Posted: Thursday May 4, 2006 1:44PM; Updated: Thursday May 4, 2006 3:55PM
Michael Waltrip will be tied into Toyota next season, but he's not letting the car manufacturer call the shots.
Think Michael Waltrip is a puppet for Toyota? That the car manufacturer is calling the shots for his team and the two others that it will be associated with next season? That Waltrip is merely a Trojan horse, as some media reports described him last week?
Heck, Waltrip thought that last one was a compliment ... until he did a little research on the Internet.
"Actually, it isn't a compliment," Waltrip said during last week's rant about the media's portrayal of him. "It means I'm just a figurehead for Toyota -- and I am not. It's my money. I'm the one making this huge investment.
"They are just my manufacturing partner," Waltrip added. "Just like NAPA is my partner and Domino's is my partner or Burger King or whoever. That's the story. I know I'm not going to change the world with one press conference, but if I could read something other than 'Toyota is messing up our sport,' it would be refreshing."
Waltrip spoke out after reading multiple reports that suggested Toyota was making offers to Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett and Robby Gordon and was hiring away crew members. Waltrip's argument was that Toyota wasn't pulling the strings, that it's just business as usual for Cup teams.
Waltrip also disagreed with the notion that Toyota's involvement as a Cup sponsor means the cost of business will go up. "When [Ray] Evernham's crew guys went to [Robert] Yates, you didn't say, 'Ford took them.... This is going to drive racing prices out of control,'" Waltrip said.
Waltrip understands that part of the problem is access. Toyota's not in the Cup garage, so the company's voice isn't heard. There's no one to rebuttal all those rumors and whispers.
If that's the case, then let's go ahead and listen now to what Toyota says.
"People think we're masterminding everything," notes Lee White, Toyota's senior vice president for racing. "They think we're pulling the strings like our teams are puppets. Nothing could be further from the truth."
White insists Toyota has taken the traditional approach of supplying technology to its teams -- and that the company has not spoken to a single driver about signing on for the future. On the other hand, White says, Toyota is not going to take a passive approach, either.