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January 17, 2009

Michael Waltrip


RAMSEY POSTON: We're joined by Michael Waltrip, two-time Daytona 500 champion, driver of the No. 55 NAPA Toyota for his Preseason Thunder media availability. Michael, you see the Harley Gerald Trophy sitting next to you. Talk about the outlook on '09, the 500 and being back down here at Daytona.
MICHAEL WALTRIP: I'm sure everybody is going to say the same thing. There's a lot of optimism this time of year if you've got a sponsor and a team, all the drivers are going to be looking forward to racing obviously. We were real fortunate, MWR, to be able to go into '09 with the same level of support from our teams and sponsors as we had in '08, so we've built new cars, improved our cars. We've got some new folks on board that come from winning teams. All those things, I think, bode well for what we're going to be able to accomplish in '09. I feel very optimistic about what we're doing. It's fun. It's good to see the progress our team has made, and we look forward to showing the fans and you guys exactly how much progress we've made.

Q. First off, I appreciate you going on that teleconference on Wednesday and covering everything, but with this being a day-to-day, hour to hour, almost minute-to-minute deal, has anything changed as far as sponsorships or anything like that with any of the teams since then?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: No, I don't think so. We continue to work hard on sponsors, and we have a lot of contacts and a lot of proposals out around the country and world. So it's wise to check because things could change at any moment. But so far, it's basically status quo from when we last chatted, and that is we have two and a half of our teams sponsored and we need a half a season for Ruderman, and we continue to talk to various folks about doing just that, sponsoring half of his season or part of his season. We could take a race or two, we just need to cover some races for David.
It's interesting to me, they went to Homestead and sat on the pole and ran up front and just got back from Texas for a tire test with Goodyear and the car flew, they were awesome. And he's going to go to California without a sponsor so far. We hope someone will step up and maybe take advantage of what is going to be a really solid team for '09.

Q. Andrew mentioned it already, but you've got two of those trophies. What does it mean to win this race down here, and since you've won it have you thought more about it and as time has passed what does that mean to you?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: Well, it certainly has -- it's defined my career. I mean, you can't really find a whole lot of other things to talk a lot about. I ran a lot of races and didn't win, and then from '01 to '03 we were able to win races, and we did good during that time frame, and I'm proud of that.
Mainly Daytona, no matter, you can go to New York City and there's a small -- there's some pockets across this country that still don't really understand what we do or get it, and if you tell them you won the Daytona 500, they understand that. They know that's a big deal.
It means the world to me, you know, career-wise. I'm proud that I was able to accomplish winning the greatest race there is in my opinion, and winning it twice is something that I'm thankful for.
I feel like I could have won it a couple more times, and I feel like I can still win it a couple more times, and that's a great feeling, too, to come down here in a couple weeks with a car that I believe will be able to contend for the win here. That's awesome.
And then, you know, I know the champions and the great drivers that have won this race before me, and I'm real proud to be a part of that company.

Q. Can you give us on a scale of 1 to 10 in your opinion just how bad it is with the economy right now, trying to get sponsors? And secondly, what is your outlook for NASCAR as a whole for 2009?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: Well, the economy has challenged all walks of life, and I don't like it when people just think it's taking its -- just only affecting NASCAR. I have a friend that called me the other day and just had a baby and lost his job and wasn't sure what he was going to do next. He's in a whole different industry. As we all know, it's everywhere.
We feel like we as a team are very fortunate to be able to survive. Think about what we survived, starting up, missing races, running bad, to now where we are going through one of the worst economic times in history, in recent history for sure, in my lifetime anyway, and yet we still are able to keep on plugging along or clawing our way forward.
Racing doesn't have anything to do with the economy. It's just affected by the economy. So I'm very sensitive to folks in all industries and all walks of life.
But as far as NASCAR, I think that folks need a relief. They need something to breathe about, and NASCAR gives that. I believe that the sport will come out the other side of this as strong or stronger than it's ever been, and you can look back as recently as 2004, and if there were full fields at every race in 2004, I don't remember there being a short field, but there certainly was 4 -- there was only 43 cars show up, and of those 43, several of them were sort of chained together a little bit. You know, you're surprised they're able to make it and they're able to make races. It's just part of the cyclical revolution that we go through up and down.
This one is justified. People are like, oh, the economy is terrible, we're going to have fewer cars. But you're still going to have the stars that show up, and Hendrick and Roush and all those teams are going to be solid, and the racing won't change any at all. The racing will be what you're used to seeing, and I think last year was some of the coolest races we've had in a while if you look at the whole year. I think it'll be great. I think we'll come out the other end and things will be fine.

