By Pete Williams
Back in November, I joked that I was the only person in America who competed in the Muddy Buddy race at Zoo Miami and attended NASCAR’s season-ending race in Homestead on the same day. After all, there’s not a lot of crossover demographic between endurance sports and NASCAR.
Then again, maybe there is. Take Michael Waltrip, for example.
The longtime NASCAR driver and team owner will celebrate his 48th birthday Saturday night by watching his two Sprint Cup teams compete in Richmond. The following morning, he’ll be up bright and early to compete in the Monticelloman Olympic Triathlon an hour away in Lake Monticello, not far from Charlottesville.
Waltrip is semi-retired as a driver and won’t be racing a car Saturday night. Still, he’ll be up late at the race and probably get little to no sleep. Plus, he tested a Ferrari in France last weekend for the 78th running of June’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, referred to in the motorsports community as “the world’s most famous endurance race.”
We can argue about whether 24 hours in a race car is more grueling than 16 hours navigating the lava fields of Kona. But how many people have done a 24-hour motor sports event and an Olympic-distance triathlon?
I’m guessing zero.
Waltrip’s participation should put to rest any arguments that NASCAR drivers are not athletes.
Carl Edwards and his washboard abs have appeared on the cover of several magazines. Mark Martin is one jacked 52-year-old. Jimmie Johnson, winner of the last five Sprint Cup championships, follows a tough workout regimen.
Waltrip has completed several marathons, including the Boston Marathon in 2000. He says he can swim but had done no swim training until this week. That’s a concern since this is an Olympic-distance event, with a 1,500-meter (0.9 mile) swim. Water temperature will be in the 60s. Let’s hope he’s accustomed to swimming in a full wetsuit.
Other than that, he’ll be right at home among a group of feisty Type A personalities obsessed with their wheels. Getting hit jockeying for position in the swim can’t be any different than trading paint on the track. Perhaps Waltrip will wear a tri kit emblazoned with the logos of Napa Auto Parts, his chief sponsor. He’ll probably be fast out of the pits, er, transition and quick to change a flat.
But will he shave his body like other triathletes and risk all sorts of grief in the garage?
And does he know that drafting is illegal?
Most of all, why is he tackling the challenge?
“I use special events for motivation,” he told reporters this week. “For example, the Daytona 500, getting to race at Talladega, getting to race at Kentucky. I feel like it’s a privilege for me to get to do those things. I just look forward to them so much, they motivate me, they inspire me. The triathlon is just a part of that. Keeping in shape, having boxes in your life that you always wanted to check and accomplish that.”
Waltrip’s participation further expands the unlikely crossover between NASCAR and endurance sports.
On May 14, Homestead-Miami Speedway will be the starting point of a two-day cycling event from Homestead to Miami benefiting multiple sclerosis research. In August, the track will host the inaugural Miami Speed Triathlon. Originally scheduled for May, it will consist of a swim in the infield lake, transition in pit road, bike through Homestead, and a run around the golf cart path surrounding the track. Sprint and Olympic distances are offered.
And on Nov. 20, Muddy Buddy returns to Zoo Miami, with NASCAR wrapping up its 2011 season at Homestead later in the day.