The year was 2002. It was my 27th birthday. My father was receiving the Mayor’s Award of Excellence for community service. Darrell Waltrip was there too, accepting the award for excellence in sports. Each recipient stood and spoke and, while I was very proud of my father and felt him to be more than deserving, it was Darrell’s speech that spoke directly to me.
“Find your passion,” he told us that night. Whether that be ballet or racing, teaching or writing, the path to being happy and successful is to zero in on what you do well and follow it.
The speech has never left me and I was reminded of it once again today, as I sat and watched Darrell’s younger brother map out the future of his racing organization in a press conference from Lowe’s Motor Speedway. I couldn’t help but watch Darrell who sat, nodding approvingly, from the front row as Michael Waltrip spoke of passion; passion for what he and wife Buffy had created at MWR; passion for a job he feels lucky to do; passion for the community he is blessed to be a part of; passion for the garage area, which he knows is in his DNA.
“It’s just the way I’ve lived my life,” Waltrip told me from a dark and busy garage. “I’ve watched this sport in 15 years do amazing things and I feel like it was a lot different back when and I just want to be a part of the “pass-through” to make everybody understand that they should be honored to race the cars, not expected.”
“I try to live my life that way; to do the best I can to respect the sport and the France family and all the people that have laid the groundwork before me so I can do this. I don’t take it lightly and I guess that’s why I’m passionate about it.”
Ty Norris, Michael Waltrip Racing’s General Manager, understands. He worked with Waltrip while the two were at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and helped mold what has become MWR.
“Michael has a lot of passion to give,” Norris explained. “Whether it’s a charitable event or NASCAR racing: The things he cares the most about he just pours his heart into it. He just becomes obsessed with it and the energy he brings when he talks about this (MWR) gets everybody excited.”
Now you may not be a fan of Toyota’s entry into NASCAR’s Cup Series and you may not be a fan of the driver who spearheaded its entry. Many view Waltrip as more a pitchman than a wheelman and if that’s your opinion, fine. But he’s more than that to a sport that has skyrocketed in popularity and exposure since his first Cup start back in the “old days” (read: 1985). It was a different sport back then; it was a different world. Waltrip knows that, in order to stay in the sport he loves, he must change with the times, or stay one step ahead of it.
“It’s too easy in this sport to get down,” Norris continued. “It’s too easy to let the day-to-day minutia run a negative undercurrent (through the team). He doesn’t allow it. He’s always positive, even when we were in our roughest days. He keeps his energy going because he just loves this thing.”
At first glance, it’s understandable why one wouldn’t get the warm and fuzzies for a guy that just sold half his operation to another “outsider,” some corporate suit that knows P&Ls but not K&Ns. But Waltrip, despite being the eternal optimist, is also a realist. It’s just too expensive for a guy, a racecar driver at that, to survive without more and more money to fund the beast.
We, as fans, must be realists as well. Without guys like Waltrip, whose passion fuels his love for the past, present and future of the sport, what will we be left with? What will the sport become?
Michael left me standing near the garage gate after we spoke, but just before he hopped onto his little golf cart and into the night, he looked back and said something, almost as an afterthought, but with deadly conviction nonetheless, that proved to me his passion and that will stick with me, just as his older brother’s speech years back:
“…and somebody says they saw a boring race last week I wanna hit ’em, ’cause I’ve never seen a boring race; every race I’ve ever seen, I’ve loved it. I’m just a racecar guy.”
Well said, Mikey. If you can’t get behind that kind of fire, you just don’t get it.