NASCAR

I know how you feel

Rusty Wallace
Rusty Wallace learns it's tough to be a NASCAR team owner.
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Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip — winner of 84 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and a three-time champion — serves as lead analyst for NASCAR on FOX. He was selected for induction into the prestigious NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2012. Want more from DW? Become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

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Don’t you just hate it when something happens and someone comes up to you and says, “Oh, man, I hate that happened to you. I know how you feel.” Unless you have been in the exact same situation, good or bad, well, then, you really don’t know how someone feels.

So when I was reading the news about Rusty Wallace shutting down his Nationwide program, I can honestly say I know how he feels. This is one of those “been there, done that” situations. I can sympathize totally with Rusty. My dream had always been to own a successful Sprint Cup team once I retired from driving.

I wanted to start small but wanted to grow and expand like Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush, Joe Gibbs and others have done. I put my heart, my soul and mainly all the capital I had to make it turn into a reality. Things started off really well. We won two races that first year. We followed that up with three wins the second year.

However, as time went by, it became more and more difficult to sustain our growth through sponsorship. We had started our own engine program and added a truck team to our lineup. I was unfortunately caught in a Catch-22 situation. I needed to attract sponsors with deeper pockets than I had, but the on-track results weren’t there as we struggled with the money we did have to race on.

In the end, my wife Stevie and I — just like what Rusty Wallace and his wife Patty went through — struggled to admit to ourselves the end had come. So we sold the team.

Now, I will be the first one to tell you that I was lucky. No, I was blessed. I was able to find someone who wanted to buy my team and all its assets. Trust me, there have been many others who have seen their dreams sold for pennies on the dollar at auction.

We drivers are driven to succeed. We thrive on winning. None of us wants to fail. So even as lucky as I was to secure someone to buy my team, emotionally selling my team took its toll on me. It was a big blow.

It’s interesting if you look over the last few decades how so many of us have tried this but have been unsuccessful at it. We had this false belief that simply because we were great drivers that obviously we would be great owners. The records clearly show the fallacy of that. My sponsors told me many a time, “DW, you’re a great driver but a terrible car owner.”

Hindsight obviously shows they were right, but I didn’t want to hear that. I failed at grasping the full responsibility that ownership brought, even though I had a great teacher like Rick Hendrick. Rusty had a great teacher in Roger Penske. You’ve heard me say this many times, but you think as a driver first and a car owner second. That simply doesn’t cut it.

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Rusty’s situation cuts a little deeper than mine, however. While I was investing in my future, Rusty was investing heavily in his son Steven’s career and future. Unfortunately they just never got there from a performance standpoint.

Steven has struggled as a driver. That’s where Rusty deserves all the credit in the world, because he stuck by Steven through thick and thin, trying to get him where he needed to be.

So that becomes a double blow to Rusty. His ego has taken a hit because he has had to close down his race team. Additionally, it’s a personal blow because he was unable to get his son’s career where it needed to be.

There’s that old cliche that misery loves company, so trust me, Rusty has lots of company. I tried, Cale Yarborough tried, Bobby Allison tried, Buddy Baker tried and the list goes on, but we didn’t succeed. Richard Childress is one of the rare examples of a former driver becoming successful as an owner.

It’s a painful way to start 2012 when you are forced to fire all your employees. I had 55 employees when I sold my team in 1998. Those people were like family to me. Their problems were my problems. Someone once said I was simply running an Adult Daycare Center. At the time, it angered me a lot when they said it, but good old hindsight once again shows me that person was right.

You have to be tough in any business. You have to make painful decisions that will help the company as a whole and not based on personal feelings toward the employee. See, that’s where thinking like a driver is bad for business. A driver is team-oriented and wants to surround himself with people who believe in him, and him in them. So you find yourself sometimes hiring people for the wrong reason.

My heart really goes out to Rusty. I know he absolutely hated to do what he did. I know he is very disappointed. After he gets past the emotional part of it, believe you me, from the financial side he will see the validity of his decision. I was no different. It was such a huge relief when I could go back to just being a driver.

See, there is a big difference where your name is on a check. If you are the owner, you have all that pressure and responsibility that comes with your name being on the front of the check. As a driver, you get to enjoy all the benefits of your name being on the back of a check. I can tell you, having your name back there is a really, really good thing.

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