By Jeff Gluck (special contributor to MWR.com)
Michael Waltrip, meet His Highness the Sheikh.
Those aren’t two people who usually run in the same circles, but there’s a chance such an introduction could take place next week when Waltrip travels to Dubai to race sports cars.
Yes, the Kentucky kid who became a two-time Daytona 500 winner and NASCAR team owner is about to make his first foray to the Middle East.
And he couldn’t be happier about it.
“I can’t wait to see how it all goes,” said Waltrip, his voice sounding enthusiastic and excited over the phone. “I’m just really honored to get the chance to see it.”
Waltrip, along with fellow NASCAR competitor Marcos Ambrose, Michael Waltrip Racing co-owner Rob Kauffman and two sports car regulars, will enter the GT2 class of the 24 Hours of Dubai sports car race in a Ferrari.
How exactly Waltrip came to drive a Ferrari in the United Arab Emirates is a story that began, predictably, far from the NASCAR world. After all, there aren’t too many Sprint Cup regulars who have ever even been to the Middle East, let alone raced there.
In the spring of 2008, Waltrip traveled to Italy to visit Kauffman, who had bought half of MWR and become the team’s co-owner the previous fall. Kauffman, who splits his time between various countries, showed Waltrip a couple Ferraris from the sports car team he fields in Europe.
“We took ‘em out driving one day and I said, ‘We should race one of these suckers,’” Waltrip said. “They were so fun to drive. I guess there’s a speed limit, but if you’re driving a Ferrari they don’t seem to care how fast you go. It’s really funny, because people get out of your way. It’s like people respect that car.”
So when it came time to talk with Kauffman about Waltrip’s 2010 plans – including the semi-retirement from Sprint Cup racing – Waltrip brought up the idea of driving a Ferrari again.
Kauffman agreed to let Waltrip give it a try, so the 46-year-old returned to Italy last September. He left Richmond and flew to Rome for a two-day test at the Autodromo di Vallelunga.
“I basically had one goal on the plane on the way over there, and that was I wasn’t the one that crashed the Ferrari,” Waltrip said. “The funny part was, the race car driver in me started coming out after four or five laps and I forgot my goal of trying not to wreck the car and I started trying to see how fast I could go. That’s pretty typical, I guess.”
But Waltrip didn’t wreck the car – he said he never even spun out or went off the track – and posted competitive times with a factory driver by the end of the test.
Waltrip said he was amazed by how scientific and technical the cars were. Drivers can adjust brakes and traction control from inside the vehicle, and a quarter-turn of adjustment makes a difference where it might take three or four turns for a similar change in a Cup car.
At first, he said they considered running the Rolex 24 at Daytona. But Dubai seemed like it would be a “unique experience,” Waltrip said.
“I have my eyes wide open,” he said. “I really don’t know what to expect, from something as simple as how practice is formatted or how much time we spend at the track.
“I’ve been studying the race track – I wanted to make sure I knew where all the corners were. I felt like that would probably be pretty important.”
Waltrip is also excited about a trip to the Arab world – an area of which he said he knows little but has been curious about.
"As far as going to that country and learning about their culture, I’m really excited about it," he said. "I’m just going to learn and look. I picked Dubai because of the country itself, but after our test and how good Rob did in his race, I’m really looking forward to trying to win. That would be the ultimate."
If this race goes well, Waltrip said he and Kauffman could even try the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which he said would be "amazing."
Not that this trip isn't amazing in itself.
“One of the Daytona 500 winners is going to get to compete in a Ferrari in Dubai,” Waltrip said. “I don’t take that responsibility lightly, and I’m going to do my best to represent the NASCAR world with trying to win the race.”