NASCAR, college football, and Michael Jordan may seem like strange blog fellows. But stay with me, portly curmudgeons.
All three became famous in the southern regions of the United States. NASCAR, college football, and Jordan conjure up whiffs of outdoor chicken barbecue tailgates, head-banging booze, and nasty cigars.
In the South winning and losing streaks abound. Nothing smacks of Americana more than who prevails and who gets humbled.
Recall – as you no doubt won’t – that from 1989 to 1998 Prairie View A&M University in Texas lost 80 straight football games, the longest winless streak in college football history.
But that turned out to be a brief downturn compared with the remarkable NASCAR losing streak of retired NASCAR driver Michael Waltrip.
The infamously slow race car driver won exactly none of his first 462 races from 1985 to 2001. You would think after the 0-462 start he might have quit to sell life insurance. Not this Mike, who nobody wanted to be Like. In his 33-year career, he won only four out of 784 races.
To put this load of losing in perspective, his NASCAR- driving brother Darrell snatched first place 84 times in 809 races. Picture Thanksgiving dinners at the Waltrip’s house: “Hey Mike, I’ve won 80 more races than you,” says Darrell. “Pass the mash potatoes.”
Richard Petty won 200 races – the most all-time. That’s one hundred ninety-six more than Be Unlike Mike.
Yet this black sheep driver remains a big figure in the sport, curiously. He’s been a NASCAR broadcaster and has written articles about the sport.
The question is why? Usually, the guys who get broadcasting gigs are big winners.
Hiring Michael Waltrip in the broadcast booth is like ESPN making Prairie View A&M’s coach, during the 80-game losing streak, the expert color analyst for college football games.
I am not against Michael Waltrip. I actually respect the fact that he kept racing even after not winning 462 consecutive times. Persistence impresses me especially through prolonged losing streaks.
But why so many losses? What was he doing in the car that other guys did better and faster? Was his hand-eye coordination too slow? Was he too risk-averse? Did he not have the guts to accelerate at crucial times in the race in dangerous situations?
Did he just not have a natural talent or work ethic? Should he have sold life insurance? Seems he would have won more often selling these policies even in a business rife with rejections. Did he read “Death of Salesman” too many times?
If the reason he kept losing was he didn’t adjust his pre- and during-race preparations, that’s his mistake. No sense doing the same thing wrong over and over.
Whatever the case, as we enter this weekend’s Darlington Raceway event, the first NASCAR race since the pandemic hit, we should be pondering the life and times of Unlike Mike.
Despite winning only once every 200 races he started – a .005 winning percentage – he kept driving the car around the oval albeit slowly compared with industry averages.
Most guys wouldn’t last 33 years in a profession that resulted in so much hardship. Give him credit. He kept doing what he loved.
Even though he hardly ever won.
Is that winning? How do we define it? Should we look favorably or disparagingly on Waltrip?
The recent ESPN documentary about Be Like Mike Michael Jordan, called “The Last Dance,” zeroes in on this cosmic question about winning consists of and what price should be paid.
The winner of six NBA championships – and arguably the greatest basketball player ever — explained how he thought about winning and why he was tough on his teammates:
“My mentality was to go out and win at any cost. If you don’t want to live that regimented mentality, then you don’t need to be alongside me, because I’m going to ridicule you until you get on the same level as me. And if you don’t get on the same level, then it’s going to be hell for you.
“Winning has a price,” Jordan added. “And leadership has a price. So I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged. And I earned that right because [other] teammates came after me. They didn’t endure all the things that I endured. Once you joined the team, you lived at a certain standard that I played the game. And I wasn’t going to take anything less.”
Former teammate Jud Buechler said of Jordan: “People were afraid of him. We were his teammates, and we were afraid of him. And there was just fear. The fear factor of MJ was so, so thick.”
Jordan’s words drive to the heart of the matter about what life should or should not be about, how we should we act, how we should treat people, and what price should be paid to win.
No question, Jordan won a ton more than Michael Waltrip. But his teammates feared him. To get what he wanted – not necessarily what they wanted — he berated and humiliated them. For his own selfish reasons in the name of winning, he mistreated other people.
He punched one of his teammates. He threatened other teammates that if they passed the ball to a certain teammate Jordan didn’t want them to, he would never pass them the ball again.
Is that the right way to act? Does the fact that Jordan won, and his badgered teammates benefited financially and emotionally because he willed them to win, make what he did the right way to go about winning?
I don’t think so. There is no excuse for being mean to people just for the sake of winning. Jordan scared his teammates into playing harder and better. Scaring people is not appropriate human behavior because it makes them feel bad. No one I know enjoys feeling afraid. I’ve seen many coaches use fear on players to get them to play better. It often works. But it isn’t right.
No human being has the right to mistreat another for the sake of winning. Think of the longer-term psychological effects on the people being scared. Maybe later in life, they will not be able to shake nightmares and develop paranoia.
They could wake up with images of that person who scared them. Those are serious and horrible experiences that no championship trophy can cure.
I don’t know if Waltrip treated his pit crew well. I do know that he should have. It’s the right way to get along. He didn’t win much at all. Jordan did.
While I’m impressed with Jordan’s drive, I’m turned off by his treatment of teammates. A team is about everyone. MJ made it mostly all about his needs – not theirs.
The fact that Waltrip kept pursuing his dream after losing so many times is as compelling a sports story as Jordan winning as much as he did.
Loss after loss, he kept getting in the car and racing.
In a similar way, Prairie View A&M’s football team kept putting on their helmets and cleats and playing football games even though they kept losing every Saturday for eight straight years.
In my mind, Waltrip and Prairie View are winners every bit as much as Jordan is — maybe more so.