Michael Waltrip Racing may be on the verge of extinction

Times are hard. News reports tell us so every day.

On the corporate side of NASCAR, one prominent racing team is rising in fortune after years of decline, while another is reportedly on the decline and in decline. Toyota-backed Michael Waltrip Racing appears to be almost at the end of a short rope.

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 a few limited partnerships, but was never ‘on the go’ until last year. when it got 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 Fortress Investment Group’s Robert Kauffman and appeared to be on firmer footing, though recent rumors indicate otherwise.

MWR and Waltrip strongly deny that the team is in financial trouble, although the evidence is unsubstantiated. MWR official Cal Wells III says the team is financially stable and invests wisely, without splurging. Unnecessary spending has been cut, he says, and 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 startup came close to going bankrupt a year ago. The signing of Dale Jarrett brought instant credibility and guaranteed a spot on the field due to their past champion’s provisional. But Jarrett couldn’t repeat his past performances or ignite the team. His longtime sponsor UPS arrived as a separate package, but it’s not likely to stick around beyond this season with the 32-time winner and 1999 champion gone. And rumors continue to circulate that David Reutimann, 38, who took over Jarrett’s No. 44 Camry when he retired, is about to leave.

Waltrip himself has tried to keep things afloat by rummaging through his own pockets. Kauffman’s generosity allowed him to hire the necessary staff. The increase proved productive in early 2008, but things have soured in recent weeks.

Rookie driver Michael McDowell filled the 00 seat vacated by Reutimann when Jarrett left, but still has no sponsor after 2008 (‘silly season’ starts in early summer to allow teams to meet and organize before launches to sponsors). And the No. 55 car driven by Waltrip is clearly in trouble. NAPA Auto Parts has backed Waltrip since his early days at Dale Earnhardt Inc., but the longtime backer wants better results or he will pull out, the company says.

Those are three cars that are in danger of losing title sponsors for next year. Without Jarrett, there is no longer a guarantee that the 44 will be able to enter a race. Employees are reportedly being laid off due to the ongoing financial problems. Gas prices are high for other NASCAR organizations as well, but underfunded teams suffer the most and are the quickest to fold.

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

When the going gets tough, sometimes the tough things go awry. Or they drive the gears, put up with it, and prove the wet blankets wrong.

It’s time to get going.

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *