’re both great companies, and you want to do your best for them because they take good care of us and they’re very good sponsors to have.
Lumbis: Earlier this year at California, you experienced one of the hardest hits ever recorded in NASCAR. It was obvious that the soft walls and HANS device contributed to the fortunate outcome of the wreck in terms of your health. Are there certain other safety initiatives you would like to see enacted by NASCAR after experiencing that wreck?
Reutimann: I think NASCAR is doing a very good job. They were trying to accomplish a lot with the CoT, and I think one of the main things they were trying was getting a safe racecar for people. I think they’ve been able to do that. I know they’ll look at things and continue to make improvements, whether it’s through differences in the barrier or energy impact foam that they have in the CoT program (or other things). They’re doing a very good job, and I’m sure their safety program will continue to evolve. I think maybe the only thing, as a driver I would like to see, is similar to what the NHRA does with their Safety Safari deal. They have one group of people who go to all the races. All those people know the cars intimately, they know the drivers and everything about them. When you get in a bad situation, those guys are always the same guys that come to your aid. I would like to see something like that just because it would make the sport safer.
Lumbis: It seems like we’ve heard similar requests for quite a while now.
Reutimann: I think so. In retrospect, the people we have are very good. From the infield care center to the safety people, they do an extraordinary job. I’m not taking anything away from them. I just think it would help those people do their job better if they had a group that was doing it all the time along with the help of those people who volunteer their time now. The safety guys now, I’m sure they don’t get paid anything just to come and help us out. They’re here because they love racing and want to be a part of it, and they do a very good job. It’s not that I’m taking anything away from what those people do. I just think it would be the next logical step.
Lumbis: On TV, you appear to be one of the most nervous drivers in the garage area right before qualifying. Is this because of pressure you feel from your owner and sponsors, or is it mostly self-generated?
Reutimann: It’s self-inflicted. Jennifer (Referring to Jennifer Chapple, David’s Public Relations Representative who was nearby for this interview) has been with me since my first race in the Truck Series. She’s been there through my wrecks, been in the infield care center. We’ve been through a lot together over the years. She knows as well as anybody how hard I can be on myself and how much pressure I put on myself. As she’s pointed out in many situations, it’s not the healthiest way to deal with things. I really don’t know how to do it any other way, so I just kind of go with it. I think I’ve gotten a little better as time goes on. When you want something as bad as I want this, every time you have a bad race, you feel like you’re blowing your shot. It’s just the mentality that I’ve always had. It drives her (Jennifer) crazy, it drives my wife crazy and everybody around me, but I can’t help it. I’m getting a little better, a little better.
Lumbis: You have been able to drive for both Waltrip Brothers in your career, both with pretty good senses of humor. Who is funnier?
Reutimann: They’re both really funny. Michael comes up with some of the most off the wall stuff that it makes you laugh, and he does it to make you laugh. DW can be a little more serious, but he also has a great sense of humor. They’re just two great guys, and if you get both of them together, you’ll laugh so hard that your stomach hurts. They go back and forth, and they mess with one another and they joke and carry on like brothers. It’s pretty neat to be a part of that. They’ve both been very good to me over the years and have given me a lot of valuable advice, help, and guidance. I owe a lot to the whole Waltrip family as a whole. I think they’ve been very good to me.
Lumbis: Sounds like you need both of them before qualifying to loosen things up a little.
Reutimann: Yeah, the problem is that Michael and I both kind of keyed up for qualifying. Sometimes Michael is not in a joking mood before qualifying, and neither am I. Either way, it’s fun to be a part of this organization, and it’s an ongoing process. We’ll just keep plugging away at it.
Lumbis: Dare I ask who is the better owner?
Reutimann: No, absolutely not. (smiles). They both definitely have their strong points. DW likes to be involved and likes to tell you what he thinks and how he thinks you should be doing things. Michael is more of a guy that will let you go let you do your own thing. Completely opposite ends of the spectrum; but both are very good guys, and they both can get the job done in their respective ways of doing things.