Hindsight is always 20/20, and it is easy to look back on past decisions and say, “what if…”
Such is the case today with Michael Waltrip Racing.
MWR announced this week that it will sever ties with driver Clint Bowyer at the end of this season, freeing Bowyer to drive for another team. In addition, the organization confirmed that it will not field a full-time Sprint Cup Series entry in 2016 – for the first time in nearly a decade -- with majority owner Rob Kauffman planning to purchase an ownership stake in the rival Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates team.
How did things go so horribly wrong? What took MWR from a championship-contending team to the brink of closure in less than 24 months?
In hindsight, a number of questionable decisions appear to have contributed to the team’s demise.
The fledgling organization staggered out of the starting gate, with the now infamous 2007 “rocket fuel” controversy at Daytona International Speedway. MWR came to the World Center of Racing that year as a brand-new Cup Series race team, with no owner points from the previous season to fall back on. In an effort to ensure they’d be a part of the “Great American Race,” the team added something special – and decidedly illegal – to their fuel tank.
|Things started badly in 2007|
Though never officially identified, sources say the ingredient in question was propylene oxide, a substance that increases oxygenation and boosts horsepower. It earned MWR the largest penalty in the history of the sport; a $100,000 fine, the loss of 100 championship points and indefinite suspensions to crew chief David Hyder and Vice President of Competition Bobby Kennedy.
That decision continued to plague the team in subsequent weeks. With negative championship points in their column and no guaranteed starting spots, Waltrip, Dale Jarrett and David Reutimann missed nearly as many races as they qualified for. Waltrip failed to qualify a whopping 19 times that season, Reutimann missed the cut eight times and Jarrett (a former series champion) posted 12 DNQs. The team also struggled in the races they did make, recording 20 DNFs, most due to engine failure.
MWR paid a heavy price for its mistakes. Sponsors Domino’s and Burger King departed at season’s end, and sources say the team was in danger of folding until Kauffman, a billionaire hedge fund investor, purchased majority ownership and provided a much-needed infusion of cash.
Despite keeping the financial wolf from the door, Kauffman’s arrival could not save Michael Waltrip Racing from yet another bout with on-track controversy.
|Bowyer's Richmond spin brought scrutiny|
In 2013, the team attempted to manipulate the outcome of the final regular-season event at Richmond International Raceway, with disastrous results. Bowyer’s 5-Hour Energy Toyota spun while running alone with just seven laps remaining, necessitating a final restart that allowed teammate Martin Truex, Jr. to race his way into a Chase-qualifying position. At the same time, teammate Brian Vickers was ordered to pit road just as the race was set to restart, despite having no apparent mechanical issues. That pit stop, which inexplicably took two full laps to complete, also dropped Vickers behind Truex in the running order, further cementing Truex’s spot in the Chase.
NASCAR investigated and uncovered a virtual tsunami of evidence against the team, prompting them to remove Truex from the Chase and hand down a $300,000 fine; once again the largest in the sport’s history. The sanctioning body also suspended general manager Ty Norris indefinitely, docked all three drivers 50 championship points and placed all three crew chiefs on probation. That damage was compounded weeks later when NAPA Auto Parts – one of the few full-time sponsors remaining in the sport – ended their relationship with MWR, saying they "believe in fair play and do not condone actions such as those that led to the penalties assessed by NASCAR."
|Both NAPA and Truex departed|
For the second time in its relatively brief tenure, MWR paid a high price for flawed decision making.
While the 2007 and 2013 controversies get a lion’s share of attention from NASCAR fans, MWR has also made other choices that – in hindsight – may have helped hasten their downfall.
Unlike Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart Haas Racing and Team Penske -- who achieve success by hiring the best drivers available, running them full-time and allowing them to cultivate solid, long-term working relationships with their teams – MWR has rarely enjoyed a stable, consistent driver lineup.
In their inaugural season, MWR fielded three cars for five different drivers; Waltrip, Jarrett, Reutimann, Terry Labonte and PJ Jones. In 2008, Reutimann, Michael McDowell, Jarrett, Waltrip, AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Mike Bliss, Mike Skinner and Kenny Wallace all turned laps in MWR equipment.
That’s nine men and just three steering wheels, an approach that makes long-term success difficult (if not impossible) to come by.
|Reutimann was part of |
MWR's revolving-door lineup
The team found a measure of stability in 2009, with Reutimann returning for a full schedule in the #00 Aaron’s Toyota, while Waltrip (34 starts) and Patrick Carpentier (two) shared time in the #55 NAPA car. In 2010 and 2011, Reutimann and Martin Truex, Jr. ran full schedules, with Waltrip making just four combined starts at Daytona and Talladega.
That stability proved short-lived, however, as in 2012, MWR rolled through a five-man rotation that included Bowyer – replacing the unceremoniously ousted Reutimann – and Truex running the complete schedule. Mark Martin signed-on for a limited slate of 24 races, with Vickers (eight races) and Waltrip (four) also seeing time.
The 2013 season produced more of the same, with full seasons for Truex and Bowyer, plus a 15-race schedule for Martin. Vickers was forced out of the #55 Aaron’s Dream Machine in October by blood clots in his legs, hands and lungs, with Elliott Sadler making four late-season starts in his place. Waltrip made another three.
A healthy Vickers returned in 2014, and he and Bowyer ran full schedules while Waltrip made his customary four superspeedway starts in a new, #66 Toyota. Jeff Burton (two races) and youngster Brett Moffitt (one) also drove the #66 machine that season.
