Michael Waltrip Racing May Be on the Verge of Extinction

Lyle Ellerbee

Times are tough. News reports tell us that every day.

On the corporate side of NASCAR, one prominent race team is boosting its fortunes after years of decline, while another is reported to be on the downside, and sliding. Toyota-backed Michael Waltrip Racing is nearly at the end of a short rope, it seems.

MWR was founded by Waltrip in 1996. As a slow start-up, it had mild forays into NASCAR before MW hooked up with Toyota in 2007. The team went through some limited partnerships, but was never ‘up and running’ until last year when he obtained considerable backing from the Japanese automaker.

At the end of a dismal last season, the two-time Daytona 500 winner formed a 50/50 partnership with Robert Kauffman of Fortress Investment Group and appeared to be on firmer footing, recent rumors to the contrary.

MWR and Waltrip strongly deny that the team is in financial trouble, though evidence is not substantiated. MWR official Cal Wells III says the team is financially stable and invests wisely, not wastefully. Unnecessary expenses have been cut, he says, and the money has been spent in different areas to foster long-term growth under Toyota Racing Development and other sponsors.

The team can survive, but more investment is needed, and there has been no news of that.

The three-car start-up was close to going belly-up a year ago. The Dale Jarrett hire brought instant credibility and guaranteed a spot in the field due to his past champion’s provisional. But Jarrett was unable to repeat his past performances, or to spark the team. UPS, his long-time sponsor, came along as a separate package deal, but is not likely to stay beyond this season with the 32-time winner and 1999 champion gone. And rumors continue to float that 38-year-old David Reutimann, who took over Jarrett’s No. 44 Camry when he retired, is on his way out.

Waltrip himself has tried to keep things afloat by digging into his own pockets. Kauffman’s largesse allowed him to hire needed staff. The increase proved productive early into ’08, but things have turned sour in the waning weeks.

Rookie driver Michael McDowell took the 00 seat vacated by Reutimann when Jarrett left, but still has no sponsor after ’08 (the ‘Silly Season’ starts in early summer to allow teams to assemble and organize before pitches made to sponsors.). And the No. 55 car driven by Waltrip is clearly in trouble. NAPA Auto Parts has stood by Waltrip since his early days at Dale Earnhardt Inc., but the long-time backer wants better results or will jump ship, the company says.

That’s three cars that are in danger of losing primary sponsors for next year. With Jarrett gone, there is no more guarantee that the 44 can enter a race. Employees are reportedly being laid off from continued financial woes. Gas prices are also high for other NASCAR organizations, but under-funded teams suffer the most and are the quickest to fold.

Waltrip, a popular pitchman when he’s not racing or trying to pay bills, has become a Monday mainstay on This Week in NASCAR. He has some workable options if his driver/owner career doesn’t pan out-and it hasn’t sunk to this point.

When the going gets tough, sometimes the tough go south. Or they boost gears, ride it out, and prove the wet blankets wrong.

It’s time to get crankin.’

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