Garage Series: For Waltrip, it became personal
August 06, 2013, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
Sixth and final in a series: NASCAR.com traces the evolution of race shops throughout the years.
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He says he doesn’t know how many times it happened, only that it happened often.
A rap on the door and a curious stranger or two on the other side.
Nothing dangerous, suspicious or out of the ordinary, though.
Just another day in the life of Michael Waltrip and his fledgling NASCAR Nationwide Series race team, which at the time was based behind his home.
“People would come all the way to Sherrills Ford (N.C.), and knock on our door and say, ‘Can we go see your shop,’ ” Waltrip said.
It was a bit off the beaten path, and it wasn’t a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series shop. It wasn’t even the shop of a full-time Nationwide team.
Yet still they came. And thus the seed was planted.
When Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, eventually went looking for a piece of property on which to build a new shop for his Nationwide team, he says he remembered all those unexpected arrivals. And while he wanted to upgrade his facility for the sake of the operation, he didn’t want to forget the fans, either.
“It was just going to be my little amusement park for myself,” Waltrip said. “I love cars and it made perfect sense to me. When I found that piece of property … it was during that time in late 2005 that we came up with the plan to run (Sprint) Cup with Toyota.”
Suddenly, a renovated movie theater complex in Cornelius, N.C., wasn’t going to be big enough. “Luckily,” he said, “there was a skating rink behind it so we bought that, too. And expanded what was just going to be my little fun place to race my Nationwide cars into a legitimate business.
“Then we thought, ‘How can we make it even better for the fans?’ Really, my goal for what I wanted was the same. I wanted people to be able to watch us build our cars. Now we just build more.”
Having driven for Dale Earnhardt Inc. from 2001-2005, Waltrip knew what a first-class, upscale race shop looked like. DEI’s compound, which was aptly referred to as the “Garage Mahal” when it opened, was the first to show how a race shop could be so much more than simply a place to build cars.
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The main building at Dale Earnhardt Inc. is an impressive glass and stone structure that sits off Coddle Creek Highway, a little two-lane strip that winds its way through the countryside just south of Mooresville, N.C.
Surrounded by pastures, and the occasional small frame house here and there, it seems out of place.
Even before it opened more than a decade ago, it was lauded as the race shop of the future. It was also seen as something with more style than substance, but that it quickly produced race-winning cars changed such notions.
Still, there was opulence inside the walls.
“The glass, the gold flake tile, the amazing detail, the restaurant, carpeting, Italian granite in the main floor,” said Ty Norris, a former official with DEI who now serves as executive vice president of business development with Michael Waltrip Racing. “It was definitely ahead of its time.”
Nathan Simms, a businessman who had worked closely with former driver Bobby Allison, helped develop the foundation for the facility while Teresa Earnhardt, widow of the seven-time Cup champion, “had a lot to do with the design,” Norris said.
As DEI expanded from an organization that originally fielded Truck Series and Nationwide Series teams to one that included three full-time Cup teams, the complex expanded and evolved as well.
“The interior of the main shop was changed three times,” said Norris. “The 8 shop (housing the team of Dale Earnhardt Jr.) was built, then another shop was built specifically for engineering. The ‘chicken house shop,’ that housed the truck and (Nationwide) cars, they probably changed that one twice.”
Eventually, the entire facility would be enclosed behind imposing black iron gates. Security stations were added. Fans certainly weren’t discouraged from visiting -- although Earnhardt himself never drove for his own organization, the gift shop and grand showroom continue to draw those who cheered for the Intimidator and his teams -- but the additional security gave the site a somewhat private aura.
“And I don’t think Dale liked that,” Norris said. “I think he liked coming down the highway, looking through the field, down the driveway and on to his house and his property.
“When they did that, it gave it this whole fortress reputation. People were like, ‘oh, you can walk up to Hendrick (Motorsports) and walk right in; you can go over to Roush (Roush Fenway Racing) and walk right in. But at DEI you have to go through state trooper security, you have to go through a wall, pass the code, go do the eye retina (confirmation).
“But the reason why is because it was Dale’s front yard. Rick and Jack and those guys don’t live behind those shops. But Dale did.
“Not only was it his house, it was his sanctuary. He had his pond back there with the catfish that he would go feed. He had trails through the property and would get in his pickup and ride around; his tree stands where he and Taylor (Earnhardt’s daughter) would go hunt. All this stuff going on and it was his place.
“I always say Michael’s (shop) started in his back yard and Dale’s ended in his front yard.”
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Waltrip, who co-owns MWR along with Rob Kauffman, said he drew on his experiences at DEI as well when planning his own complex that today includes Sprint entries driven by Waltrip, Mark Martin and Brian Vickers (No. 55), Clint Bowyer (No. 15) and Martin Truex Jr. (No. 56).
“People traveled from all over the world to come to DEI and see the Garage Mahal,” Waltrip said. “They would marvel at that facility and his trophies and all that he had accomplished and what he was sharing. And when they went to see the shop, there was a glass window to look through and see the cars that were there. But that was all.
“And I thought, well I don’t have seven championship trophies, I didn’t win Bristol 10 times, so what am I going to do? How am I going to make my place unique?
“Obviously the smartest people in NASCAR are wandering this garage and the cars are sitting next to each other. We’re not going expose anything to the fans that the crews can’t see right here at the track. So we decided let’s just open it up and let them go look.”
There isn’t much that’s hidden from the inquisitive fan visiting MWR. Guided tours provide access to nearly the entire complex. Waltrip said he wants to give fans a taste of what it takes to compete at the Cup level. Many of those leading the daily tours have been with the organization since its beginning.
“So they have a sense of ownership in the organization,” he added. “They lived through when we didn’t make races and they’re living large now racing in the Chase and accomplishing some of the things we have lately.
“The cool thing about MWR in general -- I know my name’s on it, but we’re all in it together. We’re a team and I think people really get a feel of that when they come visit.”
Fans can see the cars that have already been built, those that are in various stages of being built and the area where the cars are painted, or in some cases wrapped. And, Waltrip said, they’re allowed much closer access than in many other shops.
As the organization continues to grow -- a new gym has been added just off the entrance -- Waltrip hopes to keep the fans in mind.
“Over the next 24 months we’re probably going to have to build on, add more space and equipment for our smart people to work in,” he said. “And as we do that, the fans will be considered every step of the way as to how we can make sure they get to see more unique things when they come to Michael Waltrip Racing.”
NASCAR.com writer Kenny Bruce is the president of the National Motorsports Press Association. For more of the Garage Series, visit the Mobil 1 Technology Hub.