Michael Waltrip says he learned early in life that there are two ways to respond to hardship and adversity: "You can laugh or you can cry. I was too old to cry, so I decided to laugh."
He hasn't stopped laughing since, and at times the whole world laughs with him.
Waltrip has earned a reputation for being the wittiest driver in NASCAR, always quick with a quip, a rib-tickling one-liner, a clever comeback. Michael is racing's undisputed class clown.
"He has a gift for making people laugh," says Erik Arneson, an executive with the Speed Channel, which carries a popular racing chat show featuring Waltrip, Johnny Benson, and Ken Schrader. "It just seems to come naturally for him. He doesn't rehearse or prepare for the show-it's all ad-libbed. Michael will stroll onto the set at the last minute, often looking like he just got out of the shower, plop down in his chair, and just start talking. He works without a net-we never know what he's going to say next. He has a natural sense of humor, completely unforced, and that comes across to the audience."
"Sometimes I don't think Michael honestly realizes how funny he is," says Mark McCarter, one of Waltrip's former racing PR representatives. "For example, we might be out at dinner and he'll say or do something goofy and everybody around him will completely crack up. Michael will look around with an innocent expression like, What? What did I do? It's not an act-you can always tell when somebody's trying to be funny, and usually it doesn't work. With Michael, it just comes natural. He's one of those guys who can walk into a room and the whole mood will brighten up."
Few in the sport can match Waltrip's wit and charisma.
Waltrip says his sense of humor, his gift for gab, is something he was born with.
"My mom and dad both were big cut-ups, and that helped us get through some pretty tough times," he says. "When I was little we were really poor. My parents struggled and sacrificed a lot, but they always kept their sense of humor. I guess when you can laugh, that makes things seem not quite so desperate. My dad had a way of making us laugh-he would just come out with some of the craziest things at the craziest times-and my mom was the same way. She still is. Even at 77 she is still extremely quick-witted. She has a way of putting a different spin on things."
Michael also admired the style of his brother Darrell, 16 years older, who is equally famous for his razor-sharp wit.
"Darrell always told me it's better to have them laughing with you than laughing at you," Michael says. "I saw how effectively he used humor with the media and how much attention it got him. All the other drivers would be droning on about their motors and their pit crews and all that stuff, and suddenly Darrell would make some totally off-the-wall comment that would start everybody laughing. It worked for him and I figured it would work for me, too."
"Humor has always been something that runs in our family," says Darrell, a retired three-time champion who is enjoying a successful second career as a Fox Sports commentator. (Fox executives say Darrell's wit and glibness were what drew them to him when they were assembling their broadcasting team.)
"Mom and dad, all us kids...we always joked and cut up," Darrell says. "I never thought anything about it until I began getting a lot of attention as a driver, and suddenly I realized that the media really appreciated having some funny quotes and comments to write about. So I made sure I gave them some. Everybody likes a good chuckle. The media likes it, the fans like it, and that's been my advice to Mikey-always leave 'em laughing."