MICHAEL WALTRIP’S ASA TEAM HITS THE TRACK by Bob Dillner
Jarit Johnson and Ken Butler III Are The Wheel-Men
“It was awesome. I had a real good time,” Jarit says after his time in the car was done around 4pm. “We are learning a lot from having to adjust from the bias-ply (tires) to the radials. It is quite a difference. I've been running a late model up here and it is a whole different world.”
“It is tough to get used to these cars,” explains Ken. “You can drive them in hard and drive them off hard; you can use the brake quite a bit, but it is tough to get used to for me. I've never been in a big car before. I'm in the learning stages.”
Butler has been running Pro Challenge class (3/4 scale
Michael Waltrip watches his two new ASA cars test around Hickory Motor Speedway. (51 Photos)
Of course Michael enjoys his time away from the racetrack with his wife, Buffy, and their children, but this week it was time to mix a little business and a little pleasure.
Michael Waltrip Racing has been successful in the big leagues of NASCAR, but now it is branching out to a driver development phase and, at least for the time being, it will use the American Speed Association to do so. This Tuesday, at Hickory Motor Speedway (NC), the new program hit the track for the first-time. Jimmie Johnson’s little brother, Jarit, and Ken Butler III, whose Dad heads up Aaron’s Rent, were the men behind the wheel of Michael’s machines.
“It has been fun,” says Michael with a smile as we sit on the back of his Busch Series rig at Hickory. “We've really learned a lot with Jarit and Ken. Ken has never really driven much, so this is new to him. It is a lot of fun though seeing the sport through someone’s eyes who is new to the game. I'm real thankful I am getting to experience this.”
And so were the two guys who got the shot to test the cars at the third-of-a-mile speedway.
It’s hot and humid, a typical North Carolina summer day. The NASCAR Nextel Cup Series just had its last weekend off until the end of the season and in two days it will back to business in Loudon, NH. So if you're a part of that traveling circus, what do you do with one of your last days of peace and serenity? Go to the lake? Relax at home?
Not if your Nextel Cup driver and two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip. He says, “Where would you rather take it other than at the race track?”
Jarit Johnson, Cup star Jimmie's younger brother, was one of two drivers in Waltrip's cars Tuesday.
But this test was not about how fast either one of these guys, kids, whatever you want to call them, were able to turn. Of course we’ll mention that Jarit was in the 15:40s and Ken was just a little slower than that, but the experience of what they received was of utmost importance. And there was no lack of talent to teach them the nuances of these cars.
“Jimmie (Johnson, Nextel Cup driver) was here. Michael (Waltrip) is here. Butch (Miller, ASA driver) is here. Andy Petree (NASCAR team owner and veteran crew chief) is here. It is a star-studded lineup out there. That is pretty fun, but it is a lot of overload on the brain. We get a lot of input every time we come in,” explains Jarit.
Throw in some members of Waltrip’s Busch Series team and legendary short track chassis builder Robert Hamke and quite and all-star line-up. The most important part though… three-time ASA champ Butch Miller.
“I am just real fortunate that Butch Miller could come,” admits Michael. “I just love Butch. He is a legend of ASA so he has speeded everything up ten-fold.
Hickory was a big first step for MWR's ASA program.
Pro Late Model style cars with motorcycle engines) at Senoia Speedway while Johnson is a regular competitor at Hickory this year in the Limited Late Model class. Jarit has two wins and three poles so far this year.
“I told Jarit to just be easy and let’s error on the side of calm and not aggression, but the first time out he was just hammer down. That is what you get these days,” laughs Michael. “Ken, his eyes are big. And they should be. He has only driven what amounts to a mini stock car, so this is a different world. I enjoyed watching him learn that you have to slow down to speed up.”
“He has driven these cars today; changed the cars; and worked on the cars until those guys got a chance to hot rod them. Having that knowledge is something you cannot replace. If the two guys went out there and had a crash or couldn't get going, you don't know if it is the car or the driver. With Butch here, you put all doubts aside.
“If we quit right now the day has been a huge success and a lot of fun and a big part of that is thanks to Butch Miller.”
To watch Butch tutor the kids throughout the day is like watching a father trying to coach his son how throw a baseball. And it’s something Butch is good at.
“I love doing this,” says Butch. “I like it as much as driving
Butch Miller was a big help to both Ken Butler III (above) and Johnson.