This year, Bowyer has clung doggedly to a berth in the postseason Chase. He is currently 15th in the championship standings – the last man to qualify on points – with one Top-5 and nine Top-10 finishes in 23 starts. Unfortunately, the team once again lost Vickers to a recurrence of blood clots after just two races, forcing Moffitt (six starts) and Waltrip (two) to fill the void until David Ragan came aboard at Kansas in early May.
All told, 10 different drivers have driven for MWR in the last five seasons. While Vickers’ health is partly to blame for that statistic, Waltrip’s insistence on extending his own driving career with annual outings at Daytona and Talladega has also played a role.
Another poor decision, resulting in a crippling lack of stability.
|Childers (L) was a major loss|
In addition to keeping its teams in a constant state of flux, MWR’s revolving-door driver lineup also cost the organization one of the most talented crew chiefs in the business.
After years of fielding competitive cars for a dizzying roster of part-time drivers, crew chief Rodney Childers left the Waltrip camp at the end of 2013 to accept a position with Stewart-Haas Racing. He promptly led Kevin Harvick to the Sprint Cup Series championship, and is now recognized as one of the top crew chiefs in the sport.
Could MWR have performed better in the last two seasons with Childers calling some of the shots? You bet they could, and his track record indicates that they would.
MWR has also made questionable decisions in its handling of Vickers, who missed parts of the 2010, 2013 and 2015 seasons. A former champion in what is now NASCAR’s XFINITY Series, Vickers has three career Sprint Cup wins in a 13-year career that includes stints with Hendrick Motorsports, Red Bull Racing and MWR.
|Vickers has struggled to stay healthy|
The North Carolina native is a proven racer and an outstanding representative for his sponsors. But in professional sports, the most important ability is availability. Every time Vickers falls by the wayside, his sponsors suffer the consequences. Marketing campaigns are scrapped and in-store signage is discarded, in favor of patchwork campaigns with substitute drivers they never bargained for.
Aaron’s has ridden that rollercoaster twice in the last three seasons, and when Vickers fell by the wayside again this year, MWR’s longtime sponsor could be forgiven for thinking, “Oh brother, here we go again.”
As the old saying goes, "Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a trend." Michael Waltrip Racing should not have subjected an active, involved and supportive sponsor like Aaron's to yet another season of uncertainty and disappointment. Vickers, despite his talent, was just too big a risk.
Again, mistakes were made, with a heavy price paid. Sources close to the team say that after experiencing three consecutive disappointing campaigns, Aaron’s had agreed to only a partial 2016 season with MWR, significantly downsizing their involvement with the organization.
Also critical in the demise of Michael Waltrip Racing was a lack of daily involvement by its namesake. Multiple sources say that after Kauffman joined the team in 2007, Waltrip’s role – both financially and otherwise – decreased dramatically. Today, he is said to be little more than a figurehead, tending to his “other career” in the television broadcast booth and relying on it for virtually all of his income.
|Kauffman saved MWR's ship|
Following the 2013 race-fixing scandal, Kauffman relocated to North Carolina and began a systematic review that resulted in widespread organizational changes.
"If you lose a third of a third of your revenue, you are going to have to reorganize your business,” said Kauffman at the time. “That's what we've done. We made a mistake, we paid a heavy price and we are adjusting to a new reality."
Since then, Kauffman has handled virtually all the day-to-day operations at Michael Waltrip Racing, a role insiders say he never wanted and does not enjoy.
“Rob saved this team at least twice since 2007,” said one team member, on the condition of anonymity. “Without his financial input, the doors would have closed years ago. At first, he was a `silent partner,’ contributing financially but allowing the racing people to run the team. But over time, he has been forced to assume a larger day-to-day role. Today, he makes virtually all the decisions.
“Rob never wanted this to be a full-time job,” said the MWR employee. “He is extremely committed to the Race Team Alliance. The RTA is his baby, and Michael Waltrip Racing has become too big a burden, with minimal return.”
Kauffman’s decision to purchase a minority stake in Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates will allow him to focus more fully on the RTA, while devoting less time to the operation of an individual race team.
|Bowyer is a free agent|
When MWR and Bowyer announced that they will part company at the conclusion of 2015, the wording of the announcement left an impression that Bowyer will not accompany Kauffman to Chip Ganassi Racing next season. Sources say that is still a possible outcome, but whether or not Bowyer eventually accompanies Kauffman to CGR, yesterday’s announcement was a necessary legal maneuver; an official and mutual severance of the existing contract between Kauffman (as owner of MWR) and Bowyer. With that contract now rendered null and void, Bowyer is free to follow Kauffman to CGR in 2016, or go elsewhere.
MWR, meanwhile, will play out the string, fielding cars for Bowyer and Ragan for the remainder of the year. The team has not visited Victory Lane since Vickers claimed the checkered flag at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2013, and this week’s upheaval will do little to help change that.
While the team says only that they will not field a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup entry in 2016, the most likely scenario is for Kauffman to simply close the doors at season’s end, selling the building, race cars and any equipment that cannot be utilized by CGR. Waltrip will return to the television booth, while hundreds of MWR crew members and employees face the prospect of a holiday season with no jobs and no income.
“My family has been a part of NASCAR for almost five decades, and I plan on being a part of it for years to come,” said Waltrip this week. “I would not have had the opportunity to start this journey without so many great partners, sponsors and employees, and I want to thank each of them for making Michael Waltrip Racing a reality.”