While things may occasionally go wrong on the track, Waltrip is able to maintain his smile
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."