“Jarit has a lot of experience. He needs my help a little less than Ken does. Also, he has an older brother (Jimmie) that has a lot of experience that can help him out quite a bit too. Jarit's biggest problem is that he runs here every week and he runs the track in a different spot to where the ASA car needs to be, so he has to break that habit.
“Both of them need a little work, but that is what this test is all about, to get them used to the cars. I've been racing five different decades, so I am able to give them some of that experience with the hand-eye coordination in adapting to a new car. I can help them through that learning curve. That is important.”
a racecar. I could see where I would like to do this in the future and make a living after I am done driving doing something like this.
“The kids are good. We are having a little trouble with Ken because I think he was pretty good in his little car , but that little car had no power at all, so we have to break him of the habits he learned in that car. He is learning quickly. Every time he goes out there, he breaks the habits a little better and a little better. He is close to perfect now.
Veteran car builder and crew chief Robert Hamke (left) gives the 22-year-old Butler some advice.
Both Butler and Johnson say having Butch as part of the test meant a lot.
“Butch is awesome,” states Jarit. “He came down here and shook them down. He’s won several races in ASA and he is a good person to listen to. He has taught us about braking and the line of how to run around here with this car. He’s told us pretty much how to drive the thing.”
“Butch showed me how to drive the line,” explains Ken. “I'm still struggling on how to find my way around here. He has taught me, but I'm still struggling. I went out there and followed him and that helped a lot. I've improved a little, but I've still got a lot to learn though.”
After Butch left late in the day, the boss took over in helping Butler progress throughout his test.
“You are doing a good job and you've come a long way, but we've still got to get you going with the racecar a little bit better,” Waltrip tells Ken near 5pm. “We need you to back off a little bit sooner so that you can get off the corner a little better. You are getting the car turned here
Butch got in the lead car and showed Butler the line around Hickory in an ASA car.
“Michael has been watching all day,” Butler says. “Every time I come in he gives me a word of advice; what to do, what not to do. He’s been helping me get around this track the right way.
“As soon as I can get comfortable with the car, I'd love to run a race this year. But I know it is going to take a little more time with me than other people because I've never been in a real stock car. I would love to test every week. The more driving time I can get, the better I’ll get.”
Waltrip knows that too. In fact, he was discussing at this test the possibility of coming to Hickory for the next several weeks and then switching to another track for several weeks.
Michael points to a certain point on the track) and you need to do it here (he points to a yellow line on the track between turns three and four). We need to get you looking ahead a little bit. It is like a gun, you look where you are going to shoot before you shoot.”
Waltrip gives Butler a couple of pointers about how to get through the turns.
“I'd like to think we can do this once a week until it is time to race so these guys can get some seat time which they desperately need,” reveals Michael. “We might race this year; it is an option. We decided we will wait until the day is over and evaluate where we are at and what we want to do next.”
But don’t think this day off was all work and no play for Waltrip. His playful side came out when Andy Petree unloaded his Late Model stock car.
“My buddy Andy and I were talking yesterday and I told him I was going to be up here and he said he thought he'd just bring his stuff up here as well. So that was pretty neat. I got to drive his car and he drove the ASA car.”
“I see why these ASA drivers are so good. Those babies are a handful,” admits Petree, who got the car completely sideways coming off of turn-four on his final lap. “I was just trying to get all there was and I almost got too much.”
“They are fun to drive. They are a lot different than a late
Andy Petree (left) gives some pointers to Johnson after Petree took the ASA car for a test drive.
“I haven't driven a late model stock in a couple of years,” adds Michael. “I raced a Busch car here back in 88 and I've always enjoyed this track. We've tested a number of different vehicles here. I can't fit in the ASA car I don't' think, but the big time fun is the Late Model stock car because it is under powered and it fun to drive.”
Michael did work his 6’4” frame into the ASA car late in the day, but never took a lap around the track. “Man, this is the fanciest dash board I've ever seen,” he said while sitting in the driver’s seat.
The test ended shortly before sunset in Hickory, NC. Everyone who was involved was hot and sweaty, just what
model stock car on these short tracks. They are more like a cup car on the radials and all. It is a good training ground for these guys.”
Michael had some fun by running some laps in Petree's Late Model Stock on Tuesday.
you would want from your day off. Then again, this is a new era for Michael Waltrip, one that he says he will continue to develop so that when he’s ready to hang up the helmet; he won’t get bored just sitting around the house on his day off.