- David Newton, ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter
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CORNELIUS, N.C. -- The popcorn machines and billboards that once made this 123,000-square foot building on Liverpool Parkway a thriving 12-screen movie theater are gone. So are the ramps and half pipes on which skateboarders such as Tony Hawk once performed in an adjacent building.
Now there are hydraulic shears, shock dynos and car frames.
Welcome to Waltrip Racing World.
By the time owner Michael Waltrip and his three Toyota-based Nextel Cup teams return from the Daytona 500 in late February, construction will be almost complete.
The more than 170 employees scattered throughout four buildings along an eight-mile stretch of Interstate 77 will be under one roof.
An organization that began as a five-employee, one-car Busch Series team in the garage of Waltrip's home known as "The Farm" will look and sound like the NASCAR shops of Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Racing.
Getting to this point wasn't easy. General manager Ty Norris, who helped build Dale Earnhardt Inc. in the mid-1990s, compared it to having a baby.
"The delivery pains, we've had them," he said. "We're having triplets. It's hard. It's extremely hard. You start preparing for months and months, but there's nothing like it when the baby comes and it's yours.
"It's as gratifying as anything you would ever do in your life because every nut, bolt, paint scheme, person, decision everything here you have a part of influencing."
Waltrip began this dream a few years ago when Toyota expressed an interest in moving into NASCAR's premier series. Since then he's visualized what almost is reality.
Along the way there have been milestones, and another will come Monday when 1999 Cup champion Dale Jarrett takes his Camry onto Daytona International Speedway for the first official test of 2007.
"And I'll be out there watching him," said Waltrip, who will participate with rookie David Reutimann in the second test Jan. 15-17. "It'll be fun to see how the wind tunnel and all the work we've done actually is turning out."
Most fans will have no idea what it took to get the shiny Nos. 44, (Jarrett), 55 (Waltrip) and 00 (Reutimann) onto the track. To many, it was a simple matter of building an engine and chassis, slapping decals onto a fresh coat of paint and putting on four slick Goodyear tires.
They can't appreciate the sleepless nights Waltrip spent worrying about signing sponsors, drivers and crew chiefs. Or the countless times Norris and team executive Bobby Kennedy spent driving between the four buildings putting out fires.
Or the meetings with local commissions over noise ordinances and parking spaces.
Or the number of people, from the interior decorator that designed the main entrance and offices to the engineers that designed the cars, it took to make this possible.
"A year ago, there was a skating rink and concession stands and a climbing wall in those buildings," Waltrip said. "Now there is a full-blown fabrication facility. That'll tell you how quickly things change."
By May, the facility will have changed even more. From the skywalk that will allow fans to tour the facility to a retail store and restaurant, it will be as state-of-the-art as any in the sport.
Norris laughed, remembering how Darrell Waltrip once said it would be the "great miracle of NASCAR" if his younger brother completed this project.
As far as he and Michael Waltrip are concerned, the miracle already has occurred.
"We're to the point where the miracles are in the past," Norris said. "We've made it. Our next goal is to be competitive like it is for every other race team."
Ray Holmes gazed at the 20 cars scattered throughout the 43,000-square foot building that has been transformed from a skate park to fabrication shop.
At times he wishes he were back on "The Farm" where he was one of the original members of Waltrip's Busch team, where life was simple and he got more than three days off during the Christmas holidays.
But he's proud to have been part of the transformation.
"It's unbelievable," Holmes said. "Just a few years ago we had like seven race cars and nine people. Now we have hundreds of people and by the time we're done a hundred cars."
Waltrip was content being a Busch Series owner. He knew the money it took to build a Cup team was far more than he ever could afford.
Then Toyota stepped in. The Japan-based automaker offered the manufacturer support and other resources it would take to start a Cup organization.
Waltrip began to dream.
"I never had any aspirations of owning a Cup team until they talked not just about the fact they were contemplating going Cup racing but the process they were going to use to enter," Waltrip said.
"When Toyota told us they were going to do the engines and we could just build our cars it made it all become a very, very real possibility that I could be competitive owning a team."
That allowed Waltrip to confidently go to his primary sponsor, NAPA, and others to ask for the millions in financial support it would take to be competitive. Once they were on board, that allowed him to confidently go after drivers and support personnel.
"There is absolutely no way this team would be in existence, even for one team, if it weren't for Toyota and TRD [Toyota Racing Development] and their engine department in California," Norris said.
Norris talks from experience. DEI tried to start its own engine program in about eight months before its first race at Daytona.
"That was a disaster," Norris said. "We went to the Daytona 500 in 1998 without an engine. We had to borrow one from Richard Childress, who took one out of Dave Marcis' cars.
"That engine deal has been huge. We're well ahead of where we were when we started at DEI because of it. We couldn't be competitive at this time without it."
And Norris has no doubt MWR will be competitive out of the box.
"That's not blowing smoke," he said. "That's reality based on tests, knowing where our cars are in the wind tunnel, feeling good about what we've got going on with our engineer support from Toyota.
"We feel the pieces are there."
"HELLBOY" TO JARRETT
Popcorn was on the floor and cardboard movie promo stand-ups were in the corner the first time MWR officials walked into the movie theater that will be the centerpiece of what Waltrip hopes will be a destination for race fans.
One of the promos was for "Hellboy."
"When we saw it we said, 'Yeah, we understand what you mean,' " Norris said with a smile.
Finding a suitable structure to house the organization was the first step after getting funding. This deserted building was discovered by Waltrip's real estate partner, Noah Lazes.
