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NASCAR WCUP: Michael Waltrip Interview: Daytona Revisited

Posted By Terry Callahan
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel
(How important was yourDaytona 500 victory in terms of future wins and success for you and this newteam in the Winston Cup Series?) – “All of it is important. Practice sessions, qualifying, the race, allof it. After practice, I told the guyswhether I’m happy with it or whatever. And then on Sunday, they write down intheir notebooks that the car was good, the driver said it was right. And thatway if the driver says he needs more right rear spring or left front orwhatever he needs in the car to make it go, the crew knows that if he asks forit, it’ll work. So those are the typesof things that are important to us long term. We start building confidence in each other. I know when I ask forsomething, I’m going to get it. Andthey know when I ask for something, it’s what I need. So the importance of thatvictory is huge in that respect.”

(Did you expect all thisto happen with a new team?) – “Well yeah, I did. Dale Jarrett proved that theory too when he went with the newteam at Robert Yates. They won theirfirst race at the Daytona 500 and had success after that. This was a new team, but all the pieces wereproven, or I thought they were. And Dale’s (Earnhardt) team, his enginebuilders, his car builders, the people that put them together I felt had a lotof confidence in all of them that they knew what they were doing. So I didn’t really buy into the fact thatit’s going to take us some time to gel. I thought that would be like an excuse. I felt like that with my experience and my knowledge and the kind ofcars I was going to get, that I needed to go out and run good right away, orthat I should be able to run good right away.”

(Was winning at Daytona atremendous boost, or has some of it dissipated by what happened?) – “I’mstill excited that I won that race, but then there are a lot of questions on mymind too because Dale (Earnhardt) was such a leader. He’d get things done. He’d set up there at his desk at the end ofthe building and I was friends with him and so I didn’t have any qualm at allabout running up there and telling something I felt or thought. I know that there will be times we’ll haveto work that out. But there are somethings as far as talking about racing and talking about the team and what I’mdoing. I really respected and appreciated his leadership.”

(Is Dale Earnhardtirreplaceable as far as leadership, power, and influence in this sport?) “Idon’t think there’s any way anyone can answer that questions today. That would be guessing and that’s not a goodway to answer question. But he was atremendous force in this business and he will remain that way for years to comewhich is good for us. We can still talk about him and feel likehe’s still kind of overseeing things.”

(Can you comment on thetalk in the garage about whether or nor the cars are too rigid?) – “It’sweird that the last year or so we’ve had all this stuff happen. I can’t answer that question. I don’t know. I think it takes someone withan engineering degree to answer that. If I said yes or no, somebody could disprove my theory. What I believe is that I have to get in mycar, fix my seat, get all the stuff together, and check out the latest safetydevices like I guess that HANS device. And, I’m wearing it here and it doesn’t bother me at all. I love what itdoes. I understand the theory. It feltgood. I’ve been racing the heck out ofit. I qualified with it yesterday andran practice with it. This is the realthing. The brand name (HANS).”

(Did you encounter anyproblem with the device because of your size?) – “No, I didn’t have anyproblem with it. I actually like it a lot. I like it better than without it. When you pull down your seat belt as tight as we do, and I just pull itdown constantly, when I get out of my car and try to buckle the seat belts backup, there like about a six-inch difference because I was sitting straight upand they’re not pulled down. What thisH-D (HANS device) does is the seat belt makes contact with it at about the topof your shoulders. The material from itcomes down to here. And so when you’re pulling down your seat belts, you’re notjust pulling them down on your shoulders, you’re pulling them down over a widerspread area. The force of the tightness over all this area (shoulders &chest) makes me feel safer than the actual restraint it does to your head. Andit makes it a lot more comfortable to cinch-up your belts. You cinch everythingway harder than your crew chief is telling you. Way harder. The thing about it is that if you lookinside a car nowadays, you’ve got nets here. If you look at a picture of Dale Earnhardt in ’79 at Bristol coming offturn four in that No. 2 car, he’s just laid over the net. People drove that way. I used to drive that way. And so headrests really never me did anygood because I was always over here. But now, after watching Mark Martin winraces riding around on his headrests, I’ve gotten used to driving with my headstraight up now. And so if my head’s going to be straight up, why not have somesort of support from the helmet to the shoulders. And so, Atlanta (test session last week) was the first time Itried it. I put it on and I loved it.And I’ve had it on every time I’ve been in the car since.”

(Do you have any idea howmany other drivers are converting over to this?) – “I don’t know. I talked to Casey Atwood and he’s got somestraps sewn on his uniform. He said hehad some reservations about that. And I don’t have any reservations about the HANS as far as the way itfits and the way it wears in the car. I haven’t seen anything yet with it on,but it sure does feel safe when you have it on.”

(Was yours anoff-the-shelf piece, or did they come down and essentially fit you for it?) – “No,he walked up in Atlanta and just handed it to me and I put it on.”

(As the Daytona 500 winnerand also a guy who drives for DEI, are you in a position to feel like you’re aleader and you should set some sort of example?) – “I just feel like we oweit to our families, we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to each other to dowhatever we can do. If the researchshows that that thing will make it safer, which a lot of guys have seen invideos and are very serious about it, then we’ve got to try it and at leastgive it a whirl. And if you put it on and try it and it doesn’t work, I justdon’t understand it, to me it’s perfect. Now when we go to Martinsville and Bristol, will I feel the sameway? I don’t know. At Las Vegas, running 190(mph), it’s goingto hurt worse than if I hit at Bristol running 120(mph). If it’s too cumbersome or restraining atBristol and if I don’t wear it there, that’s not as bad as if I don’t wear ithere. It doesn’t bother me at all. But I can’t even imagine not wearing iteverywhere now. With the exception ofroad courses; I might have to look at that.”