Q. Can you tell me how your driver development program is going right now, specifically with Josh Wise, the challenges you face with a driver development program, and just what qualities do you see in a driver that you like besides a guy that can go out and win races?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: That's probably one of the areas in the sport that has been affected the most by what we're going through to today, and that is driver development and the ability to get rookies, new guys, track time. We bit the bullet and we ran Josh in some Nationwide races last year hoping to be able to acquire sponsorship. We were never able to do that. We certainly have plans for Josh to run races this year, as well, but we can't run cars without sponsors. We're faced with running David's car with part of the season unsponsored.
We're looking aggressively for sponsors for David's Cup car, and if we're able to accomplish that, we're also going to look for stuff for Josh. But as of now, we don't have anything that we can promise him we'll do other than keep him on retainer and hopefully be able to stir up some cash so we can race him some more.
I love Josh. I believe in what he's all about. I love his attitude. I think he would be a great guy to drive the NAPA car one day. But as for now, we don't have the money to fund -- continue to fund his Nationwide car. We need a sponsor to do so.

Q. As a veteran driver, what kind of qualities do you see in a driver that you like besides a guy that can win races?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: Well, what I like about Josh is his attitude. He's all in. He wants to know everything about the car. He wants to see every note. He wants to go to every appearance, be everything you'd hope for in a driver. Very humble, very soft-spoken, but look at what he's accomplished. His résumé of winning championships in dirt cars and where he's come from to get this opportunity is very impressive.
Mainly as an owner and a guy that's done this for a while, what I like to see in a kid is someone that's just more all ears, just wants to hear and see and learn, and takes it all in. That's what I like. I like when somebody is sort of quiet and just wants to look and learn and see, and then as time goes forward then begin to interject his opinion on setups and different philosophies it takes to race a car.

Q. What aspects of being a driver-owner will Tony Stewart not get until he does it for a full year?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: He's probably got a few of them already. As a driver you want everything in the whole world, and as an owner you have to be fiscally responsible to your dollars. He's been real fortunate to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing and they've won championships and races. They didn't really want for a whole lot because of all the sponsors and the folks that lined up to support their team.
I bet you he might have learned a couple things that he didn't know he was going to deal with already. But as far as the actual owner-driver part, when you show up at the races, that's awesome. I love it, because you forget about being an owner and the struggle that it is and what the week was like. You just say, oh, good, there's my car. I'm going to get in it and go. I never lost that. I never lost just -- I never felt bogged down by the ownership when I got in my car. Quite the opposite; I felt like if I got in my car and I saw a brace or gusset or a piece of tubing or something in the car that didn't look like it was perfect or could be lower or could be lighter, I'd say, hey, come here, how come we're doing that like that? I'm in the car that I've prepared and I know I can evaluate it better than some other owners could who don't have the experience and the knowledge that I've gained over the years.
So the owner, the actual driving part was the best part. The owner part was obviously very hard to get my arms around, to understand it and learn how to be effective at ownership. We're starting our third season, and we're really way ahead of where we were obviously two years ago. But mainly because of just learning that it takes a whole bunch of people to run a race team. It's not the owner or the driver, it's the supporting cast around you that helps you to make good decisions and be successful.

Q. If you knew everything you know now back in 2005, would you have done this? And if so, would you have done anything differently?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: Well, I get asked that a lot, and I think there's a couple of answers to it. The obvious one is -- to me anyway, that it's not time to answer that question yet. If you drive by MWR in a year or so and there's a for lease sign there, you probably would have thought better of it. But my personality is one that I could not resist. It's really -- there's really no answer to that because I could not have ever -- I know me, and I would have been miserable had I not taken a chance and said, you know, I know I can do that. I know I can do it, and I want to do it.
So obviously I think as a driver I've hurt myself a lot. When I drove for Tony, Jr. at DEI in '05 we had a chance to win this race, we went to Phoenix and ran second, we sat on the pole at Pocono. I was up front. I was a good driver then. In '06, '07 and '08 we've struggled, so as a driver it's hurt my career a little bit. But as an owner, that's what I want to do for the rest of my life. I can't drive forever. It was just something I could have never resisted. Toyota wanted me to be a car owner, NAPA wanted to be a part of it, Aaron's wanted to be a part of it, and I felt like I had learned enough in working in this sport my whole life to be a good car owner, and so I could have never said no to it.
But I would have probably been a lot better off in many ways had I not done it. But it's not -- the story is not all done yet. There's still more chapters to be written.

