Race drivers are people too!
by Stan Creekmore, NASCAR Editor

February 20, 2003

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They drive fast racecars in dangerous situations, but the fact remains that drivers, just like the rest of the population, are not perfect people.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that racecar drivers can be as insecure as a five-year old heading off to his/her first day of kindergarten. Just like the young child, all smartly dressed up for his first day of school, race car drivers need the encouragement of their team to be successful.

Just ask Michael Waltrip.

It took the belief of Dale Earnhardt to assure Waltrip he belonged with a top organization. Moreover, once there, it took the belief of Slugger Labbe, named his crew chief late in the 2001 season, to convince the race team Waltrip could win in their racecars.

“Michael just needs encouragement,” said Labbe, on the morning after the Daytona 500. “He needs you to hang out with him and tell him he can get the job done.”

Darrell Waltrip
Photo: by Ford

Those words brought to mind an incident at Lowe’s (then Charlotte) Motor Speedway. It was the weekend of the Coca Cola 600 and Darrell Waltrip (brother of Michael) was about as beat up, emotionally, as a driver could be. As a car owner, he was quickly failing. His team was falling apart and he seemed helpless to glue the pieces back together. It didn’t help that the team was privately telling everyone Waltrip was washed up. As a driver he was done.

Waltrip heard those whispers. He heard it in the actions of the team. However, on this day his crew chief hadn’t given up on his driver. The leaders were bearing down on his driver, about to put him a lap down. He had to do something fast or the entire day was going to go to hell in a hand basket.

“C’mon Darrell, you’re the man,” echoed over the radio. “You can do it. Ride that horse.”

Amazingly, Waltrip sped up. The gap between the rear bumper of his Chevy and the front bumper of the leader’s racecar stopped shrinking.

“C’mon Darrell, ride em cowboy. Whip that horse.”

The gap widened. Waltrip’s lap times increased, proof the leaders weren’t slowing down. Quite the opposite was happening. Waltrip was running faster than the leaders.

All day long the crew chief coaxed his driver around the track, lap after lap. It’s not important where Waltrip finished that afternoon, although it was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal year.

The importance of that day was that the crew chief discovered another way to get the most out of his driver.

“Hell,” he said over the radio at the finish of the race, “If I had known that would have worked I’d have done it years ago. Good job Darrell.”

Like most athletes, racecar drivers are individuals with the ability to do something the average Joe lacks. They have more determination, more desire, but they are just like that average Joe in so many other ways.

One wrong word, one misunderstood statement can destroy all the determination and desire in the world.

Michael Waltrip was on his way out at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Had he been fired his career as a Winston Cup driver would surely have taken a downward spiral. Thanks to Slugger Labbe, Waltrip believes and his performance is starting to show just how much he believes.

We all have to believe in ourselves but it never hurts to know that others believe in us just as much or more.

Would it surprise the world if Waltrip contended for the Winston Cup championship? Yes, it would.

Would it surprise Michael Waltrip, Slugger Labbe, the crew of the #15 NAPA Chevrolet and all the other people at DEI? No, it won’t.


The author can be contacted stanc@autoracing1.com

Go to our forums to discuss this article


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