MWR co-owners discuss decision to restructure to two full-time cars for 2014 season
Confident that stepping back means moving forward, Michael Waltrip Racing co-owners Michael Waltrip and Rob Kauffman told NASCAR.com on Monday that their team’s reorganization should translate into a more competitive operation in the long run.
But they concede it's been tough going in the short term.
"We'd rather be talking about collecting another trophy," Kauffman acknowledged.
The team announced Monday it will field only two full-time Sprint Cup Series cars in 2014 -- the No. 15 5-hour ENERGY/PEAK Toyota for driver Clint Bowyer and the No. 55 Aaron’s Toyota for Brian Vickers -- as part of a massive restructuring within the company. A third car, the No. 56 Toyota -- currently driven by Martin Truex Jr. -- will be fielded in a yet-to-be-determined number of races and also serve as a test car in a renewed research and development effort for the team.
Kauffman and Waltrip delivered the downsizing news to the team Monday afternoon and confirmed they previously told this year’s Sonoma, Calif., race winner Truex Jr. he was free to explore other options for 2014. The current sponsor on Truex’s No. 56 Toyota -- NAPA Auto Parts -- told the team it would not continue to fund the car beyond this season in reaction to massive NASCAR penalties and punishments to the team after NASCAR ruled it tried to "manipulate the race outcome" at the regular-season finale Sept. 7 at Richmond International Raceway.
"The best way to think about it is we put everything on the white board and evaluated all kinds of options but I think we needed to be realistic given the timeline of where we were in the season, where we were from a production standpoint getting ready for 2014 both the metal (car) stuff and the people," Kauffman said of the reorganization. "We had to make a decision relatively shortly after things that have happened so we took the time to come up with a plan that we think works for us and gives us some good flexibility and I think that’s what we went with.
"It was important to reorganize in such a way not merely to survive but to try to come out of this stronger, to focus our resources in two full-time cars.
"We have roughly a third of our revenue going away but we are only cutting our staff by 15 percent so it shows, I think, a big continued investment in improving and I think getting that last one percent of performance to push us over the line toward the championship.
"That's really how we thought about it."
Kauffman said no other company has expressed interest in funding a third MWR car full-time and he told reporters at Dover two weeks ago that he would not take that on himself. He is hopeful that an opportunity will arise for 2015, however.
"In my experience, large companies that are capable of that kind of budget don’t make those kind of decisions that quickly, they take a lot of time to analyze the alternatives," Kauffman said. "It's not a 30-day process."
And Waltrip summarily dismissed the notion that he might be getting out of the sport despite the challenges his team has faced in the last month.
"I know my heart and I know where Rob's heart is and so we're going to make the best of these challenges and our goal is to make the team stronger in 2014," Waltrip said. "The last two years, a two-car team won the (Sprint Cup Series) championship and we feel like we're going to be in position in 2014 to do just that.
"We love NASCAR and we're committed to it. We look forward to racing on and winning races."
Listening to Kauffman and Waltrip speak, it's very clear that they take these challenges personally and are leaning on one another during this transitional time.
Even as they were preparing to meet with their extended team, word came that Vickers would not be able to drive the No. 55 for the remainder of the year after doctors discovered a blood clot in his right leg.
Vickers missed most of the 2010 season because of blood clots in his leg and lungs. He returned to his full-time ride at Red Bull Racing in 2011, but following that season, Red Bull Racing shut down its Cup Series operation. His hiring for the No. 55 car at MWR is set to be his first full-time Cup ride since then.
Waltrip said the news was unexpected and that Vickers had gone to the doctor purely as a precaution after continuing to experience pain on his leg after slightly injuring his ankle Aug. 24 at Bristol, Tenn.
"His spirit is amazing," Waltrip said of Vickers.
"He must have said it 10 times, 'My goal is to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship and that's why I fought through this once before and I will not stop until I accomplish that.'
"As a race car driver in the prime of his career having this happen to him is very challenging and it could be devastating, but he's as mentally tough as I could ever hope to have my driver be. He just says he’s getting through it, he's going to win the championship and this is a temporary setback in that process."
The same could be said for Waltrip's team.
As opposite as Kauffman -- a former international investment banker -- and Waltrip-- a two-time Daytona 500 winner -- may be, overcoming the team's recent troubles has brought them closer and they believe, may strengthen the team.
The hard part has been parting ways with team members and downsizing after years of continued and noteworthy growth that resulted in Bowyer finishing runner-up in the 2012 Cup championship.
"The last couple years have been an amazing run for our organization,’" Waltrip said.
"We know there were some issues out of that race in Richmond that we've had to deal with and we've faced them as positively and as mentally strong as we possibly could.
"I can say one thing about Rob, we definitely have different perspectives on our sport and that's healthy because we feel like we've both been able to add to the equation and it winds up being a better result because of that. That hasn't changed (since Richmond).
"Certainly I've leaned on Rob a lot the last couple weeks and he's kept me focused and positive. The cool thing is whether he's on pit road at Charlotte like he was Saturday night or I'm out in Sacramento, California at one of the NASCAR Home Tracks racing, we get a ton of support from racing. Whether it's fellow Cup car owners or officials in NASCAR on that level all the way down to the fans and racers in Sacramento, people pat you on the back and say, 'I know it's been tough but you guys will get through it.' Or 'Hang in there, we want you a part of the sport.'
"Those pats on the back and encouragement mean more than you'll ever know and we appreciate every one of them."
And for now, they are circling the wagons and eyeing the prize.
"That is precisely what we’re trying to do," Kauffman said. "Let's come up with a plan and now move forward with it and focus on it. We've got races to race, testing to do and a lot to organize for 2014. We’ve got plenty to do."