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...
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."
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.
While things may occasionally...
While things may occasionally go wrong on the track, Waltrip is able to maintain his smile off the track.
Aaron's, a furniture lease-and-sale company, was one of the first sponsors to recognize the marketing potential of Waltrip's wit and capitalize on it.
"We became acquainted with Michael one year when we sponsored a race at Atlanta," recalls Aaron's President Ken Butler. "He came up and visited with us in our suite, and sometime afterward he called and said he was looking for a sponsor for his Busch Series car. He wondered if we might be interested. We discussed it and decided that Michael would be an excellent representative for our product. We shook hands-there was no formal contract-and we've been together ever since."
Butler smiles and adds: "The only problem we had was at first when Michael would speak at one of our company meetings, he would keep referring to our 'stuff.' We had to remind him that it's not 'stuff'-it's quality merchandise."
As the relationship with Aaron's grew, Butler began to recognize the marketing potential in Waltrip's sense of humor. He had an idea: film some commercials centered around Waltrip's wit. The theme would be a comical interaction between Michael and Darrell, the latter who misses being out of racing and tries to talk his way into driving Michael's Busch Series race car.
In the most recent commercial, Darrell is once again pestering Michael to drive, so Michael finally relents. In exchange for Darrell washing Michael's windows, Michael allows him to drive-his riding lawn mower, that is. The mower is painted in Michael's distinctive racing colors with his No. 99 on the side. Michael, having conned his big brother into washing his windows and mowing his lawn, relaxes in a comfortable folding chair and shouts into a megaphone: "D.W., start your engine!"
Darrell, wearing a silly red bandanna, groans, "Got me again" and putters away on the mower.
"We thought it was a humorous twist," Butler explains. "Darrell, the retired champion, and his kid brother who owns the race car. Usually it's the other way around-it's the little brother who's always pestering his big brother into letting him drive. Both Michael and Darrell do an excellent job with their roles, and the commercial has been very successful."
Butler says there's more to Michael than grins and gags.
"He is a very intelligent, intense young man," he explains. "On the outside he is happy-go-lucky, but inside he is a deep, thoughtful individual. He walks a clean life. You could go to any pro sport and not find a better representative for your company."
There is clearly a strong bond between the brothers-a bond that wasn't always there.
"Darrell was 16 when I came along," Michael says. "I was what you'd call a late arrival, and by the time I was four or five, Darrell had left home and was busy pursuing his racing career. We really didn't get to grow up together. But he was always my hero, and I'd brag to my buddies at school about my big brother, the famous racer. Years later, after I got my own career going, Darrell and I would get to spend a lot of time together at the racetracks. Our racing gave us a chance to catch up on a lot of lost time."
Darrell's success at times magnified Michael's struggles. Darrell won three Winston Cup championships and 84 races, tied for third all-time, and the media and fans often wondered why "the other Waltrip" couldn't be equally successful.
Michael, as usual, put a light spin on it. When he finally captured his first win he remarked, "Now I only need 83 more to catch my big brother."
The Speed Channel's Arneson says it's important to keep in mind that the racetrack is much more than just a laugh-track for Waltrip.
"Michael can be serious when it's called for," Arneson explains. "While he is entertaining, he also brings a tremendous amount of knowledge and perception to the show. He's extremely bright and observant, and he knows racing from top to bottom. He can get very technical when he wants to."
"He knows his stuff," agrees Benson. "Michael likes to clown around, but he's very serious about his racing. There are really two Michael Waltrips-the one who's funny and laid-back in front of the TV cameras, and the one who's very focused and competitive when he gets on that racetrack. I guarantee you, when that starting flag waves, Michael gets very, very serious."
But as soon as the race is over, it doesn't take the "other" Michael long to assert himself. A classic example of Waltrip's knack for impromptu antics occurred in last fall's race at Talladega. Waltrip won the race, skidded to a stop in the grassy infield, and suddenly popped out through the car's new roof-top escape hatch. Never before in the sport had a winning driver made such a "pop-the-top" exit, and the grandstands roared.
Later he admitted it was not entirely unplanned.
"I had told my crew that if I won, I was going to get out through the roof hatch and wave at everybody," Waltrip confessed. "I thought that was cool...that roof hatch is a redneck's sun roof!"
Waltrip climbed from his car 463 times without a win. Finally on February 18, 2001, the streak came to an end. Michael didn't merely win his first Winston Cup race, he won the sport's biggest event-the Daytona 500. Making the day even more memorable was the fact that his brother Darrell was calling the race for Fox Sports. As Michael swept through the final laps and the tension built, Darrell unabashedly cheered on his kid brother from the broadcast booth: "Go Mikey! Go Mikey!"
As his kid brother sailed across the finish line, an emotional Darrell dabbed at his eyes.
But what should have been the brightest moment of his career quickly turned into the darkest. Minutes after winning the race, Waltrip learned that Dale Earnhardt had perished in a last-lap crash, striking the wall at almost the exact moment that Michael swept across the finish line, closely followed by teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Michael's tears of joy immediately turned into tears of grief.
"It was so tragic," Darrell says. "Just think about it. Here the kid had raced all those years without a win, and finally he gets the big one. But instead of being able to celebrate and enjoy his triumph, Michael, like everybody else, is completely immersed in the tragedy of Dale's death. His first big moment, his absolute greatest moment, and he never got to enjoy it."
Earnhardt's death hit Michael hard. It was Earnhardt's car he drove to victory that day; Earnhardt had hand-picked Waltrip to drive for Dale Earnhardt Inc., ignoring the skeptics who questioned Michael's ability to win on NASCAR's top level.
"Dale gave me my big career break," Michael says. "He was the one man in the sport who had faith in me...I owe so much to him. I wouldn't be where I am today without him."
Waltrip failed to capture...
Waltrip failed to capture his third Daytona 500 win this season, but he is at his best when running restrictor-plate tracks.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Waltrip's DEI teammate, says Michael came along at a perfect time.
"I don't think he gets enough credit for the role he played in keeping DEI together after Daddy's death," he explains. "Michael was experiencing the same level of grief as the rest of us. He did a lot that not a lot of people know about or give him credit for."
Junior says that when Waltrip joined DEI, "I was happy to have him come aboard because he's always been fun, good for a laugh. After Dad died we kind of had to develop a new relationship. He was really my dad's friend, not mine at first, so we kind of had to redefine what our friendship was going to mean and what we needed to do to move forward. Now we're close and can talk to each other about anything you can name."
"Nobody will ever know how much Michael hurt that day, and still hurts," Darrell says. "He is really a very sensitive guy who tends to keep his feelings inside. The public sees a Michael who's always upbeat and lighthearted, but inside there lurks a deep, sensitive soul. I've always said that he does his crying on the inside, where nobody can see."
Waltrip returned to Daytona to win the 500 again in 2003, and this time he was able to celebrate. But that sterling start gradually dissolved as the season wore on, and he won only once more, at Talladega in the fall. Now, at age 41, Michael is among a host of other NASCAR veterans who are being pressed by a talented pack of young lions. He realizes that his opportunities are growing fewer and fewer.
"I guarantee you, when that...
"I guarantee you, when that starting flag waves, Michael gets very, very serious," says Johnny Benson.
"It wasn't the year we had hoped for," Waltrip says of the '03 season. "But hey, we won the Daytona 500 for a second time, so it can't be all that bad. I learned a long time ago to dwell on the positive instead of the negative. In this sport there tends to be a lot more downs than ups, so you'd better enjoy the ups while you can. Yeah, we had some disappointments last year, but we also enjoyed some great times, too."
He smiles, blue eyes twinkling, and adds: "Clouds may gather and things may look dark and gloomy, but you know what? Eventually the sun always comes back out."
Waltrip is not sure when his driving days will end, but he's already mapping plans for his future-plans that call for him to remain active in the sport.
"I want to have my own Cup team someday," says Waltrip. "I'm enjoying running my own Busch team, and at some point I'd like to take it to the next level. That will give me a chance to remain in the sport, doing something I'm very passionate about."
A broadcasting career also beckons after he hangs up his helmet.
"I love doing TV and radio, and folks seems to think I'm pretty good at it," Waltrip says. "That's something I would love to continue doing. There's no reason why I couldn't do both-be a team owner and a broadcaster at the same time. Shoot, that's what I'm doing right now, in addition to driving. One thing's for sure, even after I'm done driving, I plan on remaining involved in racing in some form or fashion for a long, long time."