Q. Is the deal with Max Pappas going forward as was announced last year? And if so, how closely will you work with those guys?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: We're going to work really closely with them, and yes, it is going forward. We've had some meetings with -- we've been working hand in hand with them ever since we announced it, and we're supporting their team with engineering support and parts and pieces and cars and trying to make sure that we support Max as a driver, Bob Germain -- the Germains as owners. I like to tell a story about Tad Geshickter when I was at Indy, and Marcos was there, and they had their car and their sponsor and they were going to race in '09 in Cup, and practice was going on and Marcos' car was sitting on jack stands and Marcos was walking around scratching his head wondering when he was ever going to get to practice. That's what '07 looked like for me. They would be out there practicing, we wouldn't even be through inspection yet. I grabbed Ty Norris and said, go find Tad. We can speed him up two years if we can just partner together. He won't go through all he's going to go through if we just partner together.
Same thing with the Germains; we feel like we can speed up. They've got a great sponsor, just like Tad had with all his sponsors. The Germains have a great sponsor, and we feel like at MWR by supporting that team they'll have a better chance to survive and do a better job for their sponsor.
The deal with Marcos couldn't have gone any better. We got him up to speed. He had some really strong runs at the end of the year, locked in the race for the Daytona 500 with some great sponsors on the side of that car, and we hope to be able to -- we know what we've been able to do for them and them for us by partnering with us, and we hope to be able to do the same thing with the Germains.

Q. On a personal level, does it pain you at all to see what DEI, where you won these Daytona 500s, what they're going through now financially and struggling to stay afloat? Or was that a different DEI? Or do you have enough of your own stuff to be pained about?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: You know, I don't know. I miss my relationship with Dale and Teresa for sure. You don't like to see anyone have problems. But I left there, and I've had my own stuff to worry about. But yeah, it bothers me some. I know it could have been a lot different, but it's just the way it turned out. I think about Teresa a lot, and I know Dale, Jr. does, as well, and hopefully what has transpired with where they are now is a good thing. If you think about, like I said, the whole story hasn't been written yet for them, either. Maybe Chip and Teresa and that whole organization can get their legs under them and rebound, and DEI will be around forever. That's what I hope.

Q. From the time you became a car owner back in the Busch days to the way it is now, with all the closings and consolidations in Charlotte, have you gone from having to fight for good people to now having too many résumés to go through and are you afraid you're going to lose some people that can't find work around there?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: All I know is there's some people walking around my shop that make me smile because I know their history and I know where they've been and I know what they've accomplished, and now they work for us. I wouldn't say that -- it's all about elevating your people, adding to your talented staff with more experience, people that are knowledgeable, people that can grow you. And we've been real fortunate to be able to stay basically where we are with the same normal turnover, people go, people come, and we've added some folks to our team that I think will really complement the men and women that are there.
I really don't believe that when -- hopefully when we can all breathe a little bit easier about the economy it will have left a black mark on NASCAR. I believe that everything is going to police itself and folks that were all in will probably come out the other side still all in, and there will be some people lose their jobs.
I remember vividly in 1985, however many years ago that was, me and a couple of my buddies working on Dick Bahre's race car getting ready to come to Daytona for the 500, and we would work all day and most all night and take a shower and do the same thing the next day. We didn't know about -- we weren't worried about making money, we were racing. That was cool. I wouldn't trade -- I'm glad that left a mark on me because I think that maybe you're going to have more of a feel of that as we go forward because people are genuinely appreciative and thankful that they get to do what they signed up to do, which is work on cars.

Q. Do you get the same sense of excitement or anticipation when you get ready to race as you do when you go on camera to do the funny NAPA commercials with Ron Capps?
MICHAEL WALTRIP: I'm just real lucky, and I think the question earlier about would I have started my team, I'm all in. Me and Capps just finished our commercials for this year yesterday and the day before, and they're awesome. I can't wait for everyone to see them. That's fun. When I get to go on TV and talk about truck racing, the last season of that truck racing were as fun as anything I've done hanging out with Phil and Rick and Al and all the folks on Speed. I love that. But I'm a race car driver, and when I came through that tunnel a minute ago here at Daytona, it almost brought tears to my eyes. It's almost like coming home when you've had success here and you know the people that have won and the people that have lost their battles here. Just I love it. It'll be interesting.
My goal is to go win some races this year, run up front so that I don't have to say this is my last year. But if I don't do those things, if I can't compete at the level that Ruderman does or NAPA expects, then I probably won't get to do this again in 2010. This is a real important year for me because I still love it. I'm still emotional about it. That's a great feeling. I'm glad I have that. I'm glad I feel the way I do, and I'm also glad that I own my car, because if this is my last year then I'm fine, because that means I got somebody faster or better than me to drive my car in 2010, and that's how it was supposed to be. I'm not going to be standing around thinking, "well, what am I going to do now?" I know exactly what I'm going to do now, I'm going to continue to be -- to try to influence my drivers and my team and my sponsors to be the best team that we can ever be.

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