"It had an upstairs and downstairs already in it," Norris said. "We decided we could build off the back of this and get everything accomplished we needed.
"Then the building behind it became available so we snagged that up. Then it became a complex."
Next came the hiring. More than 120 employees have been added over the past year, none more important than Jarrett.
The May announcement that the former champion would leave Robert Yates Racing for MWR gave Waltrip legitimacy as an owner the way he earned legitimacy as a driver when the late Dale Earnhardt hired him in 2001.
"Everybody looks at Dale Jarrett and sees him as a class act," Norris said. "They see him as a very smart man. They see him as somebody who has a sense of history for the sport and where it's going.
"For him to look at our organization and fully evaluate everything we have going on and to buy into it, that elevated us."
UPS opted to follow Jarrett, bringing more financial support to the effort. Then Domino's and Burger King came on board, allowing Waltrip to form a third team with Reutimann.
"When the third team came along, that actually escalated things," Norris said. "It gave us the freedom to hire even more people to do the jobs needed to get things done.
"It doesn't matter who you hire as a driver or crew chief or a tire changer if you don't have the money to pay them."
Still, it was more difficult than most perceive.
"On the surface it appeared easy, like everybody followed us," said Rick Penn, the business manager at MWR. Other than Aarons, all the sponsors shopped around. UPS opened the bid and looked at multiple places.
"But at the end of the day, after they did their due diligence, they didn't question us."
Waltrip, Norris and other company employees gathered in Suite C of a small office of a building pinched between an insurance agency and other companies.
Calls constantly came from employees at the four shops spread between Exits 28 and 36.
"Having everybody spread out, that will probably hurt our efforts somewhat [preparing for Daytona]," Waltrip said. "But you can only grow so fast."
To ease the natural anxiety of growing pains, Waltrip hired people such as Norris and Kennedy that have built organizations from scratch.
"If you don't know what to expect, then you'll have anxiety until you can't sleep," Norris said. "I at least knew what to expect. I at least knew the numbers it would take, the sponsorship money needed, the payroll.
"I definitely anticipated things because of the experience."
Kennedy, who helped start Darrell Waltrip's Craftsman Truck team, agreed.
"The biggest thing is being able to anticipate what's going to happen so you're not blindsided," he said. "You get people that come from established organizations, you don't want them to get shell-shocked by what's going on."
Waltrip is comforted knowing many of those building his cars came from successful organizations, some that won at Daytona within the past few years.
"There's guys working on downforce cars that were winning at other organizations a month or so ago," said Waltrip, who won the Daytona 500 twice at DEI. "We're not living in a dream world. This is real stuff."
BETTER OWNER THAN DRIVER?
As excited as Waltrip is about being an owner, he's just as excited about being a driver.
"If I can go out and be as competitive as I was [from 2001-05], times when I ran up front and won races, if I can go back to that and forget '06 ever happened, then I don't know how much longer I will race," said Waltrip, who had no top-10s last season and finished a career-worst 37th in points.
"I probably am in it for much longer than people realize."
Waltrip, who went from 1985-2000 without winning a Cup race, won four times between 2001 and 2003. He had 20 top-fives between 2001 and 2005, which was more than the previous 16 seasons.
Some say he'll be a better owner than he ever was a driver. He'd like to say he was pretty good at both, but understands the logic.
"I'd say if I could win a couple of Daytona 500s as an owner as I have as a driver then I might dignify that with a response," Waltrip said. "Until that point, I'm pretty much happy with the success I've had as a driver and I'm looking forward to this challenge.
"I won't ever go down in history as a great driver unless in the next few years I'm able to accomplish more than I have in the past. But I could go down as a great owner if this thing goes as we hope."
That Waltrip has gotten this far without the credentials of an Earnhardt to attract sponsors and manufacturer support is testament enough for Norris.
"[Earnhardt] was the marquee guy in the sport," Norris said. "He was like Michael Jordan. He could say I'm going to partially own the Charlotte Bobcats and it had validity.
"There's been a little bit more unknown about how Michael will handle it. But if you look at the building and the people he's put together he hasn't had to prove it by just saying it. He's done it."
Waltrip doesn't look at his organization as a start-up team in the sense that the Bobcats were an NBA expansion team.
"You dream a lot, or I do," he said. "Anybody that is motivated enough to tackle a task like this certainly sees what it could be like one day. I spent a lot of time visualizing how it might look. It looks pretty darn good to me."
Waltrip also knows there are more labor pains ahead. He understands it will be a struggle to put all three teams in the field each week because none are guaranteed a spot, although Jarrett has the luxury of a past champion's provisional.
He doesn't even know what it'll be like when everybody gets under one roof.
"We may not like each other," he said with a laugh. "Like my dad used to say, 'You can dress them up and send them off to school, but you can't make them learn.'
"I'm confident about where we are as a race team and in the equipment we have and in the people we have building our cars. But until you line up against the other guys, there's still those uncertainties."
Some of those uncertainties will be dealt with at testing the next two weeks. Others will be handled on a learn-as-you-go basis like first-time parents with newborns.
"There are days when you think you have the tiger by the tail and it's all done," Norris said. "And then there are other days when you feel the tiger has you by the throat and that makes you panic a little bit.
"But that's the case in any new company. Because you don't have a history to rely on, you're basically making history as you go."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Building a Nextel Cup team from the ground up is difficult enough. Try it with a new manufacturer like Michael Waltrip is doing, writes David Newton.