Michael Waltrip to compete in Rolex 24 of Daytona for second straight yearBy Ashley McCubbin
The Rolex 24 at Daytona always bring out the stars as NASCAR and Indy Car drivers alike try to tackle sport car’s toughest race. After making his debut last year, two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip will return to the race, once again driving a Ferrari 458 Italia.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Waltrip said. “Last year was a lot of fun to get to race in that historic famed event. I always grew up admiring the guys that got to run in that race, and it was quite an honor to be part of it.”
The draw to the event is the experience, doing something that you never thought you’d do.
“That’s been the most fun thing about getting to race the Ferrari all around the world is just to get to experience different venues and different parts of the world racing cars,” Waltrip commented.
The event also is a special opportunity for different drivers to connect at different times, and Waltrip brought up having breakfast in Le Mans with Allan McNish.
“The guy had so much success in road racing,” Waltrip said. “You just are sort of in awe of what some of those guys have been able to do.
“Tom Kristensen who sat right beside me one morning, he’s won Le Mans like a hundred times, I think. But just to be able to rub shoulders with guys you’ve seen have success in road racing, and it’s really cool to get to know them a little bit.”
Other experiences that stand out for Waltrip including hanging out with Brian Johnson from AC/DC and seeing Harley Haywood make some laps.
“When I was a kid, he was one of my favorite racers,” Waltrip said of Haywood. “So, yes, it’s unique and it’s fun, and you actually sort of get used to it, and you’re able to battle side beside with them. It’s really rewarding to be able to match skills.”
Waltrip will be joined by co-team owner Rob Kauffman, Michael Waltrip Racing NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Clint Bowyer and Portuguese Endurance veteran Rui Aguas.
While it may seem like an easy switch from one car to the other for a driver, there is drastic differences in the performance as Waltrip referenced the amount of horsepower the Cup cars have compared to the sports cars, as well as the braking.
“The Cup cars have so much horsepower,” he said. “That’s their main commodity is all the power that it has. They don’t stop real well, and honestly they don’t handle too well. And the Ferrari is the opposite.
“It has a significant amount of power, but nothing like a Cup car. But when you go to hop on the brakes, that baby comes to a stop, and you can really whip it through the infield. So that’s what’s so fun about getting to drive the Ferrari.”
That difference between the two is what makes it fun and that’s why Waltrip brought forth Bowyer to join him at the event. At first when Waltrip asked Bowyer, he declined the offer. However, over time, Bowyer changed his mind and decided he wanted to be apart of it.
“It was just him thinking about how cool it would be to be in Daytona, racing the road course, something that he had never done before, and driving the Ferrari for 24 Hours,” Waltrip said. “It just was more than a dirt racer from Kansas could pass up.”
Waltrip added that Bowyer did good during the test and began to pick up things quite quickly. However, that wasn’t a surprise as Waltrip knew Bowyer would do good after winning the race at Sonoma last year.
“The best in the world run NASCAR, and he was able to win the race,” Waltrip continued. “So I knew he would do pretty good, and he did just that.”
On the flip side, when Bowyer did originally decline, Waltrip had asked Denny Hamlin to join them and Hamlin had accepted. Now Waltrip had the job of telling Hamlin things had changed.
“Denny understood though,” Waltrip said. “He’s kind of having a busy off-season himself with the new baby coming, so he understood.”
The race will present its challenges, including the unique infield road course that they run at Daytona, as well as the disparity between the DP class and the GRAND-AM class.
“You always have to be on your toes,” Waltrip commented. “You rarely get a free lap or a full lap without having one of those guys closing on you. So you really have to watch your mirrors.”
Beyond the disparity in speed, you also have to watch the talent level of some guys as some will be really good, while others not so much.
“What’s most important, in my opinion, is to remember that you’re there to take care of the car the best you can, and make it for 24 Hours and see if that gives you a shot to get a podium finish,” Waltrip commented. “We were able, fortunately enough, back in 2011, we got a third place podium finish in the 24 Hours of Spa, so that was pretty cool to have success in NASCAR, win the Daytona 500, and be in Europe, standing there on the podium, getting champagne sprayed on you because you’ve got a top finish in a Ferrari. That was something that was probably my favorite moment so far in my road racing.”