(NASCAR drivers have gonewithout HANS devices for many years without fatalities. Do you think there’s something in the carsthat has changed?) – “Well, I don’t know what Tony Roper’s truck lookedlike. I don’t know what Adam Petty’scar looked like. When you talk about cars being more rigid – you have tounderstand – they’re not just built more rigid. Teams are stiffing them up by doing different bars and stuff tostop the cars. You cannot sit there andsay, to try to pin this all on the fact that the cars are more rigid becauseyou don’t know if Tony Roper’s car was rigid or not. It depends on how theindividual teams build ‘em. The carsare basically the same as they’ve been forever. So you’d have to first find out if that’s true before you can sayif that’s the case. I don’t knowthat. I suspect that nobody does. Well, this group doesn’t. Well, somebody might. But I don’t know it. I just know when Tony wrecked, I said,‘Whoa, that sucks.’ When Dale(Earnhardt) wrecked, two guys wrecked. Him and Schrader went into the wall. And Schrader jumped out and ran tocheck on Dale and Dale was hurt bad. But that wreck didn’t look bad enough to me where he should have gotkilled, but he did. What do you allknow about the seat belt?”

(Media answer: There are two theories. One is that the belt broke and caused thehead to move forward. Another is thatthe whiplash had already happened before the belt broke.) “Well, all I knowis I’d rather take my chances of hitting the wall with the belts on.”

(Have you ever heard of abelt breaking like that?) – “No, I never heard of that.”

(Are you anxious to hearwhat NASCAR concludes on that?) – “I think so. The more you know, the moreyou want to know.”

(Are you running the sameaerodynamics here that you did in Daytona?) – “No, we’re running regularrules here. I think NASCAR is constantly looking at how to make our cars notnecessarily slower, but safer and more competitive. I think there’s a lot ofbelief around that slower would accomplish both those things. But, what they get into when they put theaerodynamic restrictions on the cars, the spoilers on the roof and so forth andthe rear spoilers, the drivers go out and say they can’t drive the cars likethat. And so NASCAR can’t say that’show it’s going to be. Because then howbad are they going to get yelled at if the drivers wreck and say NASCAR changedthis or that. I don’t think thoseaerodynamic restrictions will work on a track like this. And I know restrictor plates won’t work on atrack like this. That’s not very smart because it doesn’t slow down the centerof the corners. When you look at this puzzle and try to figure what to do tomake them slower, safer, and more competitive, you can look at one thing:center of the corner. When you go intothe corner and you slow down right there, you’re going to slow down everywhere.Just slowing down the straightway, you can speed up in the center of the cornerand come off the corner faster. What you’ve got to look at and concentrate onis right there in the middle of the corner.”

(Do you know if any of thedrivers have had a meeting with NASCAR to look into this safety issue?) –“All I know is that anytime I’ve gone up to that trailer with any idea, I’vebeen received with wide open arms. Theywant to hear what we’ve got to say. They know we’re the ones going out there to race and that we’re going toknow more about it than they do. They want to hear our input. What happens so often with a tragedy likeDale Earnhardt’s is that people just bounce into the scene. Media ask ‘Now what are you all going todo?’ It’s like they (NASCAR) hadn’t beendoing anything all along. That’s just so unfair. This is our life, and this is our job. You might report one dayabout Jeff Gordon’s pretty new paint scheme and the next day about the newrookie class, and then a crash occurs and they ask what are you going todo. Well, they’ve been doing it allalong. And so have the teams. They workso closely with the teams to try to come up with answers. You’re lookingat a guy who ain’t trying to be politically correct. I believe that. I wouldn’tget in that car if I didn’t believe that. I feel perfect. And I think I’mas safe as I can be. The only thing thatI want to see happen is when they come up with the Talladega rules for the aerodeal last fall I said, ‘Put ‘em on everywhere. Maybe it’ll be like the Truck races. Let’s just do it.’ But you see,that’s a good example of people – me – saying just do it. And them saying that they’ve already triedit. It doesn’t work as well everywhereelse.”

(Do you think the driversknew that 18-car wreck at Daytona was going to happen, and do you think it’sokay to take that package to Talladega?) – “You just have to look at thedrivers’ comments about restrictor plate race. For the past 10 years, people have been saying that the big one’s goingto happen. The big one’s going to happen.What makes me mad about those stupid wrecks is that we cause ‘em. One thing Iknew for sure was that I wasn’t going to cause a wreck. I don’t understand howanybody could cause one like that happened. It looked to me like one guy just ran into another guy. You’ll have that occasionally. It’s just not running in a pack like that. I guess that’s just a human element to it.”

(What do you think aboutthe drivers forming committees?) – “Like I said, I don’t think we needcommittees. Obviously one voice is notas strong as group of voices. But weall are going in there and telling them (NASCAR) the same thing. I really havea lot of faith in Mike Helton. Helistens to us. He will try to make a difference because of what we say.”

Text Provided By Nancy Wager

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