Life has not always been a laughing matter for Michael. He recalls some hard times growing up in Owensboro, Kentucky, and after he decided to follow his big brother into NASCAR, he quickly found himself treading a rocky path. He went out on his own and for years he struggled to establish himself in the sport.
Waltrip made his first start in Winston Cup (now Nextel Cup) in 1985 at age 22. He would run 463 races over the next 17 years before finally winning.
Interestingly, he says the sense of humor for which he is now famous at times worked against him.
"Back when I was losing," he says, "people would say, 'How can he be joking around and cutting up like that when he's not winning? He must not be taking his racing seriously.' They seemed to think that I should have been moping around, frowning and complaining all the time. They thought it was somehow wrong for me to smile or laugh or make a joke when things weren't going well on the racetrack.
Waltrip's personality helps...
Waltrip's personality helps keep his NAPA Chevy in the public eye.
"But I was taking my racing very seriously, and I assure you there wasn't anything funny about losing 463 straight races. It's like I said, sometimes you find yourself in a position where you can laugh or cry, and I figured laughing was better."
Despite all the losing, long before he finally cracked the Winner's Circle, Waltrip was one of NASCAR's most popular personalities. His upbeat attitude and undaunted spirit, his ability to maintain his humor and optimism in the face of adversity-none of this was lost on the public. Even as he was losing races, he was winning fans.
"Michael's personality really was a big plus through that period," McCarter recalls. "He was always upbeat, never surly. His attitude boosted everybody's spirits on the team. He never publicly got down on himself or the people around him, and I think the fans really admired that."
Waltrip, in fact, didn't just turn lemons into lemonade; he set up a stand and sold it by the gallon. He discovered that there's gold in those grins, and his wit and humor made him a popular corporate spokesman even in those lean, winless years.
"I figured if you're not winning, then you'd better come up with some other way to keep the sponsors happy," Waltrip says. "Our sport is really about entertainment, and I try to be entertaining. It helps to have a little showmanship. The sponsors like it and the fans like it."
Michael has been featured in a variety of popular racing-related TV commercials, all of which rely on humor to make their point. In one, he and Darrell quibble over who gets to drive Michael's car. In another, he and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. banter about who's the coolest racer.
Then there's the pizza commercial in which Michael, wife Buffy, and their TV family are seated around the dinner table when a Domino's Pizza delivery man comes roaring into the dining room and makes a "pit stop" delivery. The commercial includes a little boy; Michael and Buffy have two daughters, Catlin and Margaret Carol, but no son. Someone asked Michael about the little boy who appears in the family dinner spot.
"Oh, we just rented him," quipped Waltrip.